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 7 : Wives and Co-Wives | Summary



Marriage becomes more equal after the first few years, and strong women often become role models in their community. Even so, !Kung men "generally have the edge," and one proof of this is they may take more than one wife, known as co-wives. He gains many advantages from a second wife, including "a new sexual partner," the probability of more children, and more gathered food for the family. Sometimes he will marry the wife's younger sister or a deceased brother's widow. Many men are not interested in more than one wife, though, as "polygynous marriages are difficult to manage" and require more economic resources of the husband.

Most !Kung women don't want to be co-wives, especially as a second wife, who is subordinate in rank to the first wife. Co-wives are often envious of each other—it's perhaps hard not to be when "each woman's life with the husband is carried on in full view of the other." Co-wives may become quite close, though, and can bring benefits to each other, such as help with childcare and chores or in the event of an illness. One woman Shostak interviewed was happy when her husband married her sister, for if he hadn't, "she would have married someone else and I probably wouldn't see her very often." If a co-wife marriage is not going well, the senior wife can often force the second wife to leave.

Nisa opens by telling how a man has sex with both wives in the same room, first the older wife and then the younger one. "The women start to fight and bite each other," she says, and sometimes the fights may last until dawn. "A co-wife is truly a terrible thing!" in Nisa's opinion. She states her father had two wives "only once—for two nights," when Gau brought home Saglai without consulting Nisa's mother. Chuko was "drinking anger" and insulted the new wife with such viciousness the other woman slept outside the hut that night, afraid to be near her. Gau, too, feared his wife's anger, saying, "This is defeating me. Chuko keeps yelling at us and insulting us." Chuko claimed she could have accepted another wife in order to have more help around the house if it had been her own suggestion. "But you acted deceitfully and forced something on me," she lamented, which is why she was shaming him. Saglai left the next morning, and Gau refused to follow her back to her village to keep her safe in the bush. "She is an adult and she just left," he said, so she was no longer his problem.

Nisa also says her grandfather had three wives, a very unusual arrangement. The oldest wife would yell at him for sleeping with the third wife. He tried to be discreet by doing so after the first wife is asleep, but she caught him. He then told her how it was going to be: he would make love to them, and he would make love to her, too. "Are you the only one who has something for me?" he asked. "All women have it."

Nisa herself was a co-wife for less than a year with Tashay, before having children. Both wives were young girls, and "he married both of us and brought us up together." Nisa agreed so Tashay would stop pestering her about it, but she refused to even greet the new wife, Tiknay. Nisa also refused to sleep with Tashay while the second wife lived with them; "I said he would give me her dirtiness ... I didn't want any of that." The wives "fought a lot, especially at night," when Tashay and Tiknay disturbed Nisa with their lovemaking. Nisa tried to stab Tashay one morning after such a night, and she belittled Tiknay and ordered her out of their lives: "Get up and go back to your village!" Tiknay left, and after that, Nisa's marriage resumed as it was before.


Nisa expresses the feelings of most !Kung women in her strong dislike for co-wives. The advantages mostly fall to the husband, and if the women don't get along, life can be miserable indeed. Few Westerners could imagine having to endure their spouse making love to another person right before their own eyes.

Gau comes off looking rather bad in the incident with Saglai. He clearly doesn't consider his wife Chuko's wishes or feelings when he shows up with a new wife one day, as she points out in reprimanding him. If the second wife had been her idea (or even, perhaps, if he had simply talked it over with her), things may have turned out differently. It seems, though, Gau just wants to do whatever he wants, without considering the effects on others, particularly the two women. He also declines to escort Saglai safely back to her village, which seems a less-than-honorable act on his part. It is possible he just doesn't care much about her welfare or wants to escape any backlash from her family for returning her to them.

In Nisa's experience as a co-wife, sex is a big issue, for she refuses to sleep with Tashay while Tiknay is around. She claims she doesn't want the woman's "dirtiness," which is a reference to Tiknay's "vaginal wetness." She may be sincerely concerned about Tiknay being unclean, but more likely, she is punishing Tashay for bringing another woman into the marriage. Nisa doesn't want to follow up another woman in bed, so she simply avoids sex altogether. Only after Tiknay is gone does she change her stance.

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