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 13 : A Healing Ritual | Summary



The !Kung believe in humanlike gods, one greater god and several lesser gods and spirits, and they attribute human characteristics to them such as kindness, generosity, vindictiveness, and cruelty. Spirits may shoot humans "with invisible arrows carrying disease, death, or misfortunate," and these ills fall to both good and bad people equally. These arrows "must be removed to enable the sick person to recover," and it is the !Kung healers who carry out this practice. Both male and female healers possess n/um, a "powerful healing force" that builds during the trance dance of a medicinal curing ceremony. The healer dances to build power and then lays hands on those around the fire to cure them. Healers draw the sickness out of others and take these ills into their own bodies then scream to release the ills into the air. Such dances are festive, social occasions that bond the community together through shared work, flirting, joking, and temporary truces between those who are at odds with each other. The more people participate, the deeper the trance healers can achieve. Singing, rattling, and clapping adds to the vibe, and the most intense trance happens before dawn and lasts until day.

For serious cases the healer's soul may "leave their bodies and travel to the spirit world" to negotiate with the interfering spirits. A spirit may agree to return the sick person to health, or it may refuse, and the person will not be cured. Sometimes God's answer is, "I want this person to die and won't help you make him better." These spiritual sojourns are considered dangerous for the healer, as his body is in a state of "half-death." Other healers present at the trance circle keep him grounded to life by touching or massaging his body during the trance journey. Shostak proposes healers seem to understand "the role psychological factors may play in disease." In one example a healer connects a young woman's mourning for her father to her ill health. When the healer travels to the spirit world, he finds her dead father's spirit holding onto the young woman's, not wanting to let her go. The healer persuades the lonely spirit to release his daughter so she can live a full life, and "then she'll join you." The woman makes a full recovery thereafter.

N/um is available to everyone, and "nearly half of the men and a third of the women have it." Not all work to attain n/um, however, since the apprenticeship process is hard work and can be frightening. The trance state is also associated with "intense physical pain," and some are unable to bear this. Men usually receive n/um from an experienced healer, who transfers it through touch in a series of all-night trance dances. Shostak describes n/um as "an altered state of consciousness," while the !Kung see it as "a heightened spiritual reality." Receiving n/um may elicit wild behavior from the inexperienced beginner, who may "throw himself into the fire," flee into the night, or fall senseless into a heap. Such behaviors are considered normal, and those around will support the apprentice and keep him from danger. (This may happen for apprentice women healers, as well.) The more one practices with n/um, the more powerful they become, and so elder healers are generally the most potent.

During trance dances, women may be healers but often sing or clap, which is "essential to the dance" for raising n/um. There are also specific women's drum dances, in which a single male drums and mostly women participate. Girls may begin to learn about trance "as young as eight years old" when her mother gives her gwa, a "psychoactive root." Girls suspend their training during childbearing years, though, and often doesn't resume the practice until her children are grown (likely in her 40s). This puts them far behind their male counterparts, who may have been practicing uninterrupted for decades more. Despite this, many !Kung women reach "high levels of spiritual mastery" and become accomplished healers as they age.

Nisa calls n/um powerful but states that "trance medicine really hurts!" As the n/um rises, "it grabs your insides and takes your thoughts away ... Things become strange and start to change." Senses return in a rush once the healing work is finished, and the healer is aware again of what is happening around them. Nisa's father cured people with "gemsbok song trance medicine," one of many animal trance songs that have been "given by God" to the !Kung. "God controls everything," she says, including what and whether a hunter may kill. God "has a horse on which he puts people who are just learning to trance," and the person then rides to God, where God may speak to them. Some people heal using "drum-medicine songs," while others use "ceremony-dance songs," and the n/um is the same in each. Nisa's father could heal with both types of songs and taught his sons to do so, too. When he died, though, "he stole Kumsa's medicine from him," and now only Dau heals. Nisa's husband Bo does not have n/um because "he was afraid ... it would hurt too much." N/um is "tricky," she says and doesn't always work because sometimes it isn't God's will.

