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 9 : Motherhood and Loss | Summary



Although the !Kung have an adequate, nutritious diet and plenty of exercise, their overall health level is "not good." Infectious and parasitic diseases are the leading cause of death, which strikes a large portion of infants, children, and even adults in the prime of life. The !Kung believe after death a person's spirit rejoins the ancestors in the heavens, where many other "spirits and gods" also live. These include the "Great God," Earth's benevolent creator, and the "Lesser God ... who brings mostly misfortune and death." These spirits and gods are believed to cause human illness and death, though humans "can occasionally influence the spirits" to let someone live. It is the !Kung healers who walk the world between humans and spirits, interceding for the ill during medicine ceremonies. No matter how skilled a healer is, however, sometimes the spirits refuse to relinquish their victims.

!Kung families are close-knit and spend much of their time together, so when a family member dies, "a major adjustment is required for everyone remaining." A death can cause the breakup of social networks (for instance, if the deceased married into the family). The family also loses the contributions made by the lost loved one, whether that be food, healing skills, the wisdom of old age, or simply cherished companionship. Intense mourning is observed but does not last long. Widowed spouses often remarry, bereaved mothers have new babies, and so on. Although death is an ever-present feature of !Kung life, "the death of an important person in one's life is anything but commonplace," and the remaining family members feel each loss keenly. The dead can be called on by family, however, to help the living when trouble strikes, such as during illnesses. In one incident a trance healer confirms to a mother her pleas to her deceased father have cured her baby: "The other ancestral spirits wanted to take the child, but ... your father ... prevented them from taking the baby." In another story a man's deceased brother visits him in spirit and tells him to learn the nearly forgotten "gemsbok medicine song," and he will be cured. The man did so and lived, and he went on to become a powerful healer.

Nisa complains of the pain of childbirth, which never eases no matter how many times it happens. She relates the births of her children, beginning with her firstborn, Little Chuko, "who was the first of my children to die." She next becomes pregnant with Nai and gives birth alone in the bush beneath the hot sun while she is gathering roots. Nisa then becomes pregnant by Tashay, but when he leaves for a time, she takes Twi again as a lover. When Tashay returns, he doesn't believe the baby is his, so he threatens to kill her if he finds her with a lover. Nisa counters, "Don't you think I know about you and your older brother's wife?" She praises her own lack of interference in his affairs, saying, "I just left the two of you alone." Still, she is afraid of Tashay, so she decides to try to induce a miscarriage by "cooking my food at other people's fires." The ploy apparently works, as soon "my stomach rose up in pain" and she loses the baby. "This is what you have to do," she explains, when a man talks like Tashay has. She also blames herself, though, because "my insides refused a different man from the baby's father. That also ruined the pregnancy."

Next, she becomes pregnant with a little girl, Bau, who dies from a sickness of the chest before she learns to walk. Finally, she gives birth alone to Kxau in the rain near a Tswana village where they are living. "I have always refused to give birth with anyone there," she says, explaining they only cause more pain by trying to help. Shortly after Kxau's birth, Tashay dies from a chest illness that kills him in a matter of days. She lies next to the body in mourning and thinks, "Why did God trick me and take my husband? God is stingy!" After Tashay is buried in a termite mound, Nisa worries who will help her get food and raise her children. Determined to help her tiny baby and daughter, she gathers their food herself, crying and angry her husband has been taken away. She decides to return to her mother's village, not only to be near family, but to avoid Tashay's relatives, who invite her to live with them but then accuse her of killing Tashay so she can be with Kantla, her old lover. Nisa is able to heal in her mother's village, where "I opened my heart until finally, I was able to stop mourning." Her mother and brothers help provide food for the children, and Nisa remains there for some time.


Nisa relates the difficulties of birth and the tragedy of her losses in a straightforward manner with surprisingly little bitterness in hindsight. The high rates of mortality among !Kung infants and children make such losses a fact of life, as Shostak points out, though they don't lessen the pain. Of the five pregnancies Nisa relates, one ends in miscarriage and two of the children die by toddlerhood. Nisa believes cooking at other people's fires can induce a miscarriage, and her affair with Twi contributed to the loss because her body refused to accommodate a man who was not the baby's father. These beliefs on miscarriages seem to have no basis in medical science, and it's likely Nisa miscarried for some other unknown reason.

Nisa's attitude toward affairs is perfectly egalitarian—what's good for the goose is good for the gander. She knows Tashay has been carrying on an affair with his brother's wife, yet she has left them in peace. Tashay obviously doesn't feel the same detachment, as he threatens violence against Nisa for having lovers. There may be a double standard here, in which husbands are "allowed" to have affairs while wives are expected not to do so. In any case it seems affairs, like the deaths of children, are simply a fact of life among the !Kung.

Tashay's death is an unexpected shock and happens when Nisa is still relatively young, in her early 30s. "I am already a widow," she mourns, calling God "stingy" for taking away her husband at such an age while "other women's husbands haven't died." Vainly she asks, "Why my husband?" and if she has any bitterness at all, it seems to be directed at God, who takes capriciously and without warning. This God is likely the "Lesser God" mentioned by Shostak, "who brings mostly misfortune and death." While Nisa blames God (the typical culprit in !Kung belief, according to Shostak) for Tashay's death, his family blames Nisa. She wisely decides not to live with them but to return to her own people instead—avoiding outsider status among non-blood relatives and seeking refuge with blood kin. Only there can she heal her heart in safety, not fearing attack from those who are supposed to support her.

All of the deaths related in the chapter seem to be infectious or respiratory ailments of some type, which Shostak cites as a major cause of death among the !Kung in contrast to other San groups. In addition, Tashay's death causes a major change shift in Nisa's life, just as Shostak indicates. Nisa's current family group breaks up as she leaves the village where Tashay dies and returns to her mother's village. Tashay's loss also means the loss of food and security for her children, so she must turn to her birth family to provide these. This scenario illustrates how the !Kung social system creates a safety net to avert starvation and suffering.

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