It’s the end of a warm January day in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi Valley, and, as the sun sets on the region’s great river, the temperature is just starting to cool. It’s a welcome relief for the Akashinga rangers; the all-women anti-poaching unit is wrapping up a long day out on patrol, protecting the bush’s local wildlife. They sit nestled around the campfire stove, and begin to devour a humble, yet satisfying camp-cooked meal. Locally-sourced vegetables, rice, fresh grains, and beans fill the pots and skillets in front of them, prepared, like they are everyday, under the loving supervision of Nicola Kagoro, the camp kitchen’s founder and head chef.
Kagoro enjoys the hard-earned meal with her friends and colleagues, before she heads home. She has a plant-based cookbook launch to prepare for, and as a passionate gardener, who wants to spend more time teaching children how to grow their own fruits and vegetables, she also has community projects to plan. So she says her goodbyes and sets off, ready for another evening of making her little slice of the world a better, more plant-based, place.
Vegan Food Education
Kagoro, who goes by “Chef Cola,” was raised in New York City, but now lives back in Zimbabwe where she was born. Her culinary career began in South Africa, after a hospitality course landed her an internship in a Cape Town five-star hotel. And it was there, working in a restaurant called Plant, that she discovered veganism. “It literally fell into my lap,” she said.
“Once I started working for a 100-percent vegan restaurant (I was basically working six to seven days a week) I spent a lot of time eating vegan, plant-based food,” she added. “So it ended up being a routine and a lifestyle.”
Now, plant-based food education is at the heart of Chef Cola’s mission. Indigenous African plant-based food education, to be exact. None of the Akashinga rangers eat meat on her watch, and she wants to extend her influence further afield.
Her dream is to prove to the communities she works with that food can be delicious, nutritious, and satisfying without animal products. And arguably more important than any of that, she wants to show that plant-based food can provide them with a tangible connection to their ancestors.
Africa’s Vegan History
Chef Cola’s camp kitchen, called Back to Black Roots, caters to the growing group of Akashinga rangers day-in and day-out. (It’s a hefty task; in 2020, there were 171 rangers, staff, and trainees in the unit, and by the end of this year, there is expected to be 160 new trained rangers.)
To do their job, each must be in peak physical condition, and food plays a vital role in that. Chef Cola takes her job very seriously. “No matter what, 365, I’m thinking about the Akashinga Back to Black Roots kitchen,” she said.
But while the kitchen’s sole purpose is keeping the women of Akashinga nourished, it’s other mission is to show people how many on the African continent used to eat, prior to colonization (hence the name, Back to Black Roots). “Veganism is something that everyone seems to think ‘it’s not African,” said Chef Cola. “[People think] ‘we’re introducing it to Africa.’ But it’s actually the other way around.”
And the chef should know, because plant-based diets go way back in her own family. After researching her great grandmother’s diet, who lived to the age of “100 and something,” she discovered there was no meat there at all. But her mother’s generation, she noticed, was big into animal products.
“I realized, this woman doesn’t eat meat,” she recalled. “She never ate meat. She was strictly on a vegan diet. I looked into my mom’s generation and I realized, no. There’s a difference here – because my mum and my uncles, they’re eating meat. And that generation seems to not be reaching that 100-year gap. The difference is diet.”
Vegan in Zimbabwe
After learning about how her grandmother used to eat, Chef Cola’s own diet began to take on a whole new meaning. Being plant-based became about identity — a link to those who came before her.
Many long-established African dishes are completely vegan. Traditional Zimbabwean cuisine, for example, includes meals like mupunga unedovi, which comprises just three simple plant-based ingredients: long grain rice, salt, and peanut butter. There’s also muriwo une dovi, which is essentially leafy greens in peanut butter.
“Veganism to me now means culture and it means heritage,” Chef Cola explained. “I believe that my ancestors were plant-based and vegan. Through colonial practices, we developed meat-eating practices. We used it for more money, like herding more cows for money basically. [But] veganism was something that my ancestors were a part of. It’s part of my heritage, it’s now part of my culture because I’m getting a connection to [my ancestors].”
But plant-based diets haven’t been phased out completely. There are many people, like some in rural Zimbabwe for example, who still follow plant-based diets. But the issue, Chef Cola says, is that some are ashamed of this way of eating. “They think meat equals wealth,” she explained.
“They [often] eat soy chunks, and they call it nyama, which means meat,” she said. “In their head they’re eating meat, but they’re actually not.”
“[I] tell them you’re actually on a vegan diet,” she added. “Because it’s not like you’re slaughtering those two little chickens that you have, or that goat running around. You’re not doing that. And you don’t have a fridge or electricity to keep things like milk and eggs. You don’t do that. So you’re actually on a vegan diet. Once they actually start looking at it like that, some people get upset because meat equals wealth.”
African Vegan on a Budget
Part of Chef Cola’s mission is to show people that there is no shame in following a plant-based diet.
Before the pandemic, she was working on community development, creating projects like gardens. When the world opens up, she intends to create community gardens in schools. (When we spoke earlier this year, that was all on hold while the schools were shut due to COVID-19.) One of her passions is working with children, and “trying to make them understand what veganism, and being plant-based, is about.”
She wants to encourage more to try out the lifestyle, and see that plant-based diets are not only traditional, but they’re healthy and affordable too. Her new cookbook coming out this year is called African Vegan on a Budget, and features traditional, indigenous, accessible, and affordable African vegan recipes.
She’s confident that her work will pay off. In the future, she sees “mass diet change” but also, more people getting back to basics by growing their own food. “A lot of people are cutting down on the meat, and turning to vegan diets or vegetarian diets,” she said. “So I just hope that the future will bring more gardens, and more gardening for more people. Even those living in the city center.”
Chef Cola’s African Vegan on a Budget cookbook is slated for release in November 2021.