Benjamin Zephaniah | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

Benjamin Zephaniah


Poet and musician, Benjamin became a vegetarian at 11 and vegan at 13 to save animals. A patron of Viva!, this gentle, warm, vegan poet has been forced to view the world from a raw and at times harsh perspective. He had every right to turn his back on its failures and say stuff you. But in fact he's taken unto himself its most intractable problems and it is that which informs his poetry. He cares - he cares because everywhere he looks he sees ignorance and cruelty and he can't just walk away from it. Selfishness and exploitation are the constants which bolt together seemingly unrelated problems.
Interview: The vegan poet reveals his passion for chocolate cake and butter bean stew

Benjamin Zephaniah. 'I've never been tempted to give up veganism in 27 years.'

As the only black kid in my primary school playground, animals had become my friends. By 15 I was vegan, although I didn't give up honey until 16. For a while my mother thought it was just "a rasta phase".

"Ackees, chapattis, dumplins an' naan, channa and rotis, onion uttapam..." My poem Vegan Delight answers the question I've so often been asked – "but what do you eat?'.

I have a banana when I wake up, then, I'll go jogging, have a workout, do my tai-chi, have a sauna, then have my breakfast – a cup of muesli. I earn my breakfast.

I have vegan chocolate cakes delivered and there's my cupboard of sweets – crispy peanut candy, dairy-free rice cookies... I've tried to bring my chocolate eating under control recently. Sometimes I have nightmares in which I'm fat.

I'm 52, do kung-fu, running and football alongside 20-year-olds, and still none of them can beat me. This isn't bragging – I'm just making a point.

When I moved to Beijing, to study martial arts, I saw teenagers stroking cats which minutes later would be on their plates. Yet in Beijing I also found my favourite vegan restaurant in the world – Pure Lotus. There really is a vegan version of everything.

One day, when I was in prison as a young man, as a privilege I got to serve food. And for the people protected under rule 45 – sex offenders and IRA – the prison officers made me put custard on their main courses and gravy on their puddings.

When I moved from Newham to a small village in Lincolnshire two years ago, to get away from motorways and things, I was surprised by how neighbours would leave their spare vegetables and fruit outside my bungalow door. At first I thought it was some kind of witchcraft.

I have this packet containing plastic imitation bacon in my kitchen, as used by actors. My plan one day is to do a meal for someone and include it on the plate, as a trick or test.

I can honestly say I've not been tempted to give up veganism in 27 years. I sometimes smell a chip shop and like the smell but then feel guilty because fish might be part of it. But I'll go home and make vegan chips.

After all these years, my favourite food is my mother's butter bean stew with whole potatoes, yam and dasheen. I don't think I've ever made a meal for her, to be honest. I think she would consider it a failing of her motherhood and say "Boy, get out the kitchen."


 I was listening to a radio report by a female journalist on the way women are treated in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Girls are taken out of school as soon as they reach puberty and are kept locked away in the house. The men say that they are the spirits and the women are the animals - they're seen as dirty, they're not educated and aren't allowed to be anything apart from slaves to the men. And they quote the Koran to support it. It was horrible and I just related it back to the way animals are kept in factory farms. The same kind of attitude - utter exploitation .
 One day when 1 was 11, I asked my mother where did meat come from and she said from the butcher and I said where did the butcher get if form and she said the farmer and I said where did the farmer get it from and she said the cow and I said where did the cow get it from and she said – it is the cow! A shudder went through me! I became vegetarian. When I was 13 I became vegan. I love Viva! 


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