As an introvert Frank Molteno had reservations about talking about his journey to veganism. He is a seasoned Earth Keeper whose gentle, contemplative presence masks an activist for compassion for all living beings. As a past SAFCEI board member and founder of SAFCEI’s new One Web of Life (OWL) programme, he is part of the SAFCEI family. We believe his experience and love is an inspiration for all of us on our own journeys.
Soon after meeting Frank, I had a strong sense that veganism was just one of the fundamental life choices he had to share with us about his journey to living compassionately. His compassion stems from believing that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ but an interconnected web of beings, human and non-human, each with their roles to play in God’s miracle of life. His story is one of accepting the inevitability of uncertainty, and as a result, being free from the urge to judge and to treat others as `others’. What really inspires is his lack of angst and his commitment to live true to a core value that respects all life.
Frank is not only an activist for compassion for animals. He is a professional sociologist who, apart from a break of 3 years when he worked for the Anglican Church’s HIV and AIDS programme, lectured and served in various capacities at UCT for 36 years until his retirement. As a Christian, a socialist and a feminist he continues to build bridges of understanding in everything he does. His passion for respect begs the question: How did you come to care so much?
Frank: “Can anyone say what motivates them at the deeper levels of their being – it is in large part a mystery? However part of my truth and a crucial part of my faith is my belief that we all have the capacity to care (love) and do care (love) because God loves (cares for) us first. [1 John 4:19] I suppose that this is also a mystery. I am comfortable living with the uncertainty of not having answers for everything.” That is the beauty of faith, he said with a smile.
The problems caused by striving for certainty, as opposed to having faith in God’s love came up repeatedly in our discussion. It is a guiding value in Frank’s life. He explained that being driven by the need for certainty throws up boundaries between communities. If one group or person is certain that their way is right then surely a different way must be wrong! While there is no question that factory farming is unhealthy for us and unsustainable for the Earth, is it possible for everyone to switch to a plant based diet? What about the Inuit and people worldwide living on the vast tracts of semi-desert that can’t sustain crops? These are extreme examples perhaps, but they illustrate why insisting on certainty is disconnecting and threatening. It leads to judgement of the actions of others instead of understanding. Instead, people can be challenged, considerately, to open up to other possibilities. We need to own our choices. “Look how long it took me to become a vegan,” he said “even though I had been uncomfortable about eating animal products for a long time. Once I did take the step to only eating plant based food there was no turning back for me, no regrets. It was finally right for me.”
Returning to the question of why he cares so deeply, Frank related how his parents had had a profound influence. “They were people of integrity who lived their values. I set enormous store by that. It is probably part of the reason that I care so deeply.” My siblings and I grew up in a home without prejudice. My father was a liberal lawyer and a political activist. My mother was many things ranging from being the farmer on our small holding near Little Princess Vlei to hostess of play readings with a diverse a group of people. I remember discussions with my parents’ friends and associates from a cross section of South African society. They opened our world view so that we questioned the status quo and thought about different perspectives. It was an incredible privilege. This exposure helped my spiritual and political growth. I was challenged to consider other possibilities, but at the same time I was accepted, not judged and I was allowed to find my own truth.
“You ask why I care. I ask myself, with regards to eating animals, why it took me so long to piece together the story of what happens to food on its way to my plate. Before you make a choice it looks so difficult – like a fish swimming upstream.” I grew up on a small holding, and being an introvert, I spent more time with animals than with school friends. My dog Panda shared my love for water and we spent hours together on the vlei. I also had a pony who had been neglected before my parents acquired her. The trust and love that we grew to share has made me eternally fond of horses. I had fully intended to work with animals as an adult. However, I was acutely aware of the human rights issues under apartheid. As a young adult I wrestled with the disconnection between the values of integrity and respect, a fundamental part of my upbringing, and the injustices to fellow South Africans at that time. Are values relative? Do we choose them? I needed to understand it all and was looking for spiritual and intellectual guidance. I considered becoming a priest but was frustrated by the church at the time for its relative inactivity regarding apartheid. I chose instead to study sociology at UCT.
Looking back on my journey from an omnivore to a vegetarian for many years and now a vegan, I can say that it was a succession of choices that culminated in being able to act on my deepest values. In a nutshell: I respect all life. To me eating an animal or animal products is not consistent with respecting them as living creatures with a right to exist outside of human wants. So why did it take so long? Unlike my political journey where I had mentors who supported me while they challenged me with questions I could not easily answer, becoming a vegan is a road less travelled. It was a journey I took on my own. Although my family are supportive and one of my daughters is vegetarian, I am the only vegan. When I made the decision to become a vegan, after being a vegetarian for years, I jokingly asked Pearl, my wife, if she had married me for vegan or for wors! Frank smiled apologetically at his joke. If we asked her, she would probably say that she married him for his integrity and the love that underpins his choices in life – including her.
Frank’s journey as a mentoring activist is continuing with SAFCEI’s OWL programme. OWL aims to support people to reconnect their faith-based values with how they live and to offer Earth- and animal-friendly alternatives. OWL aims to make us aware of the cruelty to animals, the health risks to people and the destruction to the environment caused by ‘intensive’ or ‘factory-farming’ of animals. Follow the money he quipped. Factory farming is not about food security. It is about wealth for a few at the expense of compassion and a healthy planet with abundant plant based food for all. He ended the discussion with the challenge to watch the film Cowspiracy and an invitation to visit vegan and vegetarian restaurants to open my experience to new delicious dining possibilities. Raw and Roxy in Cape Town, here I come.
As Earth Keepers, like Frank, we all have the capacity to care. We hope that his story will inspire readers to source food that is also good for the Earth.
Kim Kruyshaar for SAFCEI January 2015
COWSPIRACY: The Sustainability Secret is a ground breaking feature length environmental documentary, following an intrepid filmmaker as he uncovers the most destructive industry facing the planet today and investigates why the world’s leading environmental organizations are too afraid to talk about it. This shocking yet humorous documentary is as eye-opening as “Blackfish” and as inspiring as “An Inconvenient Truth”.