syzygy (omdreads) wrote in divetribe,
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The Mbuti Pygmies and Radical Dumpster Divers: Two Hunter-Gatherer Societies Contrasted
this is a paper I wrote a while ago. It was a little rushed so some of this may seem silly to dumpster divers (for example, "radical dumpsterd divers" was used for lack of a better term). lemme know what you guys think. this is crossposted to greenanarchy, divetribe, dumpsterdivers, and my personal journal.


The Mbuti pygmies live in the Ituri rainforest, which provides them with ample food and shelter. Radical dumpster divers are scattered all across America, usually travelling from city to city and finding enough food and goods in the garbage to keep themselves (and often their friends) well fed. Though both groups forage for food, they have different ways of going about it. This difference in food acquisition strategies is reflected in the various differences in the other aspects of their cultures. If one looks closely, however, there are also some interesting similarities between Mbuti pygmies and radical dumpster divers. The similarities and differences between the two cultures, particularly with regards to the gathering of food, will be the topic of this paper.

The Ituri rainforest is located in the northeastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as Zaire). The Ituri supplies the Mbuti with everything that they need and the Mbuti acknowledge that by refering to themselves as bamiki ba'ndura or "children of the forest" (Turnbull, page 1). The Mbuti believe that the forest has a living Spirit, and that Spirit is treated with deep respect because they rely upon it to live. One way that this respect for the forest manifests itself is in the ritualized guilt that the Mbuti feel when they take the life of an animal. According to their myths, the Mbuti were originally vegetarians, and because all the inhabitants lived in harmony, they were all immortal like the forest. Then one Mbuti killed an animal, and he ate the animal in an attempt to hide his transgression. All animals (including Mbuti) have been mortal ever since. "Noise", or akami, is created when an animal is killed as well as when there is an argument or illicit behavior, and is the closest the Mbuti come to the concept of "evil". "Peace", or ekimi, is the opposite of akami. Ekimi filled the forest before the Mbuti first took a life, and is what every Mbuti strives to foster in their relationships and beliefs. Each morning before a hunt takes place, young children who have not yet taken a life (and are therefore "pure" and full of ekimi) light a fire. The fire is lit with special leaves that give off a dense smoke, and as the adults go to hunt and take a life, they are immersed in holy smoke from the forest to "minimize the sacrilege of killing" (Turnbull, page 41). Even with the protective smoke, the adults are doomed to have akami until they grow too old to hunt and become elders. For this reason, children and elders have specific jobs that the adults are prohibited from performing, such as lighting the ritual fire or resolving conflicts. The adults also have very little say in what political decisions are made, because of their high levels of akami. The elders and the children work together to make those decisions. The children freely criticize the adults when they see behavior that they do not approve of, and can sometimes act as an adult's "reality check". The adults put up with this system because they know they are guilty of bringing akami into their camp.

After the adult Mbuti are purified, they go out to hunt. The hunters use either bows and arrow or nets. The Mbuti that use the bow and arrow method hunt in smaller groups than the net hunting Mbuti. The bow hunter lies in wait in a place that is likely to have animals walk by, and shoots them when they cross his path. Trees with fallen fruit are particularly good for lying in wait because the duiker, a type of small deer, are attracted to the fruit. In groups that use bows and arrows, any vegetables or mushrooms that are found while walking in the woods are collected by both the men and the women and brought back to camp.

Using nets to hunt game is more effective, more common, and involves the whole camp. The division of labor based upon age and gender is particularly evident with the net hunters. The men set up their nets into a large "U" shape while the women gather vegetables, mushrooms, and roots. Then the adults close the U shape and go rushing into it with their dogs while making as much noise as possible to scare animals into the nets. The children stand on the sides, and don't make any noise. The older children who are close to becoming adults will kill any animals that slip past the adults and try to run out of the trap, but the younger children and the elders, if they go on the hunt at all, are only silent observers.

Hunting is at best a necessary evil in Mbuti culture, though all Mbuti relish meat. The children, even when they are slightly involved with the hunt, do not give in to the noise/akami that characterizes the adults and the way that the adults hunt. The meat that results from the hunt is divided up according to an exact system, with specific parts of the kill going to the owner of the dogs and the person who struck the first blow against the animal. The leftover meat is freely distributed to all Mbuti. When the game in a particular area is exhausted, the Mbuti move on and built a new camp elsewhere.

