This edition of our showcase of Black Vegetarians brings us Charlotte O’Neal. A long time vegetarian, she lives in Arusha, Tanzania in East Afrika. She is cofounder, along with her husband Pete, of the United African Alliance Community Center. We interviewed Charlotte during our stay there during our visit to Arusha in April 2014.
Ama: How did you come to veganism?
Charlotte: One of my comrades, Brother Emory Douglas, came out to Tanzania, this must be about 5 years ago, and he had been a long term vegan. I’ve been vegetarian since I was 26, and I’m 63 now. But I was vegan off and on. I even ate raw for a year. And that was some of the most powerful feelings that I’ve ever had. But I had gone back to eating cheese, (I wasn’t eating eggs though).
So when brother Emory came we were talking. And he’s older than me, and he’s in good shape and everything. And we were talking about how being a vegan is so good for us. Especially for us as Afrikan people because you know taking in the dairy, we can’t hardly tolerate that. And let me tell you sister, I was eating so much cheese, sometimes I would slice a piece of cheese and put hot sauce on it. I didn’t even have to cook it. I just wanted some cheese.
So I said “Brother, you have inspired me. I am going to go back and recapture that feeling and that blessing of being a vegan.” And since then I have been a vegan. Except for an occasional chocolate. As a matter of fact, Chocolate was my nick name in junior high school. And that is something I have been dealing with for years. But I don’t eat that much of it. But other than that I am a strict vegan. And I love it.
Ama: Why is eating vegan important for us as Afrikan People?
Charlotte: I think it is very, very important because we as Afrikans develop allergies to it. I know me myself would get too much mucus coming out my nose, I would be coughing, stuff coming out of my eyes. I’m just talking about eating a little bit of milk. And I think so many of our sisters have fallen for this myth that cows milk is good for our babies. And you know in our history, we always used mother’s milk. Young mothers, I had to school them on that, that cow’s milk, sister, is for cows. And mothers’ milk is for human babies. But we’ve gotten away from that knowledge’s. And it is up to we as knowers to help people relearn that.
Ama: You said you went vegetarian in your 20s. Why did you make that decision?
Charlotte: It was in the 70s. I was born in 1951. Living here in Tanzania, living here in Afrika in general, we were part of that movement of back to the land, of embracing our heritage, and all of that. So I would talk to so many Afrikan people from the diaspora and they were telling me the virtues of being a vegetarian. So I said, “I’m going to check this out!” and I did. And there has been no turning back.
In those days it was almost like being a vegetarian it was like looking down on people who ate meat and fish and everything. I was not like that. Someone had given me a book called The Secret Life Of Plants. In this book scientists in Ireland or Scotland or something like that hooked the plants up to these electrodes and they were able to register their screams of pain and when you uprooted them and all that. I have always believed that all life is one right? But after I read that book I REALLY believed it, you know? And I would share with my sanctimonious vegetarian friends, “Hey you can’t look down on people.”
After that I had a hard time eating anything. But I said “I can’t be a breathatarian because the air is too polluted. I can’t be like those monks who live in a cave who eat one seed a year. So being a vegetarian, being a vegan suits me. I feel like I am on a very high spiritual plane because of that. It is easier to cook a pot of greens or to put greens in a blender, then it is to eat meat. And of course it’s more gentle on the planet. And I’m all about that.
Ama: Did you notice any changes in your health or your body?
Charlotte: Yes, I had much more energy. Back then I was thin anyway. So I didn’t really need to lose weight but I had more energy and I just felt my whole spirit more in tune with what I am about which is spreading peace and love. So that kind of heightened that awareness within me. I was able to talk to other people and not to convince, but as an example, made them want to explore it also. Even Brother Pete, he was vegetarian for a while. And he still is every now and then when he has to much meat in his system, or eggs or cheese or whatever. Because, he knows. He said “If I want to get myself together I’m going to be vegetarian, even if it’s for two weeks.”
Ama: How is it being vegetarian here in Afrika? Can you find the things the you need?
Charlotte: I am. I it surprises me when people say “Oh, it’s going to be so hard being vegetarian in Africa!” And I’m like “Why?” Because people here, you know, meat is expensive unless you’re going to go out hunting or whatever. Meat is expensive. Most people have a low meat diet. Even the Maasai people, their general diet is milk. Over the centuries I think they have been able to build up a tolerance to it. They are not as allergic to it as Africans in the west are.
