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 12 : Taking Lovers | Summary



The !Kung often refer to sex as "food" and consider it just as important to survival, saying that "hunger for sex can cause people to die." The !Kung talk about sex constantly, making jests or telling juicy details of their "sexual exploits" to each other. Jokes, obscene gestures, and outrageous sexual insults are reserved for those in "joking" relationships, while such talk is avoided with those in "respect" relationships. Couples have affairs even when they love one another, and these affairs are "often long-term, from a few months to a few years." They may even be lifelong. Sex, though, can be "outright dangerous" when it comes to extramarital affairs. Such affairs may lead to violence or even death, so those who have illicit lovers "are extremely careful and discreet." Trysts are arranged carefully to avoid witnesses. Marriages rarely end due to affairs, but it does happen sometimes, for instance if the woman becomes pregnant by her lover.

Lovers take care to "maintain some emotional restraint," knowing "one's spouse must always come first." The spouse is always "the important one," offering warmth and security, while the lover is "the one from the bush" and brings passion and excitement. Many !Kung like to have both, if they can get away with it. Some !Kung, though, avoid affairs from fear of discovery or venereal disease. Beyond the sex itself, the thrill of these secret encounters adds spice to !Kung life. One man describes affairs as having an intensity marriage lacks once the initial infatuation between newlyweds wears off. Lovers exchange gifts and show affection and attention to each other, and men are expected to be good in bed. "He should be concerned about the woman's pleasure," have a small to medium penis, and have enough stamina to get the job done satisfactorily. It is considered quite important the woman "finishes her work," or reaches orgasm.

Most !Kung have a good deal of self-confidence which contributes to their attractiveness to lovers. This confidence often develops because, particularly for young girls, there simply isn't much competition around due to low population. Girls may be "the center of attention for a number of years," and they often develop a non-egotistical appreciation for their bodies and the way they look. The !Kung don't put people on a pedestal for physical beauty, so the women are not constantly comparing themselves to some unattainable "ideal." Most !Kung consider themselves attractive unless they are ill, very thin, or very old. Shostak goes on to state marriage "is achieved by all !Kung women without exception."

"Having affairs is one of the things God gave us," Nisa explains, and she proceeds to tell about the many lovers she has had. "Me, I'm a bad one," she says, but excuses herself with, "when you are a woman, you don't just sit still and do nothing—you have lovers." Her lovers enhance her life not only sexually but by gifting her with a variety of food, meat, beads, pubic aprons, and even money. A woman "should have lovers wherever she goes" and also while her husband is away from home so she is well taken care of. "It is as though her genitals were worth money—Pounds! Rands! Shillings (laughs)!" The woman will also have exciting stories to tell her friends.

Nisa claims her leg or thighs tremble as a warning when her husband is about to return home. She shows loyalty to her husband, even when she is cheating on him. Her duties to him come first, and she won't meet her lovers until her work for her husband is finished. She may sneak off to the bush, though, to "gather firewood" and meet her lover, or she may meet him at night after her husband is asleep. When a lover goes away and returns, the pair express how much they missed each other.

She tells how her mother had lovers. Nisa sometimes witnessed this but never told on her because she feared her father might kill Chuko. Once, though, she does tell, when Chuko makes love with her sister's husband Toma. Gau beats his wife, and Nisa fears, "Mommy's going to die. I did a bad thing, telling; I'll never do that again." And she doesn't. Gau threatens to kill both Chuko and Toma, Nisa's brothers fight with Toma, and Kumsa hits Chuko and threatens to kill her if she doesn't leave her lover. In the end "Toma took my mother and they left ... Toma tricked my mother away from my father." Nisa and Kumsa cry and cry, while Gau and Toma's wife argue with them to return to their marriages. Chuko returns but then later goes back with Toma, so Gau gives her up completely and says he'll find himself a younger wife. He takes Nisa, Kumsa, and Dau away, while Toma and Chuko stay in the East. Gau remarries, but Chuko's sister does not, and she dies alone, having refused to be co-wife with Chuko. Toma "didn't even go to see where she was buried," Nisa states. Toma then dies and Chuko tries to come back to Gau, but he refuses to lie with her again. "Did you think you were the only woman?" he demands. Chuko does stay nearby though, with his blessing, to be near their children.

