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 | Epilogue | Summary



Shostak opens with further information about the history of the !Kung San, who had historically warred with neighboring Bantu-speaking tribes before the arrival of the Dutch in South Africa in 1652. The Dutch decimated the San, killing around 200,000 individuals over the next two centuries. The San fared better in neighboring countries, and in 1981 there were about 40,000–55,000, half living in Botswana. When anthropologists arrived in 1963, many !Kung were still hunting and gathering, but by 1975 (when Shostak traveled back to Botswana), change was evident. The Dobe region was being overtaken by grazing herds, leaving water and food in shorter supply, and many !Kung had begun gardening, herding animals, or selling crafts to adapt to changing conditions. They "were now looking to the agricultural and herding people near them as a model for their future." Some !Kung men went to South Africa to work in the gold mines and returned with both money and "a new sophistication and awareness of the outside world." In 1974 the Botswana government launched the Office for Basarwa Development, its mission to represent the interests and improve the lives of the San people. Further support came from the Kalahari People's Fund, including help staking legal claims to traditional lands. Shostak states the hunter-gatherer lifestyle the !Kung once knew "will not be a viable way of life for future generations."

The author then tells of her return to the United States in 1971, where she processes the audiotaped interviews and analyzed the data. Some potential problems that strike her are the frequent discussions of sex, as well as whether Nisa was an accurate representative of the typical !Kung woman. She also feels ethical qualms about publishing such personal material, even though she had obtained permission to do so from the interviewees.

Shostak travels back to Botswana in 1975 to study new aspects of !Kung women's lives, including daily activities and the relationship between menstruation and mood. U.S. studies at the time tied women's moods, behavior, and activities to their menstrual cycles, and Shostak wanted to know if the !Kung followed similar patterns. She developed a study with her husband and Carol Worthman, a graduate student, to analyze the women's blood samples for hormone levels and to conduct interviews about menstruation and daily life. In total she interviews eight women over two menstrual cycles, garnering more than 200 individual interviews. She discovered the !Kung view of menstruation was entirely different from Western perceptions: they did not "recognize any effect of the menstrual cycle on women's moods or behavior." For them menstruation was purely a physical inconvenience, and an unimportant one at that, not an event that affected mood. Her findings could not be linked to hormone levels, since the blood work showed !Kung hormones to be the same as that of Western women.

As an unexpected benefit, these interviews helped Shostak gain "valuable perspective on my earlier discussions with Nisa" by revealing Nisa was, in fact, a fairly typical representative of !Kung womanhood. Although Shostak's topics have now shifted to matters such as friendship, childcare, and creative self-expression, many of the women she interviews still want to talk about sex. Shostak occasionally joins in on the jokes, having finally mastered the language and culture enough to throw out her own zingers in conversation. She now recognizes sex is indeed integral to !Kung life and conversation, so the sexual content of her book is not misrepresentative.

When Shostak finishes this study, she then resumes interviews with Nisa to catch up on what's happened in her life since 1971. Overall, Shostak finds Nisa to be more relaxed and less troubled by things that used to pain her. She seems "happier and more at peace with herself," Shostak notes. Nisa is still married to Bo, and though their sex life has slowed down significantly, she's at peace with it. They rarely fight now, and when they do, it's mostly about Nisa over-sharing their food with others. The couple lived for a time with the Hereros to find work but returned to hunting and gathering among their own people. Nisa and Bo raise melons, corn, and goats to enhance their food supply, and Nisa sometimes makes crafts to supplement their income. Nisa still takes care of Nukha, her brother Kumsa's daughter, and has also started looking after the daughter of Dau and her dear friend Kxaru, who had died. Nisa also receives support from her beloved cousin, Kokobe, and the two exchange foods regularly, including cow's milk. Nisa has continued to have lovers, including her lifelong companion, Kantla, but her trysts with lovers have become far less frequent, too. "Making love is not that important," she says, noting she is more discriminating in her choice of lovers now. She chooses only men who help her or give her gifts, rather than those who simply want sex.


Shostak's interest in feminism comes through once more in the topics of study she chooses to pursue on her return to Botswana: menstruation and the daily lives of women. She gets a bit annoyed the women she interviews still want to talk sex, sex, sex, but she now understands such talk is simply the norm. Still, Shostak wants to focus on "issues that had ... become more relevant to my own life," such as childcare, friendship, and "self-expression and creativity." (Shostak would have been in her late 20s at the time, and married for around seven years.) Her deepening insights are a classic example of 20/20 hindsight, as the passage of time helps Shostak gain perspective on herself and the !Kung culture. She now sees, for instance, it isn't just Nisa who talks about sex all the time, and Nisa is, in fact, a good representative of typical !Kung womanhood.

The impact Nisa and the !Kung have on Shostak is deep and long-lasting. Nisa and Shostak pick up their friendship almost exactly where it left off, after a bit of time to become comfortable with one another again. They call each other "my aunt" and "my niece," and both prove to the other's satisfaction they have been missed. Nisa even recalls their final conversations from Shostak's first visit, and which the author asks her to store away information in her mind so they can talk about it in the future. "I haven't forgotten our work nor have I forgotten you," Nisa assures her, while Shostak writes, "I will always think of her ... as a distant sister." Their lives have been permanently changed for having known each other. Shostak concludes by saying that "almost every experience I have in life is colored and enriched by the !Kung world." Such is the power of the cross-cultural experience to shape one person's world and, by extension, the world at large.

Nisa has clearly mellowed over time, her passions cooling somewhat as she has embraced aging. She and Bo have settled into a more peaceful relationship and seem to be quite contented, and she enjoys having her brothers' children around to help raise. Her attitude about sex and lovers has also changed significantly. Four years prior Bo's lack of interest in sex was a source of worry and frustration, but now it doesn't seem to bother her. Given Nisa's high prioritization of sex during her earlier years, it is rather astonishing when she states, "making love is not important." This seems in part like a rationalization; since Bo no longer wants sex regularly, perhaps she decides it is less important to her, too. The statement also seems truthful, though, such as when Nisa explains she now only takes lovers who can do or provide things for her other than sex. Sex for its own sake no longer tempts her. Despite her avowal sex is unimportant, though, Nisa's actions prove otherwise, at least to some extent. She has continued her love affair with Kantla and even relishes his jealousy when he accuses her of having other lovers—which she still does, on occasion.

Nisa's life has changed quickly in the last four years, reflecting the outside influences that have affected all of the !Kung tribe. She and Bo now raise a few crops and animals; food has probably become less plentiful in the surrounding bush due to overgrazing of Tswana and Herero livestock. Nisa also makes traditional handicrafts, one of the pursuits Shostak mentions the !Kung have adopted in an attempt to integrate with the way the outside world works. Nisa earns money from the crafts and uses it to purchase goods such as blankets. Nisa's life has changed due to further aging, too. Former topics that used to occupy her mind, such as menstruation and having babies, are now irrelevant to her, and she hardly discusses them anymore. Some things, though, haven't changed. Gifts of food are still exchanged to ensure everyone has a plentiful diet, and the !Kung in her village continue to gather foods from the bush as a large part of their sustenance.

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