Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman | Study Guide

Marjorie Shostak

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Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman | Chapter 1 : Earliest Memories | Summary



The author details the lives of infants, who "spend the first few years in almost constant close contact with their mothers" and often nurse for three years or longer. Both fathers and mothers nurture and love their children, though women spend much more time giving childcare. Many children are weaned from nursing when their mothers become pregnant again, and this sudden cessation of the nursing bond can be very difficult for the child, who may throw tantrums. Once the new baby is born, the older child also must cede her place sleeping next to her mother in favor of the baby, which can cause further resentment in the newborn. Soon, the older child also has to give up being carried by the mother in a sling and "is expected to walk on her own" from then on. It's a difficult time for the whole family, but relief may come through help from "a devoted grandparent or aunt (who will be sure to spoil her)," who may even foster the child for a time. Tensions also ease as the child becomes more interested in "the boisterous play of other children" and as she learns to enjoy being an older sibling. !Kung parents may be lenient in discipline and tolerant toward a child's tantrums because "parents believe children to be utterly irresponsible." They assume children will grow up to be productive tribe members "simply as a result of maturation, social pressure, and the desire to conform to group values." Even so, physical punishment does occur, usually behind closed doors.

Nisa tells of her life between the ages of three and six (estimated), when her mother Chuko becomes pregnant with her younger brother Kumsa. Nisa is forced to stop nursing, though she is not ready to give it up. "I was always crying," she says. "I wanted to nurse!" Her mother and older brother Dau both intercede with Gau, her father, who threatens to beat Nisa for her incessant crying. Gau even leaves Nisa in the bush once as a punishment for her tears. She streaks back to the village in terror, where she is meekly quiet for a while, but her crying soon erupts again. Gau tries to placate Nisa by killing small game just for her to eat, and she eats it and is happy. At last she gives up her pleas to nurse, telling her mother, "I don't want it anymore! ... I'll never have anything to do with your breasts again."

Soon thereafter, her mother gives birth in the bush; young Nisa witnesses the event and welcomes the baby, Kumsa, with "Ho, ho, my baby brother! Ho, ho, I have a little brother!" Unexpectedly, her mother announces she will bury the infant "so you can nurse again. You're much too thin." She orders the crying Nisa to run back to the village for her digging stick, and Nisa reluctantly goes. Once there, her aunt Koka (Chuko's younger sister) hears the story and accompanies her back to the birth site, where she scolds the woman: "You must have no sense, wanting to kill such a nice big baby." When they go back to the village, the father Gau agrees, asking why she wanted to kill the infant, and ending with, "If you had, I would have killed you."

Nisa still wants to nurse, though, and when her mother falls asleep while feeding Kumsa, Nisa removes the infant from her breast and helps herself instead. Chuko is furious when she awakens and urges Gau to beat Nisa, who tries to lie her way out of the situation. Gau threatens to give her a severe beating if it happens again, so Nisa turns to stealing food instead. More than once when Chuko gathers klaru, an edible bulb, Nisa sneaks them out of the storage pouch and eats them all. She lies about this, too, and her brother Dau intercedes on her behalf with Chuko, saying, "Don't punish her today. You've already hit her too many times, just leave her alone." Chuko beats the girl with a branch anyway, and a fed-up Nisa declares she will go and live with her grandmother. She does so for some months and refuses to return to her parents when they send for her because she is so tired of being beaten. Eventually, the grandmother returns the child and reprimands the family, "All of you are lazy ... because all of you have killed this child with hunger." She denounces the beatings and points out how small Nisa still is—it must be because she hasn't been fed enough. Nisa remains with her parents, and after that, "I ate everything they gave me, and I wasn't yelled at anymore." At times, Nisa also lives with her aunt, but in the end, she concludes "People failed at bringing me up. I was too difficult for them."


Nisa's sorrows as a very young girl are painful to read. She struggles with the abrupt break from nursing at a time when, it seems, she herself may not be receiving enough nourishment from her family. It's hard to know how much of the story is fact and how much has been exaggerated from childhood memories—and from the adult Nisa's penchant for spinning tales that may be a bit over the top. Given the grandmother's reprimand of her parents, it seems likely Nisa was indeed small for her age, and may not have been receiving enough food to meet her needs as a growing child.

The ways her various family members respond to her crying reveals something of their personalities. Shostak points out in the introduction physical violence is frowned upon among the !Kung, but despite this apparent cultural standard, both of her parents threaten harm or actually hit her. This represents the disjunction between the perception of cultural standards by individuals within a society in contrast to the actual experiences of an individual in !Kung society. While the !Kung believe themselves to be relatively peaceful, practically, they can be violent. Indeed, work by other anthropologists have shown compared to other San groups, the !Kung are relatively violent.

In contrast to her parents, Nisa's older brother Dau defends and protects her, a stance he takes many times throughout her life as the story continues. His personality seems to be compassionate and protective, and the fact he goes on to become a healer supports this. Nisa's grandmother takes her in even though she hardly has enough for herself, so she must be caring and generous, and her lecturing of Chuko and Gau show she has some authority in the family, too.

Shostak initially doubts Nisa's story her mother wanted to bury newborn Kumsa, as the author states in the introduction. She doubts a child of that age could remember the incident in such detail and speculates Nisa is only retelling what she has heard from others, rather than speaking from her own memories. She also muses perhaps Chuko was using reverse psychology on Nisa, threatening the baby in order to make Nisa want to protect and care for him. In any case Shostak makes clear infanticide is actually quite rare among the !Kung (Chapter 2), a fact supported by the work of other anthropologists as well, and it is probable baby Kumsa was never in any real danger.

Whatever the literal truth of the story, it seems clear Nisa remembers her childhood as traumatic at times. She seems to have been beaten frequently—often enough to want to run away to her grandmother's care—and may have been chronically underfed as well. This turbulent childhood no doubt contributes to Nisa's brash personality later in life, which at times can be obstinate, passionate, and despairing. She lives life on an emotional roller coaster, and that seems to be the norm for many !Kung.

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