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 8 : First Birth | Summary



For !Kung girls to achieve the happy home life many of them aspire to, they must first get through "the often frightening events of pregnancy and childbirth." The !Kung believe conception only happens at the end of a woman's period, "when semen joins with the last of the menstrual blood." Beyond this misapprehension the !Kung have a good grasp on how sex leads to pregnancy, how menstruation shows pregnancy hasn't happened, and how long a pregnancy takes. (In other words a man long absent from his wife can figure out whether the child in her belly could possibly be his or not.)

!Kung women use the moon to track their cycles; if so many moons pass with no period, they can reasonably assume they are pregnant. Some women claim to know how to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, from "physical agents such as riding a horse or donkey" to "chemical agents" like herbs. Pregnant women are offered help in daily chores and responsibilities, but they often "maintain their normal work routines until the day they give birth." Pregnancy is just one more task women do and is not seen as something that requires special routines or restrictions. Mood swings can be extreme, and angry behavior is generally tolerated patiently.

Ideally, the !Kung want to have many children, since children are cherished for the way they "make life more enjoyable." However, mothers know the toll it takes on their bodies to have too many children or give birth too frequently. Most women give birth four or five times, and birth takes place with no midwives or medical facilities. Women have a "stoical attitude toward childbirth" in which the ideal is to give birth in solitude, with little or no assistance. This usually happens just outside the village in the bush, where the baby's cries can be heard. These cries alert other women to come help with the post-birth activities.

It is believed a difficult childbirth shows the mother's ambivalence "and may even be seen as a rejection of the child" by the mother. On the other hand, a mother who remains calm and in control during birth, sitting quietly without crying out, is viewed as the ideal. Such a woman proves she wants the baby, and she has faith in God to give her a safe birth and healthy baby. As one interviewee phrased it, "Those who fear, die and are buried. Those who don't fear, live." However, first-time mothers especially can be afraid of giving birth due to the pain and the chance of dying (which is actually relatively low), and they often have help.

The newborn is not fed on the mother's colostrum, so it may be several days before the baby eats (or the child may be nursed by another). The mother rests for a few days but then usually rejoins regular activities with little physical difficulty. The child is usually named after a close relative, and this naming promotes a special relationship between the two. A first-time mother is now considered an adult and receives extra attention from those around her. Her marriage is securer after giving birth, and caring for her children "is likely to be a central preoccupation for the rest of her life." Among !Kung 20 percent of infants die in the first year, and barely half live long enough to marry.

Nisa tells how most !Kung women have sex again about a month after birth, and how she watched her own mother give birth to her younger brother. Her mother warns her to be brave when she gives birth someday, or else "your insides may tear and you may die." Struggling or crying out too much may make the baby "try to push out through your anus. If this happens, you will die," Chuko says. Nisa then describes the process of birth and its attendant pain, and says "a woman is strong" for enduring birth, especially if she has twins: "That woman, her heart stands up." She tells of another woman who gives birth prematurely and dies, so the villagers convince the father to raise the baby with his lover. "They brought the child up and it grew and grew," Nisa says. "Then it died."

Nisa tells of her lovers Kantla, who "has sense," and Twi, who does not. Twi, Tashay's younger brother, is not discreet in his visits to Nisa, and Tashay often catches the two of them together talking (though he can't seem to catch them having sex). He confronts Nisa about their relationship, and she denies Twi is her lover, afraid Tashay may beat her or even kill her. Despite her fears, she continues the affair and eventually becomes pregnant by Twi while Tashay is away working in the East for the Tswanas. When he returns, she tries to hide her pregnancy, but Tashay can't be fooled after he feels the baby kick inside her stomach. He demands to know who the father is, but she lies, saying, "You, yourself, cut me from the moon. After you left, I stopped menstruating." Tashay remains unconvinced but accepts her word for the moment.