So to me, because I love eating simple, I don’t have to have all these different faux meat dishes. I don’t need that. If you give me a broccoli, I’m gonna steam it. Give me an avocado, I’m gonna cut it open put some lemon juice and some pepper and sometime some salt on it. You know I eat simply. And even when I cut up my food I like it to be big. When I had my lettuce out here, I like to just take it and rip it. I really do. It’s really easy. But when I was eating tofu we would make our own from scratch. When I was into eating texturized vegetable protein, Brother Pete learned how to make it. That’s kind of labor intensive. So I can do without it.
I think you can have an excellent, excellent diet. When you consider that our avocado get big like this, that’s a meal in itself. So it’s very easy.
Ama: You certainly have a lot of variety here in Arusha. I wonder about other places. When we were in Ghana what we mostly saw was carrots and cabbage, and peppers and onions and tomatoes.
Charlotte: Arusha is one of the bread baskets of Tanzania. We’re blessed with that. There are some things we have trouble getting, what I call winter fruits. The weather isn’t quite suitable. Like apples. You can get apples but they are not those kind you can get in the states. [NKO how about blueberries?] I don’t ever see blueberries. Cherries you see every now and then. But things like mangos which is one of my very favorite fruits in the world. Those come up from coast. Some people grow them here but mostly they come up from the coast, it’s close by. And I’m talking about these BIG mangos. you cut them and it’s like cutting steaks. The juice just drips down, very good mangos. And very good pineapples, plums, pears, bananas of all varieties, papayas, we’re blessed with a whole lot of fruit and a whole lot of veggies.
Ama: For someone who is just getting started on a vegetarian diet what advice would you give them?
Charlotte: I would say start slow because you don’t want to feel like you are depriving yourself, you want to feel like you are gaining. You are gaining not only health but you are gaining a new way of relating to food.
Look at the colors of the food. Don’t over cook your food. Try to have more raw food than you’re used to. But colors, I think that is essential. Have your sweet, red bell pepper which is just fantastic. If you’re used to having some greens like kale or something, cook that and then have you some lightly sautéed red bell peppers and you can taste that sweetness.
Start cutting out your cheese. If you are a heavy cheese eater like I was, do it slow. I like to do it cold turkey but a lot of people don’t. If you were using a giant slab of cheese, choose a fourth of that and after a while you won’t even like it.
Now this is something else. In our homesteading days I used to milk cows, that was my duty right? I know how that can be. You know what I would do when I was cutting out cheese cold turkey? I would picture how that cow slobbers, you know a cow slobbers! And I would picture even the smell of a cow, a clean cow. So every time I would picture that slobber coming out of their mouth, coming out of their nose, that would make me not want any cheese.
So y’all could try that too. Try visualization. Think of something that you think is the nastiest thing ever and associate that with the food that you are trying to cut out. That might not work for everybody but it worked for me.
Ama: How large of a vegetarian community is there here?
Charlotte: It’s not like we have a community. There really, really isn’t. But I meet people all the time, like the Rasta community. A lot of them are vegetarian. Some of the hip hop community are vegetarian because here between the hip hop and the Rasta community there isn’t that barrier like there is in the west a lot of the time. Even some of our children here, like Omari, one of the little ones. He’s vegetarian, by his own choice. So it’s not like we have a community and this is why I am happy y’all have established a community and I am glad to be a part of that.
Ama: Tell us about what you are doing here.
Charlotte: This is the United African Alliance Community Center. What we do here is provide educational opportunities for youth and elders in our community. We also have a children’s home. The Leaders of Tomorrow Children’s Home.
This is really the essence and a continuation of the legacy of community service of the Black Panther Party. Both myself and my husband were Panthers. He was the chairman of the Kansas City chapter. So that’s in our blood. Community service is in our blood. And that is what we have continued to do for four decades.
We have classes in English because that’s it was requested to have that. Kiswahili and English are the main languages. Even though there are like 100 and something other languages, not dialects, languages. President Nyerere made sure that everyone spoke Kiswahili in addition to their mother tongue.
We teach English, we teach computer studies, which gives some of the teachers here, teachers other than our volunteers, access to research and get lesson plans and all of that. We emphasize the arts, music, community theater, dance, hip-hop and poetry (they are all the same), and anything to do with the arts. Because, me being an artist and recognizing that sense of empowerment that comes from being an artist, from yourself knowing you are an artist and people in your community saying “Hey that person is an artist!” That lifts peoples self esteem, and gives them a lot of respect in the community.