The population of the Mbuti camp fluctuates greatly, because Mbuti switch from group to group whenever they feel like it. This change to another group is usually to prevent a conflict, but it can also be because of weather or just the desire to be in a different part of the forest. All the Mbuti groups general territories radiate from a central part of the forest, which is considered a no-hunting zone. This prevents any species from being overhunted, because they can find refuge in the center of the Mbuti territory. At the opposite end of each Mbuti territory, at the edge of the forest, is a village where the Mbuti go to trade and steal.

The Mbuti relationship with the villagers is complex. Originally, the Mbuti were the sole human inhabitants of the Ituri forest. Then Arab slave-traders and the explorer Henry Morton Stanley both pushed into the territory, leaving death and destruction in their wake. This pushed various indigenous peoples from other parts of Zaire into the Ituri, where they encountered the Mbuti. The Mbuti see themselves as "real" people and consider the villagers to be a different lesser kind of human. The villagers are terrified of the forest, partially because of saitani (evil spirits that dwell in the forest), and partially because of venomous snakes and predatory animals. To the Mbuti, having the villagers come into the forest would be completely innapropriate. The Mbuti tell the villagers wild stories about the dangers of the forest, and not only keep the holy forest for themselves, but to leave the villagers dependent upon the Mbuti for access to forest goods. The Mbuti trade meat and honey for metal, manioc, bananas, and other things that they cannot get in the forest. They do not need any of these things, but they enjoy having them. The Mbuti also steal vegetables and goods like machetes or pots and pans from the villagers. They consider this theft a kind of "hunting". Though they act submissive when in the villages, when they are back in the "real world" with only "real people" (in the forest with just Mbuti) they tell wild stories about the stupidity and silliness of the villagers. The goods that they "hunt" from the villagers are useful, but not necessary. When you travel as much as the Mbuti do, very few things get carried along. For this reason, when the Mbuti travel, they leave behind all the stolen goods from the village behind in their old camp.

Compared to the Mbuti culture, which is at least 4,000 years old (Turnbull, page 12), the radical dumpster diver culture is brand new. Though it has it's roots in the hobo culture that evolved out of the Great Depression, the really defining aspect of radical dumpster divers is a very recent development. Hobos lived off handouts, but radical dumpster divers actively forage and live off of the monumental amount of waste our consumer culture produces.

According to research done by Timothy Jones at the University of Arizona, the typical American household wastes 14 percent of all food that they purchase. Overall, 50 percent of the food that is bought in America is wasted. Food is thrown out by supermarkets for being dented or a day past the expiration date, and there are plenty of people who are there to pick it out of the dumpsters. Some people do this out of economic necessity, some people do this because they don't want to support the capitalist system, and some people have a combination of those two motives. Those who dumpster dive strictly out of economic necessity are usually the urban poor or homeless, who are connected to but not synonymous with radical dumpster divers. Radical dumpster divers (some of whom call themselves "freegans", meaning they avoid paying for items whenever possible) reclaim goods that have been thrown in the garbage, but do it with a certain political consciousness. All radical dumpster divers are loathe to support the capitalist system, and some actively sabotage the capitalist system through shoplifting. A motto of the Food Not Bombs movement, "food is a right, not a privilege" also helps describe the reasoning that dumpster divers use when choosing and justifying their particular lifestyle.

The vast majority of radical dumpster divers were not born into the culture. They either chose to change at some point in their lives or they were forced to change out of economic necessity, and became radicalized as a result. Mbuti children are born into the Mbuti culture and learn how to be an Mbuti just by living with their parents and peers, but a radical dumpster diver usually learns how to be a dumpster diver in their teenage years. Sometimes deciding to be a radical dumpster diver means breaking away from one's parents and family because they continue to live in the consumer culture that radical dumpster divers are working to change.

