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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 2 : Family Life | Summary



!Kung children may resent younger siblings who displace them from being the center of attention. Though fighting among children is frowned on, arguments often happen, and when they do, everyone around may get sucked into the drama. Fights rarely become physical, but it sometimes happens, and bystanders usually intervene. Children are usually born around four years apart, most likely because women's prolonged nursing acts as a form of natural birth control.

Menstruation is viewed as "a thing of no account," and is not believed to "affect women's psychological state." Since water is scarce, women can't always bathe as often as they would like during menstruation, and sometimes they can't hide their blood flow despite their best efforts. Sex is forbidden during menstruation, but since many !Kung believe conception happens only at the end of a period, this taboo is often overlooked.

Nisa learns to love her younger brother Kumsa as a baby, but as he grows older, they start to hit each other and fight "because that's how children play," she explains. Nisa doesn't want to share her father's attention or meat with Kumsa, and she objects to Kumsa being fed before herself. They fight constantly, and as Nisa says, "I hated him. And Kumsa? He hated me." On an expedition to dig klaru, their mother scolds them for falling behind her and threatens to leave them in the bush where they might be killed by animals. The children then argue over whose klaru bulb is biggest, and Kumsa eats his without sharing, so Nisa refuses to share hers with him later that day.

Time passes, and one day Nisa notices menstrual blood on her mother's leg. More than once, she asks her mother to clean it off. Chuko is angry when she points it out, threatening to hit her daughter. She lectures that someday Nisa will menstruate, too: "Don't you know that ... when you grow up, your genitals will also do that?" Nisa denies it, saying, "I'll never menstruate," but her mother insists it will happen. She also explains Nisa pointing out her menstrual blood is "an insult," and threatens to have her father beat her if she mentions it again.

Chuko soon becomes pregnant again, and Nisa prevents her brother Kumsa from nursing, carrying him away from their mother and hitting him. "Can't you see that Mommy's pregnant?" she scolds him.

Then her father Gau's relatives arrive for a visit, and the children squabble and fight. During one rough bout of "play," Nisa's cousin Bau nearly drowns young Kumsa, so Nisa retaliates by nearly drowning Bau's younger sister. Bau tattles to her mother Nisa was mean to her, which Nisa denies. Then Chuko gets involved in the fight and insults Gau's family. After Kumsa hits one of his cousins with an arrow, Gau blames Chuko for not watching him more closely, and he kicks Chuko in the stomach angrily. Blood pours out of her mouth and her vagina, but she doesn't miscarry. Chuko then wants to abort the baby so Kumsa can continue to nurse, but no one will help her do it. Gau threatens, "If you kill this child inside you, I will leave you. Aren't there other women to marry?" The pregnancy continues, and Chuko gives birth to a beautiful girl named Kxamshe, her last child, who dies from "a sickness like malaria" before she reaches puberty. Finally, Chuko reaches menopause, and her periods cease.


Generosity and sharing are important in !Kung culture, especially when it comes to food. Sharing ensures nobody starves, and it provides a more varied and nutritious diet to everyone involved. Nisa and Kumsa's refusal to share food with each other shows their youth and immaturity, with more than a tinge of sibling rivalry. They "stinge" each other in a culture where stinginess is heavily frowned on, and Nisa at least takes pleasure in denying her brother food. When Chuko becomes pregnant again, Nisa readily drags Kumsa away from nursing, likely taking satisfaction in doing so, since it was his birth that forced her to stop nursing.

Learning the rules and taboos of !Kung life is sometimes a challenge for Nisa, as shown in the incident of Chuko's menstrual blood. Nisa doesn't take the hint the first time she points it out, when her mother gets angry. Instead, she points it out again and asks her mother to clean it off. Chuko has to explain plainly it is taboo, or forbidden, to mention a woman's menstrual blood, and Nisa has broken that taboo. It may be Nisa is too young to understand the concept of taboos, or she might just be oblivious to social cues going on around her. Later in the book, when Nisa herself is an adult dealing with menstruation and birth and children, the narrative comes full circle, and the reader can see how Nisa's perspective has changed as she has grown up.

The children's overly rough "play" is troublesome, with two children nearly being drowned and Kumsa using an arrow to hit his cousin. The author claims few serious accidents happen during play and children are monitored for safety; however, this play is dangerous, and the reader must question how much oversight the children actually receive. Gau clearly blames Chuko for not keeping the kids out of trouble, and his shocking act of kicking his pregnant wife in the stomach hints at where the children have learned their violent ways.

Nisa describes the newborn baby's life and death in a very matter-of-fact way, and Kxamshe is not mentioned again in the remainder of the book. This underscores how common infant mortality was among the !Kung, as well as the !Kung custom of not dwelling on a person's death after the mourning period. Babies are born, and children die, and life goes on.

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