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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 5 : Trial Marriages | Summary



Girls usually marry around age 16, while boys do so between 20 and 30. The ages generally reflect entrance into adulthood, which comes with menstruation for girls and for boys after they've proven themselves as effective hunters. Some girls marry earlier, but it is expected sexual intercourse will be delayed until after her first menstruation. "Trial marriages" are common, and a girl "may enter several of them before she starts having children, usually with one life-long partner." Parents or relatives often arrange these early marriages, however there are often few suitable candidates to choose from due to low population, taboos against marrying cousins, and other factors. Many girls resist these marriages, but are often "pressured into accepting it." Parents are often motivated to marry off their young daughters to gain "bride service," or the help of the new groom in securing meat for the family. Both families may compete to have the bride and groom live with them in order to secure this help and to be near their children and any forthcoming grandchildren. A girl can, however, "insist on ending the marriage" if she cannot feel affection for her husband.

Trial marriages are stressful for the couple, especially if there is a great age difference. The couple may be strangers, and the man is more likely to be sexually mature and eager to have intercourse. Because there are few marriageable young girls available, they are "at a premium." Thus, men wanting to marry a young bride are more willing to tolerate the girl's "indifference or even rejection" at first, showing cooperation and patience as they get to know each other. After a simple wedding the couple spends their nights in a marriage hut, sometimes attended by a female relative to help the girl feel more at ease. The !Kung usually marry multiple times but have one lifelong partner, and divorce is common and "usually initiated by the woman." Divorce is simple economically, as there are few possessions to argue over, and the whole village may participate in the debate on whether the couple should separate. Virginity is not prized, so the divorced girl is not stigmatized, and both partners are likely to remarry within a year. Wives "do not give up their friendships with other women when they marry," and often maintain deep, lifelong ties to their friends. Co-wives may also achieve this level of friendship and intimacy over time.

As a "young girl with no breasts," Nisa's parents talk about finding her a husband to continue "to grow up next to," but she doesn't want to marry. "Nonsense," says her mother Chuko, and her father Gau practically points out Nisa will need a husband to give her food and clothing when he and her mother die. Despite her continued refusals, eventually, her parents arrange a marriage for her with Bo, her first husband (Nisa has five husbands in total during her life). They send an older married woman, Nukha, to stay with the couple temporarily in their marriage hut until they are "living nicely together and getting along." Nukha, though, has "within her clever deceit" and has sex with Bo herself after Nisa falls asleep untouched. Nisa awakens as they bump into her, and the confused girl thinks, "How come he belongs to her yet Mommy and Daddy said I should marry him?" The next day, Nisa confronts Nukha and cries and cries, but the scenario repeats itself the next night, and Nisa retreats to her mother's hut. Nisa confesses all to her mother, who proclaims "You are going to leave that man, that's the only thing I will agree to now," and her father agrees because "Bo has deceived me."

That evening, Chuko, "drinking anger," yells and curses at Nukha, and Nisa's father jumps in, too, shushing his wife with "No ... I am a man and I will do the talking now." He lectures Nukha that "when I ... give a man to my daughter, then he is only for my daughter," and he tells her to take Bo, because Bo is now hers. Nukha's husband confronts her, too, but she says Nisa is lying. The next day, Nisa's family moves away to a new water hole. A long time later, Bo, his family, and Nukha follow them there, but Gau again refuses to return Nisa to Bo, saying, "An adult woman does not make love to the man who marries Nisa."

Nisa marries her second husband Tsaa, whom she initially likes, when her "breasts were just beginning to develop." Her family travels to his village for the wedding, and the parents, who are relatives, are delighted with the match. Nisa isn't ready for sex, though, and she refuses Tsaa. "By then," she says, "my heart had changed and I no longer liked him." Tsaa then refuses to give meat to Nisa or her father, who says it's no big deal Tsaa didn't give any to Nisa, "but I, I am her father, and me you don't refuse." He orders Tsaa to leave, and Tsaa agrees to go because, although he has provided her with beads and meat many times, "the way she is with me defeats me." The family members give back all the gifts they've exchanged with each other, and he departs for his older brother's home. Tsaa bends the truth to make himself look guiltless to his own family, so they all travel back to Nisa's village, but Gau stands by his decision and says, "Today, this marriage is dead."

Sometime later, Nisa begins an affair with Kantla, for "his heart went out to me and mine went out to him." She won't marry him, though, because he is already married to Bey, and Nisa doesn't want to be a second wife. Even Bey, who likes Nisa, urges her to accept, and persuades the girl to stay with them for a while. Nisa runs away through the forest to her parents' hut during the night, though, and then the same thing happens the next night. Kantla then asks her father to "take care of her for me ... and give her to me as my wife another day." Kantla and Bey leave for a few months and then return to inquire after Nisa, but she remains steadfast in her refusal. "Then I was by myself again," she concludes.


The !Kung views on marriage are certainly different from marriage in the West, where getting married is a legal affair and laws exist to prevent child marriage. The arranged marriages of the !Kung are similar to arranged marriages in other cultures: the parents choose the spouse for practical reasons. Love matches do happen among the !Kung, though, as Shostak states an older girl "may decide for herself whom she wants to marry." Polygamy, though far less common than monogamous marriage, is also accepted by the !Kung, unlike in most of the Western world.

The idea an older husband will "help bring up" his young bride until she is sexually mature may verge on the edge of pedophilia for some readers, but within the context of the culture, the practice is not only accepted but encouraged. Since !Kung parents don't live as long as their Western counterparts, they want to ensure their daughters are cared for by a man who can provide for her reliably. Concerning Tsaa, her mother Chuko says, "After he marries her we will see whether or not he takes care of her well," which shows the !Kung indeed view these marriages as trial runs. Nisa's first two marriages end quickly and without much argument from either side. The attitude seems to be, if the couple gets along well, great; if not, they'll simply move on. Nisa also plays an active role in sloughing off her unwanted mates. She doesn't hesitate to report Bo's infidelity to her parents, nor to say no to Tsaa's unwanted sexual attention. She makes her opinion known clearly and frequently reminds everyone she is "only a child," which shows nascent strength of personality for a girl of her age.

The actions of Nisa's first husbands show the grooms, too, have some growing up to do and may not be ready for marriage, either. Bo openly has sex with Nukha right beside Nisa and doesn't even try to hide his affair (the !Kung usually try to be discreet with their lovers). Chuko scolds him for it, saying, "Don't you know her husband should be trying to help bring her up?" Bo fails the test by putting his sexual desires ahead of his wife's well-being, and for that he is given the boot. Tsaa seems to try to be a good husband initially, but after Nisa refuses his advances, his response isn't terribly mature. He withholds meat from Nisa and her father as a punishment, even though he has an ample supply, and later lies to his family to cover his lowly deed.

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