Consumer culture really began to flourish in the United States after World War II. With this new culture of excess came the first dumpster divers. In Steal This Book, the author and activist Abbie Hoffman writes about classic urban-foraging techniques like going behind supermarkets to pick up the discarded vegetables and packaged foods, or going into self-service restaurants and eating others leftover meals. These tactics are still widely in use today by radical dumpster divers. Food courts have made the leftover meal method even easier to implement than it was in the sixties. As long as a dumpster diver has a good excuse for digging through the trash behind the supermarket ("I have a lot of pet rabbits" is particularly popular), then getting free vegetables from the dumpsters of supermarkets is surprisingly easy.

Times have changed since the sixties, however, and sometimes getting three square meals a day from discarded food is harder than just lying to supermarket workers. A dumpster that can be almost always relied on to have edible garbage is a sought after prize for dumpster divers. When dumpster divers are asked if there are any taboos within the dumpster diver culture, many answer that making a mess in or around a dumpster is frowned upon. This is because it attracts the attention of the people who put the garbage into there, who will often respond by locking the dumpster. A locked dumpster filled with food that is just past the expiration date, or a case full of dented soup cans, is a terrible waste in the mind of a dumpster diver. Some dumpster divers will consider the dumpster lost, but many are willing to cut the locks with bolt-cutters. In the book Evasion, which is written by an anonymous radical dumpster diver, the author describes how a particular store kept locking the dumpster, and he kept cutting the locks. Finally the management left a note on the dumpster that read: "Attention dumpster divers: the dumpster will now be unlocked every Tuesday during business hours." Most radical dumpster divers will not give up a good dumpster without a fight.

A dumpster diver picks the dumpsters s/he wants to dive in according to a few methods. Certain places are almost always avoided, such as hospitals, banks, and pet stores. Hospitals are avoided because of the sensitive nature of some of the trash, and also the risk of biohazardous material being in the dumpster, banks are avoided so that the dumpster diver is not accused of identity theft, and pet stores are avoided because lots of animal feces or dead animals end up in the trash. If there is more than one radical dumpster diver in the area, word about a good dumpster often spreads quickly. However, some dumpster divers consciously decide not to tell others about a good dumpster that they find becaus they worry it may be ruined by someone else. In many areas, dumpster divers get harrassed by police, so the visibility of the dumpster and whether it is part of a police patrol (how "hot" it is) is another consideration that many dumpster divers make. The police in rich areas are often more strict, but the rich people often are the most wasteful so diving in rich areas is often worth the risk. The only problem other than the police and a judgemental public is trash compactors. A threat to the dumpster diving way of life that is even more . You cannot dive into a trash compactor, and it squishes up all the salvageable food or goods so that they cannot be used anymore. Luckily, there is still plenty of good dumpstering to be done all over America.

When a suitable dumpster is found, a diver will sometimes just reach in, but generally they will climb right in, untie the garbage bags and sift through the contents. Ripping the bags makes a mess and is frowned upon by many divers. There are no strict rules about dividing up the "loot". Generally, if a person finds something and s/he can use it, it's theirs. If something is found and the person who finds it cannot use it, but their friend can, then their gets it. If the goods are salvageable but are not of particular interest to the person or their friends, then the goods are either left for other divers to find or they are given away at Really Really Free Markets. If food, the excess dumpstered goods are served to the hungry and the homeless at Food Not Bombs.

Really Really Free Markets are marketplaces where everything is either bartered or given away. Often the goods come from the dumpster, because the amount of food and goods that can be found can be more than even a whole band of dumpster divers can absorb. Many dumpster divers will tell stories about the dumpster filled with a perfectly good sofa set, or cases of expired cereal that required two trips with a pickup truck to completely haul away. Food Not Bombs is an international movement that reclaims vegetarian food that would otherwise go to waste in dumpsters and cooks it up and serves it to whoever wants food. Dumpster divers feed themselves as best they can, but when there is a surplus, many of them cook for Food Not Bombs. Most Food Not Bombs serve at least once a week, which can give you a good idea of how much edible (and often extremely delicious!) food there is to be found in the dumpsters of most cities.

Sometimes, however, there is not enough food in a dumpster for a dumpster diver to comfortably live on, or for them to live in a healthy way. Perhaps they dumpstered a crate full of apples, but could find nothing else. In order to supplement their diet, instead of buying things (which would support the capitalist system or would require money that the dumpster diver does not have), some dumpster divers choose to steal. Like the Mbuti, dumpster divers do not usually need what they steal, but stealing does make their lives easier. There is a taboo against stealing from small businesses that most radical dumpster divers observe. Large businesses, particularly Wal-Mart and other corporations that seem to have very little social consciousness, are popular targets.

