Will the global growth of veganism boost ital food culture in Jamaica?

Will the global growth of veganism boost ital food culture in Jamaica?

A freshly-prepared vegan meal is served at King David’s Ital Restaurant in Kingston, Jamaica.

(Billie McTernan)
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On Fleet Street, a road seemingly like any other in the Parade Gardens neighbourhood in downtown Kingston, Jamaica, brightly-coloured murals fill the walls while plant pots, painted tyres and benches fill the pavements.

A green, yellow and red flag hangs on the corrugated iron roof of an inconspicuous dwelling, fluttering every so often as it catches the breeze. The flag, a symbol of Rastafari, marks the entrance to Life Yard, a community-based social enterprise founded by a young group of locals. Between greeting friends and neighbours Shane Morgan, the organisation’s executive director and co-founder, explains its ethos.

“The initiative is to create a sustainable way of living. Creating a place where the children learn and grow and play safely,” he says. “A cultural space where the community and persons from the world at large can come and be edutained through art, music, dance, theatre.”

It’s 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning and the street is a little busier than usual at this time. The reggae icon Jimmy Cliff is shooting a video and the Life Yard crew is playing host. Young and old congregate to watch the legend in action.

“This is what it’s all about,” says Morgan with a coy smile. “Community.”

As young teens Morgan and fellow Life Yard co-founders Sabukie Allen and Nikuma Carr, became interested in the path of Rastafari – a relatively young religion that draws from Judeo-Christian belief and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity in particular – of which eating an ‘ital’, or vegan, diet is key. With pressures and demands on low-income families in the area, home-cooked tailored meals to suit these new diets were not an option.

So with a group of friends they began farming in their community 19 years ago to support themselves and others. There was no blueprint for urban farming at the time and they had to use permaculture methods to suit their city environment as well as develop an organic way of producing fertiliser and pesticides.

“Back then we were just growing food and eating [it] and giving it away to our neighbours,” he says. “It was to sustain.”

After sixteen years in 2014, they decided to shift gears. Life Yard was born at a time when, he says, the community, also known as Southside, was being labelled as one of the most volatile in Jamaica due to high crime rates. Now, nearly 20 years after the first seed was planted, the social enterprise is the pride of Parade Gardens.

But the agricultural base remains the cornerstone. With dedicated hands tending the garden daily, ackee and plantain trees stand tall, providing cool respite from the sun during the day. Tomatoes, callaloo, scotch bonnet pepper, green banana and a variety of staples in Jamaican cuisine are grown along side more Western produce like kale and basil.

The movement has expanded across Kingston to the parish of St Catherine’s where members of Life Yard have been sharing knowledge with communities, schools and academic institutions, helping them kickstart their own sustainable farms.

Rastafarianism in Jamaica – and beyond

Across town David, owner of King David’s Ital Restaurant, was also influenced by Rastafari as a teenager and soon enough he too made it a way of life.

“When you praise Haile Selassie your eating automatically has to change,” David enthuses. “[But] even if I wasn’t praising Haile Selassie I see ital as something good. If I could rewind my life to the times that my parents were taking care of me I would have [had] ital from the start.”

Rastafarianism first took hold in Jamaica in in the 1920s and 1930s. While its roots are in Christianity, Rastafari has an Africa-centred interpretation of the Bible and Christianity. The veganism aspect was introduced by one of the religion’s leading figures, preacher Leonard Howell, and is in line with the concept of ‘livity’, meaning a natural lifestyle.

The reach of Rastafari is hard to quantify, not least in Jamaica where a 2010 census recorded only 3 per cent of the population identifying as Rastafarians. Dr Jahlani Niaah, lecturer and coordinator of Rastafari studies at the University of West Indies, puts this down to the marginalisation of Rastafarians in the country. Dr Niaah expects that the figure is closer to 8-10 per cent of the population, translating to 290,000 people.

The global musical and cultural impact of the religion has also an immeasurable reach, putting the small island on the international stage with its massive cultural influence. From Japan to New Zealand, and several countries across Africa and the Caribbean, the way of Rastafari is being upheld by a number of dedicated followers.

It’s midday and with reggae music playing in the background, David gets some pep in his step as the lunchtime crowd descends into his humble spot in Half Way Tree, a busy transport and retail area in the capital.

Some of the customers admit that they are usually meat-eaters, but that they often choose to balance their diet with vegan meals that are in line with traditional Jamaican cuisine every so often. Today on the menu is boiled yam and green banana, pumpkin rice, tofu, vegetable stew and ackee, with a side of fried plantain.

While David’s restaurant is popular with the locals it is with the international crowd that his reputation holds most of its weight with crowds heaving in the holiday seasons. But he is confident that there is a shift happening.

“Things really change in time because most [Jamaican] people eating ital right now weren’t doing so before. The percentage is growing,” he says with some pride, putting it down to Rastafari teachings about vegan livity. “It’s slow but it’s sure.”

David laments the current state of natural food production in the country, saying that the government has failed to create an enabling environment for local farmers. Agriculture contributes 7.9 per cent to the country’s GDP, according to data from the World Bank. While it has been on a steady increase since 2010 as a result of a government drive, there is still concern about the importation of genetically modified seeds, crops and livestock from abroad as there is currently no regulation banning it.

“Jamaica is too blessed for us to be importing carrots, Irish [potatoes] and all these chemical stuff that we grow on this natural soil here,” he says. “I think it’s messing up the farmers here in Jamaica.”

Dr Niaah has also observed a rise in the number of conversations about veganism in both traditional and social media in Jamaica. With a move toward healthier lifestyles in the global domain, in the Rastafari context of nutrition by way of livity, Jamaicans, he says, recognise it as a long existing vegan option.

“There’s a perception that to be vegan is so trendy that it is expensive. I think that in the European and North American contexts veganism is seen as a sort of yuppie, metropolitan, wealthy lifestyle. Rastafari provides veganism as basic and cheap.”

Dr Niaah has also noted a growing number of Rastafari restaurants across the capital and with that more experimentation in vegan food preparation by young entrepreneurs as gastronomy becomes a growing tourism product.

But he also points out that describing something as ‘vegan’ does not automatically make it ‘ital’.

“Ital suggests clean, unpolluted vegan nutrition. [There is] a moral and philosophical approach to it. Amongst those things [is] the mindset of the persons growing or cultivating or preparing the food, their own spirituality, their sense of exactness in in attaining this lifestyle.”

Similarly, for Morgan the practice of growing what you eat has gone beyond just putting food on the table.

“Each person that gets himself into nurturing life from the soil will eventually develop a level of discipline, humbleness and appreciation for life,” he reflects.

“After a while they will realise that they’ve stopped a lot of their oppressive ways because the nature of life will take over them spiritually. [Life Yard] is the essence of young people getting into farming and just caring for leaves. If we can care for leaves and food, why not care for people? Why not help to sustain lives as well as food?” he asks.

“This place is life.”