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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 14 : Further Losses | Summary



The !Kung are wary of dangerous wild animals in the bush, though few tribe members are killed by such beasts. A greater danger is "violence among people," and most people know of someone who has died from such violence. For this reason "open conflict ... is actively guarded against," with tension being released through conversation, cathartic trance, and their nomadic lifestyle. If a conflict becomes too severe, people can simply move away to a new location and "create distance" from the problem. People in "joking" relationships may tease or insult one another directly in order to air criticisms. In contrast, people in "respect" relationships use indirect means to express their displeasure with each other. An older woman, for example, might "talk loudly to herself" about her grievances while others are within earshot, or she "might sing her criticisms for all to hear."

Sometimes, though, these situations escalate to "a direct verbal attack," which can lead to threats or physical fights. Others usually intervene right away in such cases, and the combatants may make up quickly and "be found sitting and laughing together later in the day." Both women and men get into fights nearly equally, and the entire community may get sucked into the drama, taking sides and arguing among themselves. Weapons sometimes enter into fights, although the !Kung have "no weapons designed exclusively for use during violent confrontations." If a poison arrow happens to strike a person, they have "less than a fifty-fifty chance of survival." Men are the more likely to fight with or be killed by weapons during altercations, and such killings may be avenged by further killing. "Marriages might be arranged between the two feuding families" to bring the conflict to an end. Those who have killed another person often move away, or they may be sent to prison; in the past some were put to death. Homicides became a thing of the past when "Tswana law was established in the area," and no murders have been reported since 1955.

Nisa opens this interview with the harsh fact that, as a mother "to a number of children, you know one of them will probably die." She relates the death of her firstborn, who died quite young, and the deaths of her children Nai and Kxau, who were "old enough to do things and help me."

Nisa recalls the time she and Nai stayed up late by the fire together while on a trip through the bush. "We talked and talked, so long that the moon set before we lay down," she says. At that time Nisa had just fought with her husband Besa, so she took Nai with her to travel to her brother's village. Besa follows them with a burning log to make fire and asks to accompany them to keep them safe, but Nisa turns him away. Nisa and Nai continue onward and arrive at Dau's village, who is shocked they've traveled alone through the bush. He scolds that "an animal or even little things could have killed you ... in the bush." While living there, Nai marries and moves away to her husband's village, where she has her first period. After that, her husband "started to bother her for sex," though she refuses. One night he tries to "take her by force," and he pushes her down so hard her neck breaks. The news is carried to Nisa, who rushes to bring her back to Dau's village to be cured, but "there was no cure." He bluntly advises Nisa to "start crying for her," since she will surely die—and she does within a few days.

Nisa fantasizes about killing Nai's husband or his older sister in revenge, and when the two appear to pay their respects, Nisa attacks the sister. "I grabbed her throat; I wanted to break it," she says. Others pull Nisa off the woman, and Nai's husband admits Nisa is "justified" in seeking vengeance. "I was the one who brought ruin to her," he says. Nisa thrashes him repeatedly with her digging stick, then orders them to take her daughter's body away and bury it. She later seeks justice from the Tswana headman, who proposes Nai's husband pay restitution of five goats for the girl's death. Nisa cries and begs the headman to send him to prison, but in the end, the goats are all she gets. The headman "didn't even beat him," says Nisa. "He left him so he could just walk away." Despite this, she gives two of the goats to the headman.

Nisa also reminisces how her handsome son Kxau, a novice hunter, killed his first and only gemsbok before he died, and how he had shared the meat with Nisa and Nai. Kxau outlives Nai, but not by long. A sickness develops in his chest, "just as it had his father's" (Tashay), after Kxau eats honey from a honey badger's partially eaten beehive. "That's when God speared his chest with a spiritual arrow," says Nisa, because "God said he ruined the honey" and "should have left it for the badger to eat." His illness lingers for months, and all curing ceremonies fail, until at last he dies. Nisa is distraught, crying, "Why is it not even one child remains with me now? ... How have I wronged God?" Her emotional pain is extreme, and she mourns "until the tears themselves almost killed me. I cried until I was sick." Dau tries to cure her and orders her to stop mourning, which she agrees to. "I was exhausted ... and I had no strength left," she laments. Sometime after that, her brother Kumsa and his wife give Nisa their young daughter, Nukha, to raise as her own. "Taking care of her has made me very happy," she says.

Nisa then philosophizes about life, death, and God. "This God ... his ways are foul!" she says, stating God refuses to help her and instead destroys everything. She complains of the unfairness of life and compares the pain a person feels at the death of a parent, spouse, or child. Their deaths are equally painful, but nothing is as painful as "when they all die and you have no family left ... you are completely alone."


Shostak does not explicitly define "joking" and "respect" relationships. However, it is clear in "joking" relationships, insults, bawdy jokes, and seemingly rude comments are permissible. Such relationships likely happen with close family members of the same rank or status, such as siblings or cousins. By contrast "respect" relationships seem more formal, with each person on their best behavior. This type of relationship may exist between a man and his mother-in-law, for example. Among the !Kung joking is often used to convey a person's disapproval or to drop hints on a topic. This could be viewed by some as passive-aggressive, but in a way, that's what is wanted: a method of bringing up the topic without a direct confrontation. As Shostak states, the !Kung try to avoid conflict and fights, and this type of joking seems to bring about the desired result (resolution of the problem) with less drama than otherwise. When conflicts do erupt into fights, the !Kung don't seem to hold grudges unless there has been some serious transgression. Shostak notes people who fight may be seen talking and laughing later that same day, all animosity forgotten.

Nisa's mourning for her children is doubly sharp. Not only does she miss her children, but their loss also puts her personal security in jeopardy. Nai helped do chores, gather food, and kept Nisa company, while Kxau was on the verge of becoming a competent hunter when he died. With their loss and the death of her parents, Nisa has no more immediate family to fall back on in times of need. Shostak notes in the epilogue Nisa had experienced far more tragedy in her life than the other women Shostak interviewed, which no doubt causes her bleak outlook. The reader can hardly blame her for being angry with God nor for feeling life is unfair. It is hard to imagine sustaining such personal losses and not losing one's mind from grief. Despite her anger at God, though, she never seems to doubt his existence, and elsewhere in the book, she gives God credit for some of life's blessings (such as affairs). It seems in her mind, God simply is, and there is little a person can do but accept his will. Nisa may insult God or speak despairingly of his ways, but she never goes so far as to disown him.

This chapter offers an example of healers working with psychological issues (as mentioned in Chapter 13) when Dau attempts to "cure" Nisa during her extreme mourning. Her grief has caused her to fall into sickness through constant crying; this could very well be depression. Dau trances and lays hands on her just as he would for any other ailment then orders her to stop mourning. Medical science probably would not support either action as curative, and yet Nisa recovers after the healing. Dau's command she stop mourning may have helped her move beyond her grief psychologically; it was "doctor's orders," and she obeyed.

The incident of Nai's death is brutal—sexually assaulted and then killed by her husband, whom Nisa never calls by name. The Western justice system might rule the death manslaughter since he did not mean to kill her, but in any case such a perpetrator would likely face a significant jail sentence. !Kung justice fails Nai, however; her killer is neither whipped nor imprisoned; the headman basically lets him "just walk away." While the cost of five goats may have been a good sum of money (this is unknown), no amount of monetary restitution could make up for the loss of Nai's life. Nisa is justifiably bitter with the outcome, but even so she gives two of the goats to the headman. This may be a customary payment for his service or a gesture of respect for his office, but her reasoning for the gift is not revealed.

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