Foraging, Colonialism, and More-than-Human Agency in Central Africa

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Editor’s Note: This is the tenth post in the Environmental Histories of Foraging series edited by Nicole Miller. You can read other posts in this series here.

The scene is set in 1912, in the rainforest of Northern Belgian Congo (today’s DRC). A young man and his animal companions pose for the camera of an ‘ethnographic mission’ entrusted with amassing data, images, and objects from this lush region to bring back to Europe. Little is known about the human and non-human protagonists in the picture – their names and place of residence have not been recorded, only the community to which the young man belonged and the function he occupied. They were simply captioned as ‘a Zande beater (rabatteur) and his dogs’, collectively entrusted with driving game towards armed huntsmen, thereby increasing the spoils of the hunt. The objectification of this person, culture, and environment leaves the audience now removed from context when viewing the photograph because of an attempt to enclose the subject within a colonial gaze. I attempt here to restore some of the erased context.

Zande Beater with dogs
Figure 1: “Rabatteur Zande avec ses chiens”, photograph taken by Armand Hutereau, Uele, Belgian Congo, 1912 (Africamuseum, Tervuren, Photographic collections, inv. nr. AP.0.0.12585). Used with permission of The AfricaMuseum in Tervuren.

At first sight, this exotic staging has little to do with ‘foraging’ in its primary sense: the gathering of wild plants and fungi. However, recent research expanded this original scope to include activities as diverse as scavenging in Brazilian landfills,1 producing ‘traditional’ medicine at industrial scales in the Himalayas,2 or collecting mushrooms in discarded North American logging sites for Japanese gourmets.3

All these new understandings share common characteristics. First, they approach foraging as a series of ecological encounters between humans and their uncultivated, unstandardized surroundings. As such, hunting can be considered as one of the many relationships entangling humans with their ecosystems. Especially for societies which did not follow a nature vs. culture ontology, as for the unnamed ‘Zande beater’, it makes little sense to starkly divide activities along taxonomic lines inherited from Western episteme. After all, the only thing that separates fishing or game killing from fruit picking is the way one considers and classifies these practices.

Second, all these forms of foraging are regarded as responses to the manifold crises entailed by global capitalism, from the structural inequalities that it fosters to the increasingly inhabitable worlds that it creates. Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing famously used the wild-growing matsutake mushroom as a starting point to think about life in ‘capitalist ruins’.4 In an echoing endeavor, Martin Saxer and his team currently study foraging ‘at the edge of capitalism’, both as a coping mechanism for vulnerable communities and as a highly profitable process of commodification.5

More than a century ago, the photographed young man and his community already faced dramatic, unparalleled changes, as industrial capitalism rapidly expanded all over the globe. From the late 19th century onwards, colonial administrators and private business ventures increasingly demanded resources, labor and taxes from Central Africans, while violently relegating them to the bottom rung of a racialized hierarchy that these outsiders dominated. The obliteration of the young man’s name from the picture’s caption speaks volumes of the little regard the photographer held for his personhood.

Foraging, in its broadest sense, still offered ways for inhabitants of Central Africa
to circumvent, alleviate and/or counter their encroachment
by the forces of capitalism and imperialism.

Colonial settings became progressively more hostile as public and private actors managed to encompass expanding swaths of territory into their effective dominion. As time went by, the possibility to flee from tax collectors and private recruiters, or to relocate settlements in still uncharted lands, tended to diminish. However, foraging, in its broadest sense, still offered ways for inhabitants of Central Africa to circumvent, alleviate and/or counter their encroachment by the forces of capitalism and imperialism. Furthermore, foraging relies by essence on the knowledge, contribution and strategic mobilization of animals and plants, and can be thus considered as a form of agency that mobilizes actors beyond the human.

Figure 2 (left) Mondia whitei. Photographer Bart Wursten, Wikimedia, license CC BY-SA 3.0; Figure 3 (right) Mopane worm on mopane tree. Photographer JackyR, Wikimedia, licensed CC BY 2.5.

