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 10 : Change | Summary



Over time the Tswana and Herero peoples build permanent settlements in the Dobe area, which begin to encroach upon the land the !Kung use. These fixed villages bring some advantages, such as permanent food sources (crops and livestock) and labor opportunities. However, the livestock pollute !Kung water sources, scare off game, and strip the land of wild foods the !Kung depend on. The new settlers also bring diseases into the region, such as venereal diseases. The !Kung have to start "asking for handouts from their richer neighbors," and those who work in such villages are "essentially beggars or were in positions of servitude," which brings them little return other than food to get by on. Treated as "inferior" by these tribes on which they are now becoming dependent, some of the !Kung turn to drinking the village home brews for solace.

In 1948 the tribes entered into politics when the Tswana appointed "its first legal representative, Isak Utugile, as the regional headman." A well-respected leader, Utugile mediated problems among the three tribes, including marriage and divorce conflicts, and sometimes pronounced jail sentences for serious infractions. He served until 1973, and "promoted an atmosphere of fair treatment for the !Kung." By the 1960s most !Kung had moved to a settled village lifestyle, leaving behind their nomadic ways and adopting new daily chores: caring for animals, maintaining permanent dwellings, gardening, and so on. The !Kung women also began having more children, so more childcare was needed, cutting down on the amount of time women could gather food. Elderly !Kung became superfluous, their knowledge of bush lore and hunting no longer applicable to tasks like herding or digging wells. Their traditional "ownership" of land also came into question as government land boards began assigning lots to cattle owners who possessed "the sophistication to fill out complex legal forms."

Overall, however, the !Kung understand "adopting new ways is their best chance for survival," and they've begun working "within the country's legal system to secure rights to their traditional lands." They've learned new skills and taken up new occupations, such as making crafts for sale, to adapt to the new economic model. Even so, many !Kung women continue to gather food in the bush because "our hearts yearn for the taste of it." Their ceremonial dances have also been maintained, with the neighboring tribes often participating in the healing trance dances and women's drum dance. The !Kung are regarded by all as skilled healers, and this recognition "lends added dignity to !Kung spiritual accomplishments in the context of culture contact and change."

Recently widowed, Nisa receives a proposal from her female cousin to become a co-wife with her, but Nisa doesn't want to marry the woman's husband. She fears doing so would upset their current good relations and prefers finding a husband "who kills animals just for me" if she decides to marry again. Her mother Chuko agrees, citing the second wife's lower rank than the first wife, who may refuse to give her meat at any time.

Nisa then moves back to the Tswana village, where a new potential lover, Besa, tries to win her as a wife. She refuses to marry him but takes him as a lover. Kantla and his wife Bey still want to marry Nisa also, and though she loves Kantla, she doesn't really want to marry him, either, though she considers it. Kantla builds a hut for himself in her village, where he and Nisa live, with Besa close by until Kantla runs him off. Nisa also has an affair with Tsaa, during which Besa returns to the village and beats her badly for sleeping with other men. The headman stops him then advises Nisa to marry Besa to put an end to her current lifestyle. "I don't like that she isn't marrying again," the headman says, "that she just meets different lovers like this." Nisa's father Gau is enraged by the suggestion and threatens Besa with a spear. "Come with me and let me give you a husband," he orders Nisa (a woman in her early 30s); "what are you doing, deciding this for yourself?" Besa insists he will marry Nisa, for "his heart was very big toward me," but she doesn't love him nearly as much. Nisa returns with her parents to their village for a time, but eventually returns to the Tswana settlement and agrees to marry Besa, whom she has learned to love more. "Kantla had given up by then," she says, "and my parents finally agreed." Besa helps bring up Nai and Kxau, who calls him "Father" one day, though Nai remembers their father Tashay and scolds Kxau.

