I’m basically a vegan (eating no animal products, including eggs and dairy). It’s not a rigid stance – I overlook eggs in baked goods sometimes, have a nice piece of fish about twice a month, and occasionally attack the leftover veggies in my wife Mia’s Thai chicken soup (and not complaining if a bit of Henny Penny finds her way in as well).
Mia warned me before we left, “It’s going to be hard eating vegan in Africa.”
Once we arrived, I saw what she meant.
In Africa, Food = Meat
South Africans who can afford it eat meat with every meal. Or, more accurately, eat meat AS every meal.
At Chippa’s butchery and take-away, in a migrant worker squatter camp in Mbekweni, the only non-meat items are a hunk of bread and a whole tomato. But no one orders them, even as accompaniments, because to do so would lower your status by showing that you can’t afford the barbecued meat that dominates the menu.
At one popular chain restaurant, Spur Steak Ranch, the only dish on the menu that didn’t contain meat was the lemonade.
At another, Ocean Basket, there was some semblance of veggie sushi (smothered in mayo!), as well as a Greek salad in which the feta could be substituted for avocado on an irregular basis (easier in big cities), but the fried fish smelled sooo good…
Meet the Meat
Here’s the thing: all across Africa, I saw free range animals living pretty good lives. Cattle lounged in huge pastures (or in the middle of the highway separating their grazing land), looking up incuriously as we motored by.
On the desert-like farms in Namibia and the Northern Cape province of South Africa, the land produces almost nothing edible to humans (the San hunter-gatherers could reliably scratch out a living here, but they learned to siphon water from hidden roots and make dart poison from beetle juice, hardly skills being passed on in the general population).
If the land is to support human habitation, it has to do so in the form of meat. As my wife’s relatives used to say, “If you want to eat a vegetable, kill a sheep.” The sheep has already processed the vegetables you crave.
Howie Eats Meat (and Lots of It)
Given a choice between canned goods or unripe produce trucked a thousand kilometers from Cape Town or a local cut of mutton or game (springbok, gemsbok and kudu made my top 3 list), I opted to become a carnivore for a while.
Mia gleefully snapped photo after photo of me tearing into gemsbok biltong (dried meat with spices, a relative of jerky but really no comparison so I’ve been told). We kept a bag of biltong chips in the well between the front two seats of the car, and I frequently polished off more animal protein in an 8-hour drive than I’ve probably eaten in the past six years.
So this wasn’t some perfunctory nod at fitting in; it had become a full-blown identity shift. I was no longer a vegan.
The Prodigal Son Returns to His Roots (Potatoes and Carrots)
Until we arrived in Paarl, at Mia’s cousin’s farm. Salome, her first cousin, and her family had stayed with us in New Jersey in December 2000. During that visit, Salome reminded me, I had converted her to vegetarianism.
Salome was so excited about our stay at her farm, partly because she would no longer be the only vegetarian in an aggressively carnivorous family culture (the farm consists of several estates, all owned by her husband’s relatives).
Since she mentioned that to me, I haven’t touched another piece of meat. Or fish. Heck, I even stopped sneaking the wonderful chocolate candies that make Hershey’s pale by comparison (Tex, Aero, Smarties being the three main contributors to my manly love handles).
In short, I was back on my game.
Partly, it was the environment. The areas near Cape Town are like the lushest regions of California, capable of growing commercial quantities of citrus, guava, grapes, and dozens of other fruits and vegetables, as well as gardens including avocado trees.
But mostly, truth be told, it was the powerful appeal to my identity as the King Vegetarian that set me back on the path of vegan righteousness. Despite my principles and habits, the Howie who runs FitFam.com and preaches about healthy plant-based eating simply faded away under the setting sun on a Namibian sheep farm. That persona was unsustainable.
But it arose, Lazarusian, under the gentle watering of an acolyte; my cousin-in-law who innocently stated her expectations and stepped back as I fulfilled them.
The Power of Your Referent Group
Now maybe you’re different from me, able to sustain your behavior no matter what your environment. If so, you’re reading this with a mixture of pity, amusement, and disgust.
But if this rings a bell, then I think you and I need to acknowledge the single most powerful force in determining what we do: who they people around us expect us to be.
That is to say, if you want to act a certain way, surround yourself with people who model that behavior and see it as normal and unremarkable.
Beware the Guru
In the world of online marketing, we have many opportunities to join the followers of brilliant marketing gurus whose every project turns to gold. That may seem like a referent group, but unless we can get past our worship of the guru as someone other than ourselves (smarter, luckier, pluckier, having a better rags-to-riches story, etc.), we’re not really in an uplifting referent group.
The Guru Business sort of demands that kind of positioning. I feel the pressure in my own teaching, coaching and consulting practice to throw in little hints of my wonderful successes and fabulous lifestyle, whether accurate or embellishes (or utterly misleading).
Even the fact of a trip to Africa sends that not-so-subtle message, “I can afford a trip to Africa” that may set up a reader to see me as something greater than I am (and more to the point, greater than them). If they let it.
That kind of relationship will only keep you down, no matter how smart the guru or how generous or skilled.
I Was a Frisbee God
My first job out of college was teaching history and gym at Princeton Day School. I started an Ultimate Frisbee team, and attracted some very accomplished athletes. But they had never played before. I amazed them with my cornucopia of throws – hammer, finger flick, air bounce – and with my leaping grabs and defensive blocks. I was a god to them.
Over the years, some of these students went on to play at levels much higher than I ever attained. College, regional club teams, nationals. I was so not in their league any more.
Yet when they returned to Princeton for the summer, I could still handle them. No matter that they were younger, faster, better. They still saw me as a god, and conferred upon me the power to best them. I kept them from reaching their potential as long as they saw me in that unrealistic light.
So, if you want to master the mindsets, skill sets, and habits that will produce a successful online business, make sure you find a teacher who doesn’t build up their own aura to make you smaller, and find a group of helpful practitioners for whom online marketing is serious stuff, but no big deal.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with a carrot.
PS The Ring of Fire is a great place to hang out with seriously fun AdWords and online marketing practitioners. First month for as little as $20.