For people like the “Zande beater,” hunting, fishing, and gathering could contribute to their community’s self-sufficiency, by avoiding the sole reliance on imported foodstuffs and on wages to sustain themselves. As such, these practices offered alternatives to formal markets as sources of food. Furthermore, chasing animals efficiently, plucking the right plants, or preparing and consuming foraged spoils requires training and experience. In Central Africa, the dissemination of such environmental and technical knowledge took place outside of the networks of colonial education, in vernacular structures such as initiation societies. These skills were passed on to specific categories of individuals – for instance, young men on the brink of adulthood – often in ritualized fashions, like circumcision ceremonies (mukanda). Continuous ‘foraging’ practices therefore contributed to sustain customary usages in a culturally hostile climate.

Finally, ‘foraging’ also entailed the collection and consumption of substances deemed as immoral or unpalatable by colonial actors. The dried root of Mondia whitei (kimbiolongo) (Figure 2) was and still is a widely sought-after aphrodisiac, even if it flouts the rules of propriety championed by colonial actors and Christian churches. Similarly, the mopane worm (Gonimbrasia belina) (Figure 3) might seem unappealing for many Western stomachs, but remains a crucial source of proteins for the inhabitants of tropical Africa. In a nutshell, foraging in its many guises supported the existence of ecological relationships that remained elusive to colonial control and capitalist co-optation. As such, ‘foraging’ constituted a crucial form of agency that allowed many inhabitants of Central Africa to ‘work’ an oppressive system ‘to their minimum disadvantage’.6

If we consider foraging as a form of agency, we have to take into account that
such performances of human freedom rest by essence
on the involvement of non-humans.

‘Agency’ is a widely-used and often contested concept in human and social sciences.7 At its very core, agency supposes a form of ‘freedom’, of ‘autonomy’, the possibility for (human) agents to act in meaningful ways to achieve their own goals, in spite of and often against the will of the powers that be. However, if we consider foraging as a form of agency, we have to take into account that such performances of human freedom rest by essence on the involvement of non-humans. The beater cannot take part in the hunt without the help and support of his dogs, with which he must have built a deep, interspecies bond. The head of his weapons might have been coated in poisonous substances extracted from local succulents immortalized by the same ethnographic mission (Figure 4). Furthermore, the dependence of human communities on edible caterpillars is supported by the latter’s reliance on healthy mopane trees, fostering therefore an ecological entanglement involving both plants and animal species. If agency entails human autonomy, foraging-as-agency is by essence a beyond the human, collective endeavor involving other life forms.

Succulents used for poison arrows
Figure 4. “Plantes dont le suc sert à empoisonner les flèches – Mamvu (Dongo) “, photograph taken by Armand Hutereau, Uele, Belgian Congo, 1912 (Africamuseum, Tervuren, Photographic collections, inv. nr. AP.0.0.11768). Used with permission of The AfricaMuseum in Tervuren.

The history of foraging in colonial Central Africa is still in its infancy, even if archival, visual and ethnographic material are available to document it. The time is ripe for us to delve into this fascinating field, and to shed light on how colonialism was challenged and shaped by a vast range of (more-than) human beings.

This research has been funded by the European Union (ERC, FORAGENCY, project number 101075882). Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.


1 Millar, K. (2018) Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump, Durham: Duke University Press.

2 Saxer, M. (2013) Manufacturing Tibetan medicine: The Creation of an Industry and the Moral Economy of Tibetanness, London: Berghahn Book.

3 Tsing, A.L.(2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

4 Tsing, Op. Cit.

5 See the ERC-funded project Foraging at the Edge of Capitalism:

6 To paraphrase Eric Hobsbawm, “Peasants and politics”, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 1.1 (1973): 13.

7 See among others: Mustafa Emirbayer, and Ann Mische. “What is Agency?”, American Journal of Sociology 103.4 (1998): 962-1023; Walter Johnson, “On Agency”, Journal of Social History 37.1 (2003): 113-124; Lynn Thomas, “Historicising Agency”, Gender & History 28.2 (2016): 324-339.

Note: The content of this series should not be taken as advice for edible or medicinal uses of specific species. We do not advise consuming the species discussed. Incorrect identification of species and incorrect preparations can be toxic and sometimes deadly. Foraging should be done only with adequate education, instruction, and caution. If you are interested in foraging it is highly advised for safety (and to gain experience) that you should take a course with an expert if you would like to learn more.

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Benoît Henriet is associate professor of history at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). He specializes in the history from below, and in the microhistories of (post)colonial Central Africa. Since October 2023, he is also the principal investigator of FORAGENCY: Foraging, Colonialism and More-than-Human Agency in Central Africa (ERC Starting Grant project number 101075882).

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