Besa and Nisa fight a lot, "usually about sex." His libido is far higher than hers, and she objects that "you'd screw a woman to death!" She thinks of leaving him but instead takes lovers, including Tsaa and Nanau. One day, Besa catches Nisa and Nanau red-handed after they've made love, and she admits their actions. The headman rules the lovers should be beaten, but Nisa refuses, saying, "No, I won't be hit ... Instead, do this: get a gun and shoot a bullet into me." Beating her will only "make my heart rise up in anger," she proclaims. So only Nanau is beaten that time. Nisa continues to see Nanau, so Besa thrashes her with a stick, yelling, "I'm going to beat the beauty out of you." The headman intervenes again as she cries from the pain. Nisa moves to her own hut and refuses to take anything from Besa. She resumes her affair with Tsaa, thinking, "I'm really stubborn! I've been beaten because of this, yet here I am still doing it." Eventually, she goes back to live with Besa. Tsaa leaves for the East, and Nisa begins an affair with Kashe, whom Besa chases with a knife after catching them together. Kashe disappears from Nisa's life after that, while Kantla reappears and takes Nisa to her mother's village then to his own village. Besa is afraid of Kantla and does oppose him, and Nisa only returns to her husband after Kantla's wife Bey returns to their home. During this time period Nisa also has an affair with Kantla's younger brother Dem; Kantla becomes jealous and they all fight. When Nisa and Besa argue over Dem, she threatens to leave him permanently and points out he, too, has a lover. "You even have a child by her," she says, "but I haven't said anything. I haven't been jealous." They fight more, and he stabs her in the leg with a knife. Despite everything, Nisa continues to live with him.


One of Shostak's driving interests in studying the !Kung has been that of women's lives. Earlier in the text she has emphasized !Kung women share a nearly equal status with men due to women's hefty food contributions. With the encroachment of outsiders, however, women's status may begin to slip away, Shostak warns. As women contribute less food (due to increased caretaking duties and other chores), and as !Kung men participate more in tribal politics, the "relatively high status" of women may begin to erode. Indeed, later studies on the !Kung San have recorded the decrease in women's status over time due to changing social, economic, and political activities among men. Shostak also notices the potential loss of influence previously held by !Kung elders, who have little to contribute when it comes to this new, more modern way of life. On the positive side, life is easier for elders in the settled villages, with less travel and more people around to look after them.

Rather than resist this transition to modernity, the !Kung adapt. Shostak writes, "It was easier to accommodate than to fight," and that is just what the !Kung do. They put their traditional skills to use in new ways, becoming trackers during hunts with the Tswana and Herero and making crafts to sell for money. Still, Shostak's fear for the !Kung's dying way of life comes through palpably as she lists the various ways the tribe is ill-prepared to deal with the modern world. Unanswered questions are raised, such as whether the !Kung will retain rights to their traditional lands, issues the !Kung are currently struggling with today, and whether the land and water can survive the damage inflicted by wandering herds of livestock. Shostak holds out some hope for the !Kung as they learn to navigate the legal system, though, and points to the respect they are given as healers as another hopeful factor for their integration into modern life.

Nisa's affairs are dizzying and in some ways, self-destructive. She acknowledges this and calls herself "stubborn" for continuing affairs when she has already been beaten for doing so. It is unclear whether her actions are compulsive or simply defiant. She clearly does not like to be dictated to by anyone, as shown by her repeated refusals to marry after Tashay's death. She wants to be on her own, in charge of herself and her children, and she stresses she is capable of gathering enough food for her family. Over time, though, members of her tribe—from Besa to the headman to her own father—wear her down by pestering her to marry. Though she claims her love for Besa has grown over time, her decision to marry him seems mostly aimed at getting everyone off her back. Her agreement to the marriage is half-hearted at best, and she may be purposefully deluding herself into believing she loves Besa more than she actually does. Her relationship with Kantla is even more puzzling: she clearly loves him deeply, and even gives serious thought to becoming his co-wife with Bey. It is never really stated why they grow apart nor why Kantla "had given up" on her; perhaps it may have to do with her taking his brother Dem as a lover. Since Nisa's storytelling style jumps around in time, it is hard to pin down the sequence of events and know what really happened.

Nisa has many complaints about Besa, the first of which is he wants too much sex. Strangely, she combats this problem by taking on more lovers! If she is worn out from sex, wouldn't additional lovers only make the problem worse? Perhaps Nisa finds lovers appealing because they have no established control over her. She can send them away or refuse them at any time, and they have no recourse because they are not married to her. It may also be a way of thumbing her nose at Besa, showing that he, too, cannot control her, no matter how violent he may become. His violence is indeed disturbing and seems severer than is generally tolerated in !Kung society. Twice, the headman must step between them to stop Besa from harming Nisa. Besa also attacks her with a knife, leaving a lifelong scar on her leg. Why does Nisa stay with him? She is a strong, independent-minded woman, yet she endures this treatment and goes back to Besa time and time again. This may be a cultural predisposition, or it may be a reaction unique to Nisa.

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