Nisa describes her first pregnancy, with its emotional ups and downs, as sometimes angry, sometimes hopeful, and other times miserable. She asks to go to her mother for the birth, but Tashay refuses. Instead, they go into the bush with a small party, just the two of them and Tashay's grandparents. For several days Nisa has pre-birth back pain, but she refuses to cry and doesn't tell anyone of her pain. When the time comes, she gives birth to a girl by herself in the bush, and "after she was born, I sat there; I didn't know what to do." Dazed, Nisa begins to grow cold, and then delivers the afterbirth. She leaves the baby in the bush, covered with skins, to go back to the village for coals to make a fire. "My judgment was gone," she says, "my senses had left me." Tashay sees the blood on her legs and angrily awakens his grandmother to go find the child, blaming her for not being there to help Nisa. They find the baby, and the older woman cuts the umbilical cord; then they all return to camp. The baby only feeds after Nisa's milk comes in, since she won't feed it with "the colostrum, the bad thing."

Nisa seems confused in the time afterward, calling the baby "my little sister" rather than "daughter" until Tashay corrects her. They go to visit Nisa's mother for a long while with "Little Chuko," who is beautiful and light skinned. Unfortunately, she doesn't look like Tashay, she looks like Twi, and the couple again argue over her paternity. They return to Tashay's family, where Tashay beats Nisa with a branch for not obeying his orders quickly enough—while she is wearing the newborn in a sling. The child begins to cry, and "that's when the sickness grabbed her, the sickness that eventually killed her." The baby stops nursing, and even the medicine men's "curing ceremony" can't help her. Nisa states, "She couldn't get better because God said her father had refused her." She blames Tashay for rejecting the baby, thus causing her death, and she rages at him, "You've just given me ruin. You destroy me every day. Now you have destroyed my child." Tashay denies this, saying he accepted the child and it was God who took her away. Nisa decides to remain with him; there is still enough love between them to go on with life. And "soon I became pregnant with another, with another little girl."


The !Kung exhibit some misunderstandings about pregnancy and birth. One is conception occurs with the mixing of semen and menstrual fluid, and another is the baby should not be nursed on colostrum. Modern medicine shows neither of these beliefs is accurate, as conception is not tied to menstrual blood and colostrum is considered a "superfood" for babies. Shostak was likely very familiar with the reproductive system and probably knew these beliefs were inaccurate. However, her role as an ethnographer would have prevented her from correcting or educating the !Kung about these topics. Ethnologists strive to observe and record information objectively, and they try not to interfere with, change, or influence the people they work with. In this regard Shostak (the ethnologist) abided by the strictures of her profession, though one might wonder if Shostak (the woman) was tempted to do otherwise. As a member of an adopted community, it is natural to care about the people and want to help them in whatever way possible. But as an ethnologist, Shostak's hands were tied; she could not ethically advise the !Kung on such matters. As for the !Kung belief a mother should not be afraid, struggle, or cry out during a birth, it is certainly possible a state of calmness may assist in the birthing process due to reduced stress, lower blood pressure, and so on.

Chuko's statement a baby might "push out through your anus" likely refers to the perineum tearing during childbirth, a common occurrence during first births. Such tears can indeed extend from the vagina to the anus, and they can also be life-threatening due to increased pain, bleeding, and risk of infection.

Nisa tells her husband Tashay, "You, yourself, cut me from the moon" when he questions the paternity of her baby. This phrase refers to the fact !Kung women track their menstrual cycles according to the moon. Nisa would have been aware of the phase of the moon during her menses, and when that phase happened again the following month, she would expect her period. As Shostak states, !Kung women generally feel confident they are pregnant after a few moons pass with no menstrual activity.

After giving birth, Nisa's dazed state of mind likely reflects her exhaustion from the pain of childbirth, as well as her lack of understanding or preparation for what happens after birth. Anyone in their right mind would not leave a newborn unattended in the bush to go off and fetch coals for a fire, and Nisa herself knows that "my judgement was gone." Even once she's recovered a bit, Nisa seems to be in denial of the situation when she calls the baby "my little sister" rather than "my daughter." Tashay gives her a reality check and insists she identify the baby correctly; this is one of the instances in which Tashay guides Nisa in growing up. He will not let her remain in the mental world of childhood and being a daughter herself but insists she switch her mental mode to one of being an adult and a mother. Tashay is, at times, harsh or unkind to Nisa. He refuses her the comfort of giving birth in her mother's village and instead drags her off into the bush where the only other woman around is his aged grandmother. He also beats Nisa with a branch while she is wearing the newborn, an act that appalls the people around them and which causes the baby to cry vigorously. Nisa is convinced this incident brings on the sickness that eventually kills her child; she likely believes Tashay wanted the child to die because he was not the father.

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