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 | Introduction | Summary


Each chapter opens with information from Shostak on the chapter topic and how it relates to !Kung life. A second section in each chapter provides the transcript of Shostak's interview with Nisa on the topic.


Nisa, roughly 20 years of age at the time of the incident, describes her experience giving birth in the bush by herself, as is the custom of her tribe. Not far from the village, she leans against a tree and endures the pains of labor until the baby is born. But then what? "I sat there," she says. "I didn't know what to do. I had no sense." She is dazed from the birth experience, almost in a state of disbelief, until she delivers the afterbirth, which she then buries. Nisa grows cold, and leaves the newborn alone in the bush while she hurries to the village to fetch coals to make a fire. As she hears the baby cry, she runs, heart pounding, to her hut, where her husband Tashay realizes she has given birth. He scolds his grandmother for not being there for Nisa, yelling, "You didn't help! She's just a little girl." Nisa and the older woman return to the bush to find the baby and make a fire, and then they return to the village. Over the next three days the husband gathers and hunts foods to help Nisa recover, while the infant goes hungry—Nisa's milk hasn't started flowing yet, and she won't nurse the child with "the colostrum, the bad thing." Finally, her milk comes in, and the child "nursed and nursed and nursed."

Shostak explains Nisa is "an African woman of about fifty years of age" living in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana among the !Kung San tribe of hunter-gatherers. She estimates humans have lived in this manner for around 90 percent of human history or more, with agriculture being a relatively new development. Shostak describes a typical !Kung village, consisting of "six or seven small grass huts" in a circle, with most activities happening outdoors in communal space. The Dobe region, where the !Kung live, is semiarid, with extreme temperature shifts from winter to summer and unreliable rainfall. The !Kung "are masters of survival in this environment," adapting quickly to changing conditions, often by moving their camps to other locations where food or water is more readily available. Very little contact with outsiders has ever taken place, even with neighboring Bantu tribes, and Shostak suggests tribal life has likely been quite similar for thousands of years.

The !Kung observe a custom of gift giving, hxaro, which can "help to even out wealth differentials" in the tribe. Privacy is almost nonexistent, but it is also generally unwanted, as "companionship is cherished and sought." There are no recognized chiefs, though prominent members of the community do serve as informal leaders. Women have high status in the tribe, and in fact bring home the vast majority (about 80 percent) of the food their family eats. Men contribute most of the highly prized meat, however, which is distributed after the hunt by rules that help ensure all receive adequate nutrition. A tribe is almost completely self-sufficient, and though much time is spent on chores, there is plenty of time for leisure such as storytelling. The !Kung also regularly observe an important ritual, the "medicinal trance dance," in which healers "draw illness out of a sick person's body," supported by song and dance from the tribe. Despite excellent nutrition and exercise, !Kung life expectancy is still low (55 years), mostly due to infectious diseases like malaria.

Shostak tells of the anthropologists who preceded her in the Dobe area, beginning with Irven DeVore and Richard Lee from Harvard University in 1963, along with Richard's wife Nancy Howell. Six others followed in the subsequent years. Cumulatively, they gathered preliminary information on a variety of aspects of tribal life, from nutrition and child-rearing practices to folklore and traditional healing practices. Shostak arrived in 1969 to continue the work, along with her husband, and found herself curious about the tribe's emotional lives, especially on subjects such as marriage, sexuality, death, and other aspects of life all humans must face. "What were the universals, if any, and how much would I be able to identify with?" she wonders. Shostak learned the language and lived among the people, observing their ways and trying to learn more about them, but this alone could not satisfy her curiosity. Following her own interest in the women's movement which was just beginning in the West, Shostak decided to interview women about "what being a woman meant to them and what events had been important in their lives."

Shostak conducted hundreds of interviews with nine different women aged 14 to 70, but "Nisa stood out" due to her compelling storytelling ability—and her persistence in wanting to be interviewed. Nisa constantly talked of Richard and Nancy, the previous anthropologists living there, emphasizing their generosity and how Nancy "really looked after me"—her not-so-subtle way of badgering Shostak into hiring her as an interviewee. The frustrated author finally gave in. Despite Nisa's sometimes hard-to-swallow tales (such as having very early memories of nursing), Shostak found her to be a wealth of information.

