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 11 : Women and Men | Summary

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Summary

Women in most societies "have a lower status than men," Shostak notes, though !Kung women "are something of an anomaly." !Kung men and women are generally more equal, though men "do seem to have the upper hand." Women are responsible for most of the child-rearing, though !Kung fathers do participate more in this activity than in many other societies. Domestic abuse of wives or children is curbed due to lack of privacy in !Kung villages, where "other people are always there and ready to intervene." There is almost no segregation of the sexes, except during the six-week period of Choma, "the male initiation ceremony." Menstruating or pregnant women are not isolated from others (except during a girl's first and second menstrual cycles), unlike in some other cultures. As a whole, women are not excluded "from the highly valued social, political, or economic life of the community."

Women gain more influence as their children age; they help to choose their children's spouses, an important decision that cements social bonds and affects the family's economic life. Sons and daughters are valued equally in this regard, as both can bring gains to the family. While !Kung parents often arrange their young daughters' marriages, the girl has the power to divorce an unsuitable husband. This is "a marked contrast to other cultures where girls have no choice but to comply" with her parents or husband. !Kung women are the "primary economic providers," and are respected by all for their contributions. They make their own schedules, rather than obeying a husband's dictates, and may even gather alone, though they usually prefer to do so in groups for safety. One difference is men may often be absent from the village overnight (for hunting expeditions), while women are usually not. Most women gather food three days a week, which provides plenty of food for the family as well as time for leisure. Women decide how to distribute the food they gather, too. In addition, women participate in gift-giving exchange (hxaro) equally with men and can "own" and inherit land in the same fashion as men.

Despite all this, men gain more prestige for their contribution of meat, which is "highly valued." It is also men who equip women with the tools and clothing they need, from baby slings to digging sticks. Women do bring some meat to the table, including small mammals, lizards, birds' eggs, and insects, and it is not unheard of for a woman to hunt—though it is considered "eccentric" behavior. Men dominate spiritual life: most healers are male, and most of the informal leaders of a group are male by default. More men become spokespeople for the tribe "as contact with other cultures increases." !Kung women seem to accept this male dominance without rancor. Competition and boastfulness are discouraged, a practice that promotes equality between all people. In addition, the practice of sharing food and possessions serves as an economic equalizer. Shostak concludes by asserting !Kung women "maintain a status that is higher than ... women in many agricultural and industrial societies."

Nisa goes with Besa to live in Old Debe's Tswana village in the East, and while she is there, her father dies. They journey back to her village to mourn him then return East again. Then her mother falls ill, so they return again to the village. Chuko dies during an expedition in the bush, and Nisa returns to the village to break the news to her brothers, Dau and Kumsa. The family mourns together for a time, then Nisa and Besa visit his family, where she becomes ill herself. "Blood started to come out of my mouth," she says, and her brother Dau does a medicine trance for her, "healing me with his touch." When Nisa recovers, she and Besa move back East, but "we no longer were getting along." Besa has lost interest in his wife, but they continue to live together. Meanwhile, Nisa is working for a European woman, but Besa steals the money she has earned "and went to drink beer." Nisa turns for help to her employer, and the woman barges in on the men and demands the money back from Besa, who complies. Nisa then becomes pregnant by Besa, who leaves her, refusing to return her to her people. She asks to go with him so they can raise the child together, but he refuses. Nisa makes it clear if he leaves, he should never expect her to take him back: "I will refuse you and will no longer be your wife." He leaves anyway, taking all of their possessions (which Nisa has bought with the money she earned). "He left me with nothing," she laments. "The people in the village had to give me blankets to sleep with."

Nisa remains in the Tswana village and takes a lover, Numshay, expecting having intercourse with him will "ruin" the pregnancy. Nisa welcomes the prospect, saying, "I want to drop it, then I can leave. Because my husband certainly doesn't want it." She gives birth to a stillborn baby boy but continues living in the village. She takes a lover named Twi and they live together for a while, then the pair travels with Old Debe and his wife to Nisa's family. Besa also shows up there and tries to take Nisa back, but when she refuses, he brings the matter to the tribal headman. He asks them to give it some more time but makes clear for now, Nisa can remain with Twi rather than return to Besa. Twi and Besa fight, and her brother Dau also dislikes Twi, so Twi eventually leaves her. The headman then sides with Nisa, telling Besa too much time has passed in which Nisa has refused him.

