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 6 : Marriage | Summary



During important ritual events such as marriage or initiation, the !Kung experience a state called kua, which may express itself as silence, respect, awe, or even fear. Kua may be especially experienced by young girls marrying older men who are strangers to them. Because of such circumstances, a girl's "first experience of adult sex is ... often traumatic." Unhappy brides are likely to express their displeasure freely and may even threaten to kill themselves or run away into the bush to show "the strength of her feelings."

Another ritual in which kua happens is when a girl first menstruates, around age 16. She sits silently, covered, until the other women come find her, dress her and anoint her with oil, and bring her to a special hut for the ceremony. Women dance and sing outside as she sits inside, alone and quiet, until her menses finish. Men are not allowed to see the girl during this time, as it may bring bad luck to their hunting. For married girls menstruation usually means sexual intercourse will soon follow—she will be expected to comply with her husband's wishes—and she may have her first child by age 18 to 20. After this she is considered a true adult. The early years of marriage may be quite happy for a girl, as she enjoys new status and privileges and perhaps even falls in love with her husband. Since many !Kung girls have "adolescent infertility," birth often doesn't happen for a few years after marriage.

At a distant water hole Nisa meets handsome Tashay, who wants to marry her the first time he sees her. Nisa is reluctant, still feeling too young to marry, and her parents tell Tashay's parents of her tendency to dump her grooms: "When she marries a man, she just drops him." Nonetheless, the marriage is arranged, and Nisa agrees to it. The marriage hut is built, but Nisa gets cold feet and runs away into the bush, where she is chased down and brought back to the village. Nisa cries but spends the night in the hut, where Tashay guards the door so she can't run away again. In the morning she escapes to her mother's hut, but her brother forces her to go back to the marriage hut so Tashay's relatives can anoint her with oil, as is the custom at marriage.

Nisa runs away many times early in the marriage, sleeping in the bush one night. Her father reprimands her for putting herself in danger from wild animals, but she responds she will go if she wants to because she doesn't wish to be married. "Everything that I am at the moment refuses" a husband, she says, then threatening, "I will take a poison arrow and kill myself." Her brother scolds her, "You're insulting your very self ... you are alive to play and to be happy," not to kill herself. He points out all her friends are married and brings her back to the village, where Nisa cooks food for Tashay and eats with him. Soon, Tashay takes Nisa to his parents' village, and she runs away to be with her mother. Tashay comes for her after a while, and she goes back with him, finally leaving her family behind.

Eventually, Nisa consents to have sex with her husband, whom she has grown to like somewhat. Intercourse is painful for her, and she refuses the next night. He says if she refuses the next night, "I'll pry your legs open and take you by force," and that is exactly what he does. Then he leaves her alone for a few months, and Nisa starts to like him more. She finally understands what marriage is, as everyone around her explains a husband has sex with his wife—it is the way of life. Meanwhile, her breasts have developed more, and she finally gets her period one day on an excursion in the bush with Tashay and his brother Twi. She covers herself and sits in silence "because whatever a young girl was supposed to do, that's what I did." Twi finds her and goes back to fetch the women, who dress her and rub oil on her skin and then take her back to the village to a special hut for a few days until her menstruation finishes. Tashay then takes Nisa to visit her mother, who is upset she missed the celebration. Nisa's second menstruation happens again at Tashay's village, so her mother misses that celebration, too. Sex with Tashay becomes the norm, and Nisa finally feels like she is married. "We lived on and I loved him and he loved me," she says. "I was becoming a woman."


Nisa's personality is a strong one, and even as a child she acts and speaks boldly. She has no fear of running away or sleeping in the bush on her own and defiantly tells her father she'll run away whenever she wants to. On the other hand, Nisa can be cowed into obeying, and when her male relatives threaten to hit her, she does as they bid her. It seems likely Nisa is experiencing kua, that state of fearful awe tribe members are expected to exhibit during life transitions such as marriage and menstruation. Nisa's initial rejection of marriage is viewed by the others as childishness that will pass as she grows up more. Throughout the book Shostak notes the mental strength of !Kung women in general, thus the reader may view Nisa as an example of a typical !Kung woman. Her personality doesn't seem to be necessarily stronger or more outspoken than that of other !Kung women.

Nisa's childhood at last comes to an end, though, as she grows to accept her marriage and the separation from her childhood family. She accepts rather than rejects the traditions of her culture, settling into marriage with Tashay, and even learns to love him and enjoy marriage. As with many girls in her culture, Nisa's first adult sexual experience is unpleasant, leaving her in pain the next day, which makes her reluctant to have sex again. Tashay then forces himself on her, an act that is tolerated because to the !Kung, a husband is simply "taking what is his" since his wife has now reached sexual maturity. While Tashay callously exercises his rights as a husband, though, he doesn't seem entirely unkind to Nisa. After asserting his dominance he then leaves her alone for many months, a time during which Nisa can get used to him and to married life. He also takes her to visit her mother, whom she perpetually misses.

Chuko missing her daughter's menstruation celebrations, which are held for a girl's first two menses, foreshadows much of what Nisa's adult life will be like. She is usually away from her birth family when important events happen, and often living in places where she has few close friends. Even when she gives birth to her first child, she is alone, with no close females to attend her. Nisa seems unusually unlucky in this regard, being separated from her childhood support system at the times she needs them most. However, such incidents likely served to make her stronger and more self-reliant than ever.

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