As a girl, her mother and aunt taught Nisa to trance using a mind-altering root which tasted so bad Nisa "threw some of it up." She practiced taking the drug several times, which would make her shake and cry until she "learned how to break out of my self and trance." Women would take care of her as she tranced, touching her, rubbing oil on her face, and watching to make sure she didn't fall. Nisa sometimes dug and prepared the root herself but refused to give it to those who hadn't properly learned to use it since they "might not handle it well." After a while, she no longer needed the root to enter into trance. Nisa plans to teach her niece to trance when the girl gets older.

Nisa learned "how to cure people to drum-medicine songs" from her uncle, who "struck me with spiritual medicine arrows; that's how everyone starts." As she has gotten older, though, curing has become more painful for her, and she herself gets sick after she heals another. For this reason she has begun to refuse to cure people, even though "I am a master at trancing ... I know how to trick God from wanting to kill someone." Then she says she has never actually spoken to God or seen where he lives; "I haven't made these trips." She notes women do less healing work because "they fear the pain of the medicine," which she finds strange. "Women don't fear childbirth, but they fear medicine!"


The concept of n/um finds similarities in other healing modalities from other cultures. N/um resembles the Japanese concept of reiki, a healing force delivered by touch through the hands of the practitioner. (The rei syllable means "soul" or "spirit," and the ki syllable means "vital energy.") Shostak describes how a !Kung novice receives n/um from an experienced healer, who passes the power through touch. This, too, is similar to the way in which novice reiki workers receive "attunements" from experienced reiki masters—by laying on of hands. N/um also seems similar to the Chinese qi (or chi), translated as "life force" or "energy flow," as used in tai chi and qi gong practices.

The trance dance techniques described reflect some of the classic aspects of traditional shamanic work, likely the earliest spiritual healing method practiced by humankind. In many shamanic traditions dance and rhythm are used to enter into trance state, during which the shamanic healer may journey to the spirit world and intercede with spirit on behalf of the ill. In some cultures the drum is considered to be the shaman's "horse," on which he journeys to meet the spirits. This echoes the !Kung notion God provides a horse for novice healers to ride as they learn to trance. Shamans may also lose awareness of the world around them as they work and may be supported by additional healers who focus on the healer's safety. Nisa describes this state of consciousness when she says she "learned how to break out of my self and trance." To "break out of the self" may be interpreted as releasing any fears regarding the trance process, as well as releasing attachment to the personal ego in order to ascend to a state above normal waking consciousness. Such releases open the healer to the spiritual state of trance, in which the healer's body becomes the conduit for divine healing—n/um, in the case of the !Kung.

A further parallel between the !Kung and other cultures is the use of psychoactive drugs to achieve trance state for spiritual or healing purposes. Mind-altering substances have been used for religious reasons for thousands of years, including peyote (Native Americans), psilocybin-laden mushrooms (Mayans, Aztecs), cannabis (Rastafari), datura (India), and ayahuasca (Amazon region). Nisa's introduction to and use of the gwa root is gradual and supervised, and she avoids sharing the substance with those who have not been trained in its use. Gwa is clearly regarded as a sacred substance and seems to be shared only with those who are deemed worthy or ready for the experience.

There are several instances of knowledge transmission from woman to woman in the chapter, as females mentor each other in spiritual matters. Nisa's mother teaches her the use of gwa, and Nisa plans to pass on the knowledge to her niece someday. During the women's drum dances women spread knowledge "by teaching women to trance, by transferring n/um, and by guiding others to lay on hands and cure." However, the passing on of knowledge is not strictly segregated by sex; Nisa's uncle teaches her "how to cure people to drum-medicine songs."

Some incidents remain puzzling as Nisa explains spiritual practices and perceptions. For example, why does she believe her father "stole" his son Kumsa's medicine when he died? And what about Nisa's claim that "I know how to trick God"? This seems to contradict her many earlier statements

God is in complete control and God has brought her misfortune or refused to help her (such as when her children died). She further admits she has never spoken with God herself nor traveled in the spirit realm to where he lives. Perhaps her statement is merely an unsupported boast, meant to impress Shostak.

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