Nisa falls in love with another man (unnamed) who then dies, before Bo enters her life. Besa is still hanging around, though, and harasses her about her new lover. When Besa catches the lovers together, he attacks them, trying to throw Nisa into the fire and threatening to kill her. She explodes, yelling at Besa it is his own boorish behavior that has driven her away—especially abandoning her while she was pregnant. Bo stands by Nisa and declares his intention to marry her, but Besa persists. Utterly frustrated, Nisa defiantly pulls off her clothes and stands naked, screaming, "There! There's my vagina! Look, Besa, look at me! This is what you want!" Humiliated, Besa declares he is "finished with her" but later he tries "one last time" to take her back. He calls on the headman to intervene again, but Nisa blasts him severely, saying, "when I look at you, all I want to do is throw up." All the headman can do is laugh; she has clearly defeated Besa by spelling out the horrible things he has done to her and continuing to refuse him. "Today your marriage to her is ended," the headman declares. "She can now marry Bo." Bo and Nisa do marry, and Besa also remarries soon, to a much younger woman who eventually causes him misery. Though he is finally out of her life, Nisa laments "he ruined me" because "after Besa, I never had any more children. He took that away from me."

Analysis

In her introductory remarks, Shostak offers information to support her thesis that !Kung women have very high status in their tribe and, in fact, may have higher status than women "in many agricultural and industrial societies." This may seem like a stretch to the modern reader, but is it? Nearly 50 years after the book's publication, Western women are still agitating over issues such as the glass ceiling (not being promoted to the highest ranks), income inequality (being paid less than men for the same work), and still having to do the majority of housework, even when married to husbands who support feminism. Among the !Kung, it is the women who have traditionally been the primary breadwinners, literally, bringing home up to 80 percent of the family's food. Shostak offers many other proofs that !Kung women maintain (nearly) equal status as men. Overall, it seems like !Kung men and women do trade off fairly equitably in their contributions to the family and community. Men make the tools to gather, while women (and men) do the gathering. Men do the hunting, while women (and men) cook the meat. Men help with childcare, and women sometimes bring meat to the table themselves. Couples pick up the slack for each other, as Nisa did by working for the European woman when Besa was out of work.

The !Kung's nomadic way of life is evident in this chapter, as is the intrusion of outside cultures such as the Tswana. Nisa and her husband migrate back and forth between bush life, visiting her family and his, and life in the Tswana settlement, where work for wages is available. While in the bush, they hunt and gather much as the tribe has for centuries. Nisa seems to thrive best in this atmosphere, especially when surrounded by her own family. She makes frequent mention of living among strangers as a negative circumstance, in particular when Besa abandons her among the Tswana when she is pregnant. Because !Kung women don't habitually travel alone, especially overnight, she is stuck there until Old Debe and his wife can take her back to her parents.

Nisa's love life is volatile as ever, with her taking on lovers regularly despite the risk of angering Besa. It is hard to fathom why she tolerates his dangerous abuse, but cultural factors may be at play that non-!Kung readers simply can't understand. Perhaps she stays with him out of fear (of being alone, or of inciting his anger if she were to leave). Perhaps she stays with him because despite their fights, he helps bring in food, income, and takes care of her children. Perhaps she wants to avoid the disapproval of her family if she should divorce him. Or perhaps she thinks one husband is as bad as the other, so why make a change? Maybe she even loves him. Though Nisa describes in vivid details the events that pass, she doesn't satisfactorily illuminate her motivation for staying with Besa.

Besa's character is revealed through his base actions, even beyond the physical abuse he metes out to Nisa. He steals her hard-earned money to drink beer and abandons her among strangers when she is pregnant with his child. He is quite bullheaded, too, refusing to take no for an answer. He continues to harass and threaten Nisa after she's made it crystal clear she won't take him back. His plan to force her to come back by calling in the headman backfires, though, when the headman takes Nisa's side. His ruling puts an end to the conflict, though he takes a frustratingly long time to issue the judgment. Nisa's character, too, solidifies during this stage of her life, as she is forced to stand up for herself unequivocally without backing down.

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