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 3 : Life in the Bush | Summary



Rainfall varies dramatically in the !Kung region, from five to 40 inches per year, and "severe drought" happens every four years on average. Food sources and hunting are not always reliable, and even skilled hunters are successful in only one of four hunts. The !Kung habit of "actively avoiding hazardous situations" means hunters don't engage in unnecessarily risky behavior.

Boys start practicing hunting techniques at a young age, including learning about hundreds of plants and animals; their first hunts are as observers. A young boy showing fear during a hunt is nothing to be embarrassed about; it is seen as perfectly natural. Boys often have their first large kill between ages 15 and 18, after which they are eligible to marry. Meat is passed out "according to well-established rules of precedence" that assure everyone receives some. Hunters are modest about their kills, as no one wants to incite "envy or anger in others." By the end of a hunter's active career (usually in his 60s), he will have killed up to 120 large animals and hundreds of smaller ones. He then contributes to village life by continuing to trap small animals and forage for food.

Nisa's father, "a good hunter," sets traps and hunts for meat to feed his family. Sometimes he or Chuko finds honey, a special treat for the !Kung. Nisa complains about stingy neighbors who "aren't giving-people," and she measures their love for her family by how much meat they offer to share. Such people are sometimes shamed publicly for being stingy, but despite these misers, "there were always enough people around who shared."

Many hunting expeditions take place, and the arrival of meat in the village always thrills Nisa, who is excited to eat meat. Nisa's father tracks animals he has shot with poison arrows, and hunting parties with dogs go after larger game. After a successful hunt of a large eland, Nisa and her family go with Gau to the site of the kill, where they live for some time while the meat is processed. On the way back to the village, Nisa cries because she has to walk instead of being carried. Her much older brother Dau also hunts, sometimes taking Nisa along, and at other times, Nisa stays in the village and sets traps with her mother. She even sets traps for her father, "I, all by myself."

One day, Nisa finds a dead wildebeest in the bush, and she fetches her father and brother to bring it back to the village. Once there, they give the meat away generously to others, despite Nisa's protests. "I was the one who saw it!" she cries, not wanting to give the meat away. She follows the people and takes the meat back, saying, "This wildebeest is mine. I'm going to ... eat it all." Her parents later return the meat to their neighbors. Nisa also finds other game in the bush, such as a baby steenbok, which she kills herself by crushing its head, and a kudu, which she chases and kills.

Many other incidents happen to Nisa in the bush. One time, she gets sick after eating a baby antbear (aardvark), and her father cures her through a medicine trance. Twice, she accidentally breaks "ostrich eggshell water containers," and her father hits her, so after that she refuses to carry them. During a third trek in which her family finds honey, they are overcome by intense heat. "We were all dying of thirst," says Nisa, so she goes with Dau to fetch water at a nearby well. She tires of running alongside him and starts to cry, so he carries both her and the heavy, water-filled eggshells back to the family. They move along to another water hole, where they live for a time. "My heart was happy," says Nisa, "eating honey and just living." During another time of drought there is nothing to drink but the juice of the kwa root, and its bitter taste makes Nisa cry. The rainy season finally comes, and food and water become plentiful again, including roots, meat, and caterpillars, which Nisa gorges on. Another time, a snapping turtle bites her finger, and the children do a trance dance to draw out the pain. Her father also uses "medicinal trance" to drive away lions one night: "His spirit flew to the spirit world, to talk to the gods," and the lions retreated. Nisa then reflects on her childhood and realizes "that my heart was usually happy," though as a child she "wasn't aware enough" to know her own emotional state.


This chapter highlights the importance to the !Kung of hunting and sharing meat, as well as how the people are affected by the harsh climate of the bush. It also reveals more about how Nisa's perspective changes as she ages.

As a young child Nisa selfishly wants to keep the meat her family hunts and not give any away. It seems clearer now Nisa does generally have enough to eat ("there were always enough people around who shared"), so it's likely her stinginess is simply the self-centeredness of a child. Young Nisa complains some neighbors are not "giving-people," yet she herself doesn't want to share the animals she kills. The adult Nisa narrating the tale, however, has changed somewhat in attitude toward stinginess. She withholds food only from those who don't reciprocate and looks down on those who don't share: "People like that are very bad," she states.

During times of enough rainfall Nisa's family travels independently from water hole to water hole, unlike during times of meager rain, when many families come together to live at permanent water sources. It is during these travels some of the incidents described in the chapter happen to Nisa. The hardships her family faces are at times life-threatening, particularly when it comes to water, and although Nisa seems willing to help, she is still not quite old enough to be of much use. She breaks the prized ostrich eggshells more than once, and is more of a burden than a help to Dau when they go to fetch water. In truth Nisa's motivation for accompanying him is mostly self-motivated, for as she says, "If I stay here, I'll surely die of thirst." At such times, she is still quite childlike in her actions and motivations, while at other times, she shows the beginning of adult skills and sensibilities, such as when she kills animals and proudly brings them home for her family. Her independence and sense of self are beginning to grow, as the reader may note from the pride she shows at setting traps—"I, all by myself"—for her father. She needs less help now and can make small contributions to her family, but she is still a small child who sometimes cries and wants to be carried by the adults.

Nisa's reflections on happiness are notable. Though most of her stories are about the bad or exciting things that happen to or around her, she also regularly mentions times during which her "heart was happy." She feels her childhood overall was a happy one, and in a case of hindsight, reflects she had little emotional awareness as a girl. This likely relates to the !Kung notion that "children have no sense," a commonly held belief within the tribe.

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