The ingenuity that is employed when shoplifting can be astounding. A simple and popular method is called "left-handing". This is done by buying something cheap and small like a pack of gum (held by the right hand), while holding an expensive item in the left hand. Some radical dumpster divers will have special pockets in jackets that they can stuff products into and then leave. A legendary shoplifting practice is to just rush into a store, quickly grab an item, and run out. The anonymous author of Evasion fondly recalls rushing into a store with a group of his friends, grabbing expensive juices, and running out before the stores employees could even act. Some radical dumpster divers believe actions like this can serve to challenge the idea that people have to pay for everything they want.

Sometimes shoplifting, like dumpster diving, will result in massive amounts of food that cannot be used just by an individual dumpster diver. When this happens, it is either distributed to friends, or it is distributed to the hungry through Food Not Bombs. Many Food Not Bombs collectives will not accept stolen goods however, and if it is accepted, it is accepted either without the knowledge that it is stolen or with the intention to keep it's stolen status a secret. This is because many police departments are eager to stop Food Not Bombs and dumpster divers. While Ituri villagers allow a certain amount of theft by Mbuti, radical dumpster divers tend to have more of an adversarial relationship with the culture that produces the waste on which the dumpster divers live. Shoplifting for monetary profit is not acceptable in the radical dumpster diver culture, so when they do have run-ins with the law it is usually for petty theft, or trespassing (which is a legal way of saying "went into a company's dumpster without their permission") and the sentences are not that steep. Repeat offenders can receive more severe punishments.

The Mbuti and the radical dumpster divers both forage for their food, and both use theft to supplement their diet. Many radical dumpster divers are nomadic, and "hop" freight trains, hitchhike, or ride bicycles across the country or the world. Some have a fixed wandering pattern, some go wherever the wind take them. The Mbuti have a more complex way of moving around. At any point in time, a member of an Mbuti camp can decide to leave and join another Mbuti camp. This frequently happens, sometimes to avoid a conflict and sometimes just for a change of scenery. So, while Mbuti groups have a kind of fixed-wandering pattern within a large territory, the composition of the group will undergo dramatic changes as time goes on. The Mbuti, as a rule, do not live alone. Nomadic radical dumpster divers are less likely to live in groups because it is easier to hop a freight train or hitch a ride if you are alone. More settled radical dumpster divers often have friends who are also radical dumpster divers.

Mbuti children are enculturated from birth, but people become part of the radical dumpster diver culture later in life, partially by hands-on experiences, trial and error, tagging along with more experienced divers, or through word of mouth. Every traditional Mbuti follows a specific ritual before they go out hunting, but radical dumpster divers, if they have any ritual at all, have personal ones that they have developed through experience. Both Mbuti elders and radical dumpster diver elders are respected. Elders in both cultures know a lot about how to survive as an Mbuti or a dumpster diver, particularly if they have lived that long under such strenuous conditions.

For the Mbuti the concepts of akami and ekimi represent positive energy and negative energy, respectively, while the radical dumpster divers think of bourgeoise, consumer cultures, and capitalism as negative things to be avoided, and the do-it-yourself idea of self-sufficiency is positive and is considered positive and is fostered as often as often as possible. Hunting is taboo in the Mbuti culture, but dumpster diving defines the radical dumpster diver culture. A radical dumpster divers' first diving experience is a joyous time when they are introduced to the culture, while for the Mbuti the first hunt is a bittersweet experience. While hunting does allow the male child to become an adult (female children become adults at a ceremony that takes place when they have their first menstruation), it also brings him into a period of his life that is filled with akami.

The Mbuti and radical dumpster divers are similar in many ways, but they are products of very different environments. The Ituri forest provides the Mbuti with everything they need, and the villagers provide extra resources to supplement the Mbuti diet. The radical dumpster divers are primarily dependent upon the excesses of the consumer culture with which they interact. Both groups live in jungles, one made of vegetation and one made of asphalt and concrete. Foraging is important to both the Mbuti and the radical dumpster divers, but they have each developed a different method of survival that suits their particular social and geographical context.
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