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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 15 : Growing Older | Summary



!Kung elders are respected and influential in the community because "old people know things," including the history and mythology of the tribe and the places food can be found during lean times. Many elders grow more potent in their spiritual abilities, especially women who may have gotten a late start due to childbearing. Elders may also wield some influence due to their "ownership" of prime land. When a !Kung person reaches "full adulthood," usually in their 40s or older, the suffix n!a is added to their name as a mark of respect. Other suffixes may be used as the person continues to grow older, including the joking suffix ≠da !ki, which means "so old as to be almost dead." The !Kung don't keep track of people's exact ages. Instead, they measure time by natural markers (the passing of seasons, the moon cycles) and by milestones in life (learning to walk or talk, puberty, giving birth). However, they are always "acutely aware of relative age" because this establishes social rank or status.

One clear sign of aging for women is the end of menstruation (usually in the late 40s), which may be painful for barren women but a relief to others. Menopause, "like menstruation itself," is seen "as a thing of no great importance," and women don't seem to experience the physical symptoms Western women often report. This may, again, be due to the !Kung diet and lifestyle. Or, it may be the women simply ignore any symptoms, adopting the same "stoical attitude that makes !Kung women aspire to give birth alone."

For most older !Kung their sex lives and their economic activities slow down. Elders may be able to forage only for themselves rather than the group, and former hunters often scale back their efforts to "setting bird and animal traps." Only about 20 percent of !Kung live beyond age 60, and most !Kung don't look forward to aging. More than half are dependent on others for help due to ailments like vision loss or mobility problems. On the other hand the !Kung do not suffer from conditions such as heart disease or high blood pressure that are common in Western societies, likely due to their diet. Because women usually marry older men, many more women than men become widowed as they age. These women may choose to remain independent, especially if they have children and grandchildren around to help, or they may remarry as a co-wife for "companionship and security." Old men or women with no remaining family "may become a burden on the group," while those who are surrounded by relatives may quite enjoy their old age.

Before Nisa enters into menopause, she becomes pregnant by her husband Bo, but she miscarries the child. During the interview she asks Shostak directly for help. "Maybe you could ... give me some medicine so I could conceive again," she suggests. However, she also admits she has been happy not to be pregnant in recent years, and anyway, "God refused to help me with children." She blames God for taking away her children, and now he's taken away her menstruation, too. Nisa then relates several dreams. In one she gives birth to a girl who dies, and in others she herself dies. She also dreams she falls out of a tree and Shostak comes to help her. "What use could this dream possibly have?" she questions. "God really likes to trick me." Nisa's sexual dreams of adultery embarrass her, and she blames God for making her dream about men other than her husband. Such dreams, though, indicate "that men find you attractive and want you," which makes her feel happy.

Nisa's libido has declined with age, and she states, "my heart hasn't been looking for men" as often. She feels "ugly" compared to her previous youthful beauty: "Now I am tired and thin and no longer attractive." Despite this, men still approach her for sex, but she refuses them. "That food has finished," she tells one man. "People have eaten and eaten and there's no more left." She still holds a fondness for some of her former lovers, though, like Debe and Kantla. She tells how Bo once caught her returning from a tryst with Debe, and he beat them both, knocking Nisa into a bush. Afraid of her husband, she ran away on a Tswana truck, but he chased it down and brought her back home. Debe then married another woman (as Nisa advised him to do), and Nisa decided to stop taking lovers after that. Even so, she is still tempted from time to time to meet with Debe again. "Maybe tomorrow night I will cheat," she daydreams, "just a little bit—a tiny spoonful!" Kantla also still comes to her on occasion when Bo is away, but she dislikes he has taken another lover and calls him "deceitful and bad." She is torn between enjoying her lovers and feeling pain because of them, and says, "I don't understand ... what my woman's heart is doing to me! Does it simply like men?"

Nisa still desires her husband, too, although he has mostly stopped asking for sex, partly because she is "too thin." His lack of interest wounds her and is an unfamiliar experience, since she has always been highly desired by her husbands and lovers. She cites his reluctance as one of the main reasons she has affairs. Bo claims to be sick as an excuse for his lack of interest. She grows frustrated, asking him, "Did we marry just to help each other with our daily chores?" She speculates they never had children together because Bo didn't sleep with her often enough. Nisa even advises him to have an affair with a younger woman, but he's not interested in that, either.

Bo and Nisa argue a lot, especially when she refuses to do work, and she counters he doesn't help with chores like other husbands do. He threatens to leave her and find a new wife, and she says, "Fine! Go! ... Do you think you're the only one who's a man?" They argue over insignificant things often, but sometimes their arguments are more serious and lead to physical fights. Bo manhandles Nisa, throwing or pushing her down, and she retaliates by biting him before others intervene and separate them. In spite of everything, they still love each other and don't hold grudges after fights.


As in other cultures, aging has its ups and downs for the !Kung. Old age can be a time of great happiness, surrounded by loving family who offer support and caretaking, or it can be a nightmare of dependency. As Shostak mentions, widows with no remaining family have few options and may agree to become a co-wife, accepting subservience to the first wife as a trade-off for some small measure of security.

Nisa has mixed feelings about the onset of menopause. A part of her mourns for her youth and beauty, such as when she asks Shostak for medicine to bring on her menses again so she can conceive. Yet, she doesn't really want to be pregnant anymore; her disappearing menses are merely a reminder of her fading youth, a time she is reluctant to leave behind. Her sex life reflects this confusion, too. Nisa still wants to be seen as desirable, and she boasts men still want her, but she's really not interested in having affairs anymore. Her high libido still influences her, though, even when her practical self wishes it wouldn't. For example, she dislikes Kantla taking a new lover, but she continues to want him anyway. After all this time she still doesn't understand "what my woman's heart is doing to me," a sentiment that may be universal to women worldwide struggling with menopause, love, and sex.

Nisa's relationship with Bo is complex and often frustrating. His lack of interest in having sex with her is a real role reversal in life for Nisa. When she was younger, it was she who refused to have sex with her husbands. Tashay once chided her, "Do you think I married you thinking I wouldn't make love to you?" when she refused him. The shoe is on the other foot now, though, with Nisa reprimanding Bo, "Did we marry just to help each other with our daily chores?" She uses his refusal as a justification for carrying on affairs, but Nisa has always had affairs, so this excuse really doesn't hold water. More perplexing is Nisa's recommendation Bo have an affair with a younger woman. Perhaps she is trying to jumpstart his libido again with a new sexual partner, or maybe she would simply feel less guilty about her own affairs if he was having an affair, too.

Nisa has not really discussed dreams much in previous chapters, but here she describes several ominous dreams she has had in recent times. The dreams seem to reflect past losses (her dead children) and fears. Her dreams of her own death and of injuries likely reveal she is feeling her mortality as she gets older. She also has sexual dreams, which she both relishes and feels embarrassed about. Her statement that "God really likes to trick me" through her dreams is consistent with her previous statements that God is against her in life.

Shostak appears in Nisa's dreams, too, as a rescuer, and later Nisa asks her for medicine to reverse her menopause. Nisa does seem to care about Shostak, yet she also appears to view her in an opportunistic way. This was true when Shostak first came to live there, as well; Nisa pestered Shostak until the author finally hired her for the project. Their relationship illustrates the dynamic between anthropologists or visiting Westerners in a developing country and the local people with whom they interact. While friendship can exist on a person-to-person basis, there is still often a subtext of commodification and a recognition that such Westerners are not really "one of us." Shostak alludes to this subtle differentiation earlier in the text when she expresses her disappointment that she did not become close friends with her interviewees.

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