On the road in…Zambia!

The whole reason for this trip to Africa is a consulting job in Lusaka. I had ten days in Zambia before going to South Africa for a conference, but my schedule was pretty full, so no real time for sightseeing.

The hotel I was booked to stay at in Lusaka was to provide my breakfasts and dinners as part of the travel arrangements made on my behalf. Lunches were to be provided by the office I was visiting as part of the consulting job.

The first meal I took in the hotel restaurant was dinner on the night I arrived. There were 3 vegetarian options on the menu, but one contained oyster sauce and the other two had butter and/or cheese. Even the one salad on the menu had cheese and a creamy egg based dressing, and taking those things out pretty much just left lettuce.

I ended up speaking to the hotel chef since I was going to be eating so many meals there. I ended up getting him to make a modified eggplant roulade with rice (menu version had it made with goat’s cheese). It was nice enough, just a bit salty for my taste. And they had Coke Zero! Bonus!

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Eggplant roulade – a bit salty, but it was vegan (after modification) and gluten free…Until the chef decided he didn’t want to make modifications anymore.

The only other thing in the hotel restaurant that I could eat was a local dish called kablangeti. This basically consisted of a giant mound of nshima (similar to ugali), some greens with a tomato sauce, and a bowl of beans in a gravy sauce (I had to ask to modify the sauce to be gluten free). It was very bland, but it was edible.

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Nshima, spinach and beans

My aim was basically just to alternate these two meals for dinner every day for the rest of my stay. Boring, but it’s what I got stuck with, because they were the only vegetarian things on the menu that I could eat, and the hotel restaurant wouldn’t let me order off-menu. But that failed when the chef started refusing to make the eggplant roulade without the cheese on my fourth day. I got really sick one night because I said “no cheese, no dairy product” when ordering the eggplant dish, and they brought the meal out and they’d put egg in it instead of cheese (which I didn’t discover until I’d eaten half of it). Egg wasn’t listed in the ingredients on the menu, so I never explicitly said “no egg”. You have to be really explicit in Zambia. You can’t just say “vegan” or “no dairy” or “no gluten”, you actually have to spell everything out and say “no meat, no egg, no milk, no cheese, no yogurt, no cream, no ice cream, no honey, no wheat, etc.”. And if you miss something by accident, you’re stuffed. Like this one time I ordered a fruit salad that according to the menu said it came with ice cream and whipped cream, so I said “no cream or ice cream”, and they brought it out topped with yogurt instead, because I never specifically said “no yogurt”. And I had to pay for it even though I didn’t eat it, because I never actually said “no yogurt”. So you really need to be that explicit when ordering. So due to all of this and not wanting to run the risk of another incident, I ended up eating the kablangeti for dinner for the rest of the trip.

Breakfasts were ok. They always had some fresh fruit salad, sultanas and nuts. Everything else was decidedly non-vegan or contained gluten. They are very big on meat and eggs for breakfast in Zambia. People had plates heaped high with fried food. I could smell the grease, and it made me queasy. To each their own of course, obviously nobody was forcing me to eat it. But the smell of the oil…

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What I ate for breakfast…Every single day.

Lunches were hit and miss. I got a lot of attitude from some of the people I was working with when they found out I didn’t eat meat. Seriously. They seemed to tolerate the whole “no egg” and “no dairy” thing to a certain degree. But not eating meat caused me no end of problems. I was regularly served fish, because apparently that’s not considered meat. And many of the meals I saw served came with no vegetables or salad. Plates came out with literally nothing but meat, so I couldn’t even order a regular meal and just not eat the meat. In the end, I had to get someone to speak to the kitchen staff more forcefully on my behalf. And after that, ended up being served nothing but a plate of boiled potato with ketchup for lunch. It made me want to hurl to be honest. I like potato – in small amounts. I prefer light foods, not carbohydrate loaded ones. And given the fact I was having to eat nshima or rice at dinner every night, I really didn’t want potato for lunch.

But eventually even that failed because the place we were eating lunch at every day decided that clearly giving me boiled potato with ketchup for lunch every day just wasn’t right. So they decided to mix it up without asking me, and brought me fried potato – that was cooked in butter and topped with sour cream. They took great offence when I refused to eat it. Another time they brought me fried potato, and I specifically asked if it was cooked in oil. I even asked the chef himself – just oil. Ok, I needed to eat something. Started eating it and lo and behold…The oil came from butter. I started having an allergic reaction to it, got out my epipen, and the waitress was quite literally standing there laughing at me while I’m going into anaphylactic shock. The people I was working with didn’t know what was going on. Eventually things settled down enough and I explained what had happened. Still, nobody took me seriously, even after they’d seen me have a violent (potentially fatal) allergic reaction, because they all sat there laughing and saying “TIA”. I was at the point of terminating the job contract entirely, getting my flights back to Australia changed, and skipping South Africa entirely. In the end I didn’t, but I was at breaking point for a few days.