Life with the !Kung was often challenging for Shostak and her husband, particularly because the previous anthropologists working in the area had set "precedents ... that the !Kung expected us to follow." Villagers frequently asked them for jobs, tobacco, money, and other benefits that were more available to the couple as Westerners. Shostak was concerned their presence was disrupting the traditional !Kung way of life, and villagers would become overly dependent on them. After all, once their work was complete, "we would leave, like the other anthropologists before us. Then what?" Shostak was also disappointed she didn't develop closer friendships with the women she interviewed, perhaps because of her relative "wealth, status, and foreignness." She tells of her failed friendship with the charismatic woman Hwantla, whose name Shostak took on as her own local nickname, and of the several other women she interviewed, and how her frustration grew over time as her patience evaporated as the interviews fell short of her hopes. Only Nisa had the spunk, openness, and depth of storytelling she was looking for.


Nisa's story of giving birth may be shocking for readers from modern, westernized cultures for a variety of reasons. Giving birth alone, and not only alone, but in the bush to boot, seems pretty risky, and just how old was Nisa if her husband called her a "little girl"? (Readers later find out Nisa was probably around 20 years old at the time.) Moreover, Nisa dashing off and leaving the newborn in the bush may seem both horrifying and irresponsible to today's reader, accustomed to laws on child endangerment and so forth. It is unclear whether Nisa's stunned state stems from ignorance about birth and childcare or whether the exhaustion of birth has addled her thoughts. This anecdote, though, is an effective reminder of an important point Shostak makes in the introduction: despite its hardships, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle has been a successful one for humans for tens of thousands of years. While the reader may rush to judgment or read the incident with shock, Nisa and the baby nonetheless survived and were just fine. The story is a reminder humans are indeed capable of surviving on a very basic level, even in modern times.

Shostak then lays out the many ways in which the !Kung culture is different from a typical Western lifestyle. These may cause the reader to question our own society, and whether it is truly more advanced or not. While millions go without health care in America, among the !Kung healing is available to all through the medicine men. (Skeptical readers may assume actual healing can't possibly take place without modern medicine, through "trance dance" and the laying on of hands, yet many modern medical facilities are embracing 'alternative' forms of healing such as reiki, an ancient form of "energy healing.") Readers may shudder at the lack of privacy in !Kung life while at the same time lamenting the lack of "community" in their own lives, as people grow further apart due to busy lifestyles, unsatisfying communications through social media, and so on. The !Kung's focus on interdependence stands at odds with the modern 'ideal' of independence, and the custom of gift giving to balance out "wealth differentials" may strike some as 'socialist,' a word many have come to revile in the modern political arena. In short the !Kung culture could hardly be more different from Western ways, and yet Shostak's point is the !Kung likely represent the 'lowest common denominator' of human life—how all of us might live in the absence of modern technology and conventions. Is it really 'worse' than how we live in the West—or simply different?

While Shostak devotes much of the introduction to explaining the customs of the !Kung, describing the region, and telling about her work, the reader also gets a glimpse of the woman behind the author. Shostak relates her own interests (such as the women's movement), her hopes (for intimate friendship with the women she interviews, for example), and her struggles (such as contending with demands for gifts) with the candor and objective viewpoint one might expect from a scientist, yet her words still carry a personal quality that keeps the text fresh and engaging. This may be explained by the fact Shostak was not, in fact, a trained anthropologist; her degree was in English literature. Shostak's description of her failing patience over time will ring true of almost anyone who has spent a long time in a foreign land. She was likely experiencing "culture shock," a phenomenon that traces the often love-hate relationship a traveler has with their adopted country, from the "Honeymoon" phase, where everything is new and exciting, to the "Crisis" phase, in which the person may feel disoriented, depressed, or even disgusted with the culture.

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