Sometimes Nisa's lovers create problems for her, such as the man who tells his wife about their affair. The wife repeatedly yells at her, until Nisa admits the affair baldly. "Now what are you going to do to me? I'd like to see. Probably nothing," she taunts the woman. Later, they have a fistfight, and Nisa knocks her down and threatens to kill her. The woman's friends pull her away, and the elders put a stop to their constant fighting. Soon, the woman and her husband move away, and the affair ends. Nisa then relates how women and men gossip about their lovers, from genital size to stamina. Lovers aren't always satisfying to each other because sometimes their bodies don't match up: his penis or her vagina may be too large or small for the other. Nisa prefers lovers who don't have too much semen, which "spills ... over everything" and ruins her clothes. "A man with a small penis is the best kind," she advises. Impotence can also be a problem with lovers, and they usually don't see each other again if this happens. Sometimes the men drink "medicine" to regain their vigor, but "there are no medicines to make women want men" because her desire comes only from her heart. Both sexes may use aphrodisiac lotions to attract lovers. It's also important for both partners to orgasm, and women complain when their husbands or lovers finish too early. "If a woman doesn't finish her work," Nisa says, "sickness can enter her back." Masturbation is uncommon, and oral sex is not practiced. Nisa concludes the vagina "can bring a man life, even if he is almost dead," and men would die without women.


Nisa's views on affairs are at times contradictory. She views lovers as a gift from God, yet says "Me, I'm a bad one" for having affairs. The benefits affairs bring to her are undeniable, however, from pleasure to material gain. She even laughingly describes her body as a commodity, like "money—Pounds! Rands! Shillings!" She exchanges sex for gain and views this as a natural and advisable thing to do. Nisa's views on the ideal lover are quite frank, and she doesn't hesitate to discuss penis size, ejaculation and semen, and a man's stamina openly. Her preference for a small penis seems to contradict modern Western preferences.

The affairs in Nisa's life are certainly messy and seem to cross boundaries many Western readers would consider taboo. She has previously carried on an affair with her late husband Tashay's brother, Twi, while her mother has an affair with her sister's husband, Toma. That affair is particularly explosive and causes the end of Chuko's marriage, a circumstance which Shostak claims is unusual among the !Kung. Like mother, like daughter: Nisa's and Chuko's affairs cause a great deal of domestic strife, yet neither changes her behavior to avoid these troubles. Nisa seems to have learned her behavior partly from watching her mother's actions as a girl, when Chuko would take her along while she met her lovers in the bush.

Although both Shostak and Nisa state the spouse must come first, Chuko and Toma do not follow this dictate. Chuko leaves her children behind to join Toma, and Toma seems to drop his first wife completely. His reaction to her death seems heartlessly apathetic; he doesn't even return to pay his respects when she dies. Chuko's feelings about her sister's death are not mentioned, nor does Nisa say how this death affected her personally. Nisa, on the other hand, does put her spouse first during her affairs, refusing to meet her lovers until after her work for her husband is done.

Sexual equality is another theme of the chapter, with both men and women having lovers and gossiping about their conquests with friends. This, too, seems to be a contradiction in the culture, as Shostak has emphasized lovers try to be "discrete." There is nothing discreet about bragging to friends about a lover, yet it is commonly enjoyed practice. It is rather amazing more affairs are not found out, but this is likely because people choose not to tell what they know. Nisa herself keeps quiet about her mother's dalliances after her father threatens to kill Chuko, though this does not prevent their marriage from ending. Women's orgasm is considered just as important as a man's, and lack of orgasm is one of the major complaints from women. Sex is "food," and the !Kung believe without it, men and women may fall ill or even die.

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