Pendulum of power

From Anarchy In Action

The pendulum of power, in African foraging cultures, is an alternation of men's and women's rituals that has the effect of ensuring gender equality. The rituals often involve gender-bending components. The pendulum of power was theorized by Morna Finnegan and expanded upon by Camilla Power and other members of the Radical Anthropology Group.

Alternating rituals include the elima and molima among the Mbuti, the maitoko and epeme among the Hadza, and Ngoku and Ejengi among the Bayaka.


Rituals theatrically reinforce gender egalitarianism. One game begins with women playing against men in a tug-of-war match. When one side starts to win, someone from the winning team runs and joins the other side. In the end, neither side wins and people have changed their gender multiple times.[1] In another ritual called the honey bee dance, men try to steal honey from women who guard it with torches and hot coals. After the women invariably succeed in protecting the honey, an elder woman concludes the game by presenting a leaf of honey to the men. This ritual reminds the community that although men provide most of the honey (as well as meat), they can never turn it into a form of economic control since the women control foods' distribution.[2]

The men's molimo and women's elima rituals produce a pendulum of power, balancing against the power of the other and ensuring overall egalitarianism.[3]


Social egalitarianism is maintained through through a monthly epeme dance. Two to three nights a month, when the moon isn't visible, all members of the Hadza camp participate in the epeme ritual. One one side of a barrier (sometimes made of bushes, and sometimes a hut wall), women sing and gather with children. On the other side, men dance for the well-being of their families. Anthropologists Bwire Kaare and James Woodburn argue that the epeme ritual may be interpreted as a recurring ceremonial reconciliation of men and women, and indeed all Hadza."[4]

Girls and boys have complementary coming-of-age initiations. The girls' initiation, called maitoko, is led entirely by women and girls, with no direction or involvement from men. After their first menstruation, a group of girls are circumcised early in the morning by a woman and dressed in lavish bead decorations. For three days, the girls then playfully chase the boys with whipping sticks. Anthropologist Camilla Power writes, that the women's solidarity and endurance of this ritual has the effect of "commanding respect" from the men.[5] However, Kaare and Woodburn reported in 1999, "There are at present some indications that Hadza women may, on their own initiative, soon decide to give up circumcision."[6]

The male initiation ceremony, called the maito, was reported by Woodburn in 1964 to occur after his first emission. According to Marlowe, however, the maito ceremony occurred after a young man killed his first large animal, usually at the age of 20 to 25. Some camps allow teenagers to join, although Marlowe notes one instance of a 15 year-old who, despite killing a large kudu, was deemed too young for initiation. A young man who does not kill a large animal, and therefore epeme hunter, may still marry and have the equal rights in the rest of society but cannot eat the epeme meat. Once he reaches an age around 30 to 35, he is accepted as an epeme man whether or not he has killed a large animal.[7]


Bayaka women and men preserve gender egalitarianism through alternating rituals. The men's ritual dance is called the ejengi, and the women's is called ngoku. During the women's ngoku ritual, the women sing songs playfully taunting the men. One song says, "The penis gives birth to nothing, only urine!" Another says, "We the Yaka! We the Yaka! Twice the intelligence [of men]!" Such songs place a check on the men's ability to dominate. The men believe that the women's song and dance draws in forest spirits and please the forest itself.[8]

A courtship dance, called the elande, involves a line of men and a line of women, each line making polyphonic noises. A girl goes over to the men's line and strikes a boy. With him in pursuit, she runs back to the women's line. The boy then strikes one of the girls, and she chases him as he runs back to the men's line. The ritual culminates in communal laughter.[9]

  1. Gelderloos, Anarchy Works.
  2. Morna Finnegan, "The Politics of Eros: ritual dialogue and egalitarianism in three Central African hunter-gatherer societies," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19: 697-715.
  3. Camilla Power, "Reconstructing a Source Cosmology of African Hunter-gatherers" in Human Origins: Contributions from Social Anthropology edited by Camilla Power, Morna Finnegan, and Hilary Callan (New York: Berghahn, 2017), 191.
  4. Kaare and Woodburn, "The Hadza of Tanzania," 390.
  5. Power, "Hadza gender rituals."
  6. Kaare and Woodburn, "The Hadza of Tanzania," 394.
  7. Marlowe, The Hadza, 57.
  8. Morna Finnegan, "The Politics of Eros: ritual dialogue and egalitarianism in three Central African hunter-gatherer societies," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19 (2013): 697-715.
  9. Finnegan, "The Politics of Eros."