I managed one trip to the grocery store during my stay, because I was really too busy for regular trips, and it was far enough away from my hotel that I needed someone to drive me. They stocked plenty of food I could eat. Fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts, rice cakes, etc. Fantastic options, and on the one trip I made there, I did buy a fair amount of dried fruit and rice cakes. So when I couldn’t eat/didn’t want the food I was served for lunch and dinner, I did have something else. It lasted a few days, but then it was back to it. My stomach hated me, and so much heavy food was actually making me sick, so wasn’t just me being a fussy eater. There wasn’t much to be done about it though.

One of my friends at home said I should just go elsewhere to eat lunch and dinner. But here’s the thing…I was on my own for dinners, and if I wanted to eat lunch elsewhere I would have had to go on my own. And I was warned flat out by several people not to go out anywhere in Zambia on my own, even during the day. That it wasn’t going to be safe for me as a white female on my own. So given that warning, going elsewhere wasn’t an option.

Admittedly I just about lost it on my last night. The people I was doing the job for decided to take me out for dinner as a thank you. After having seen me eat nothing but vegan and gluten free for 2 weeks, and having to explain multiple times to the kitchen staff what my dietary requirements were, guess where they took me for my farewell dinner? A pizza restaurant. I kid you not. Pizza. And then they wondered why I just sat there drinking Coke Zero while they stuffed their faces with pizza, pasta and garlic bread and took offense to it because “I should be more grateful they were paying for my meal”. What meal? I couldn’t eat a single bloody thing in the place.

Yes, I was in Africa and complaining about the food. First world problems? I disagree in this case. I’m aware of how I probably come across when I’m complaining about carbs when Africa is basically the poster child for starvation and poverty. But this is effectively a blog to talk about eating vegan and gluten free on the road, and it’s necessary to discuss all sides of that, including the lack of options. However, on the other hand, the “you have to be joking, this is Africa” attitude I got when I asked about vegan food was not just frustrating, but also really offensive in my opinion. Nobody ever considered the fact that I might be vegan for medical reasons. There was this automatic assumption that I was some picky westerner, and I was treated accordingly, even after I said it was an allergy, and actually had an allergic reaction in front of these people. It isn’t like people in Africa don’t suffer from food allergies, so why tell me I should just suck it up when no local would ever be told the same? It actually made me quite angry after this happened multiple times. I know from previous trips to Africa that “TIA” is a running joke, but there’s a big difference between funny things going wrong and an issue that is quite literally a matter of life or death.

I found Zambia a real struggle, because basically what people eat in Zambia is: meat, rice, meat, potato (normally served with butter or cheese or sour cream), meat, and nshima. And the fact that in Zambia apparently vegetarians eat fish. Which I don’t believe for a second actually. I think it was more a total lack of understanding from the people I was working with, because they seemingly had never met anyone who didn’t eat meat before.

I was kind of grateful to be going to South Africa in the end. Although the diet in South Africa is also very much dominated by meat, I knew that vegetarian/vegan food was more easily accessible and that I wouldn’t cop a bad attitude for it (occasionally I’ve got a “that’s just silly” response, but it’s always been joking, and I was always taken seriously regardless).

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3 thoughts on “On the road in…Zambia!

  1. Pingback: Why food allergy fakers need to stop | The Vegan Frequent Flyer

  2. Hi I came across your blog in preparation for my mother in law who is raw vegan. Im doing the same for a trip to a Ireland with her.
    As a Zambian I agree with some of your points.
    Yes meat features heavily on the menu and generally people there who self classify as vegetarian do indeed still eat fish. I’ve been given vague religious explanations from cousins.
    However you were erroneously mislead to believing that it’s unsafe as a white woman to travel about alone even during daylight. If you’d had the opportunity to travel about you’d have found some far more accommodating restaurants and hotels in Lusaka. The hotel staff where you stayed at seemed very incompetent. I promise they’re not all like that. Zambia is home to great produce and with the right skills we’ve enjoyed fantastic meals. In particular there is a thriving Indian (Hindu) community and accomplished chefs all too aware of vegan and vegetarian needs.

    • I don’t necessarily disagree, but I was in Lusaka on a formal work trip, not as a tourist, and all of my transport arrangements and food options were limited by whatever my hosts were prepared to provide. It’s good to know that there are alternative options out there, but the circumstances surrounding my travel on that trip prevented me from taking advantage of them.

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