And then we have sports and we have yoga, anything that can uplift our youth. Many youth that have studied here have gone on to get really, really good jobs. To carry themselves in a way that reflects what UAACC is all about. It’s a blessing. Yes.
We host study abroad groups that come here. We host couples, we host small groups, because we have accommodations here. And what they contribute is very, very important because that helps keep things going. Because we don’t get funding.
We just had this solar project. That was a community effort. It was the first time we used one of those Go Campaigns and so all the solar lights were installed but it wasn’t paid for until after this money was raised. Let me tell you it was like 6000 and something dollars was raised in like 12 days. I think that is just a great, great blessing.
So when we need something that needs a lot of funds, we send out a call and invariably that blessing comes. We can get down to our last cent but our work still continues and something always happens to give us the funds to do some of these projects that need to be done. It’s like a real blessing It’s like we’re living this rule of the Universe. It’s like if you put something out there, it’s going to come back, and to keep those blessings flowing. That’s how we live our lives and that’s how we’ve always lived our lives.
Ama: Everyday I have been amazed to see the people coming and doing and it is definitely a community effort.
Charlotte: Yes, it’s that spirit, it’s that love vibe.
Ama: I feel love in here.
Charlotte: You feel it, you feel love, you feel creativity, and you feel that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. I feel so blessed to be a part of that.
Ama: If people want to find out more about you of the center where can they go?
Charlotte: They can google my name Charlotte O’Neal, they can google Mzee’s name, Pete O’Neal. The can go to our website, it’s a bit out of date but they can still get info www.uaacc.habari.co.tz, they can use the “Make a Donation” button that will lead them to the Leaders of Tomorrow Children’s Home site and they can learn more about them.
I am a musician so my music is on my site is http://mamacharlottesword2011.wordpress.com/. I’m on Facebook as Charlotte Hill O’Neal. Mzee is on Facebook as Pete O’Neal. I’m on SoundCloud, I have a lot of my work on YouTube, you can watch Panther In Africa on Netflix or on YouTube, and they can look at a trailer for Mama C: Urban Warrior in the African Bush.
Ama: Anything else you would like to say?
Charlotte: I would like to say I am inspired by your presence and the doctors presence as people who bring a good vibe to Afrika and to the community and to people in general. I’m telling you a lot of people can come and they don’t bring a good vibe. Luckily most of the people who come here are drawn by our good vibe, and usually they are too. So I feel blessed to have met ya’ll.
Nana Kwaku: You recommended people how people transition. And you said how you made changes cold turkey. We recognize that food is addictive, especially dairy. So clinically we put people on a fast and the recommend that you stop eating it cold turkey. What do you think about that?
Charlotte: I think that’s great. I think it’s a great way to do it, because if you do it like that you immediately see the benefits and you are immediately changing your brain waves or whatever, you know, you can embrace that and you are immediately realizing that you are not giving up something you are gaining. In the human psyche it is always good to feel like you are gaining something.
A lot of people come to me and they say “How can you give up this or that?” I never feel like I’m giving it up. I feel like I am gaining something. And it’s really funny because even though I haven’t eaten meat in all these years, I can still smell some meat like barbecue, and I can say “Man that smells good!” but it’s like I can look at of a picture of something pleasant in a magazine, it ain’t like you’re going to eat it! You are not going to eat that paper. So I don’t feel like I am giving up anything and I think it is good to immediately replace that addiction with something else.
Nana Kwaku: How do you handle the fact that your spouse is not vegetarian?
Charlotte: Years ago when I used to cook and I was a vegetarian, I would cook his chicken, and I wouldn’t have any problem with it, I cooked this and that. But now I don’t. He doesn’t expect me to. He has his kitchen and I have my own little kitchen. So I don’t have to worry about the grease or anything like that.
Everybody can’t have their separate kitchens but he understands and supports me eating the way I do. And even though periodically I try to convince him to be vegetarian or at least eat more veggies, but it’s cool. And we’ve always been that way with each other. We’ve always let each other be what we want to be without getting pressure. And it works
Ama: Thank you so much!
Charlotte: Karibuni! (You’re Welcome!)