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Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman | Study Guide

Marjorie Shostak

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Course Hero. "Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman Study Guide." February 6, 2018. Accessed May 29, 2023.


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Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman | Key Figure Analysis


Marjorie Shostak

Although Shostak employs a professional, scientific tone in much of her writing, her own personality and trials come out at times, particularly when she first adjusts to life among the !Kung. Eager to learn about the inner lives of women, she becomes frustrated over time with the emotional distance most of her interviewees maintain. She also struggles with the demands of the villagers, who pester her and her husband for gifts. Shostak shows sincere respect and consideration for the women, though, and appreciates their contributions. When it comes time to publish her findings, she once again checks with Nisa to make sure she is comfortable with revealing so much personal information on her life. The two women develop a strong relationship over time, and Shostak returns twice to visit and interview Nisa. Throughout the process, which takes many years, Shostak grows in her understanding not only of the !Kung but of herself, as she reflects on the universal nature of womanhood.


Nisa has many qualities that make her an excellent focus for such a book as this. She is forthright, passionate, and an excellent storyteller. Her strong personality, often humorous, emerges as she tells her stories of both happy times and tragedies—and Nisa has had more than her share of those. Her inner strength is astounding; she survives the death of all her children, yet carries on living. Sex is of central importance to Nisa's life. Although she is initially reluctant to explore her sexuality, she eventually embraces it. Besides her five husbands, she has numerous lovers, often at the same time. She often fights with her husbands about her lovers and frequently lies to them. When she is caught red-handed, she admits her guilt defiantly, often with a "What are you going to do about it" attitude. However, she does fear her husbands at times and even admonishes herself for continuing to have affairs. This doesn't stop her, of course, for affairs are too wonderful to give up. Nisa is a deeply loving mother, and it pains her immensely to lose her children. She rages against God for taking them away and regrets not being able to have more children. Life offers her another opportunity for raising children, though, when her brother Kumsa gives her his daughter to raise. At the end of the book Nisa is happily doing this, carrying on with her life as it is; she offers no words of regret for all that has happened.


Gau is a strong male figure in Nisa's life: a skilled hunter, a respected healer, and a caring father whom Nisa seems to adore. Like many other !Kung men, though, he has bouts of temper that sometimes turn violent. He sometimes beats his wife Chuko or his children, and threatens to kill Chuko when she has an affair. He can be dictatorial, too, trying to control whom Nisa marries even after she is a grown woman. There is also a sense of male superiority about him, which comes out, for example, with Nisa's second husband Tsaa. Tsaa refuses meat to Nisa, which Gau says is fine, yet he is outraged when Tsaa refuses to give meat to him. That, he says, is going too far, so he dissolves their marriage. Gau's own married life doesn't always run smoothly. He attempts to have a second wife once, but his first wife Chuko frightens the woman so severely she leaves within a matter of days. Later, Chuko has an affair and leaves him, after which Gau raises the children on his own for a time. Chuko eventually returns, but he refuses to take her back. As a concession, he allows her to live nearby so she can be near her children. When he dies, Chuko still mourns him, even though she is no longer his wife.


Chuko is a caring mother, but she is far from perfect. She weans Nisa from breastfeeding but feels so bad about it she proposes to bury newborn Kumsa so Nisa can continue to nurse. When Nisa is a girl, Chuko has affairs right in front of her and then asks her not to tell Gau. Worse than that, her lover is her sister's husband, Toma. Chuko leaves Gau and her children for Toma, and the children miss her terribly. She eventually returns to their life, though Gau does not take her back as a wife. When Nisa gets a bit older, Chuko teaches her how to prepare the gwa root and helps her learn how to trance. When Chuko dies, Nisa mourns profoundly, proof of the deep impact Chuko had on her daughter's life.


Although Tashay is technically Nisa's third husband, he is the first man she has sex with, and their marriage stands the test of time. Sex is painful for Nisa the first time, and when she refuses to do it again, Tashay rapes her. Over time Nisa comes to love him, enjoys their sex life, and misses him when he goes away. Early in the marriage, Tashay brings a co-wife, Tiknay, into the family, but Nisa eventually drives her off. At times Tashay is violent toward Nisa and threatens to kill her. One of the most serious incidents of their marriage happens when Nisa becomes pregnant by Tashay's brother Twi. After the birth Tashay beats Nisa for not obeying him, and the baby becomes very upset, then gets sick. When the child eventually dies, Nisa blames him for refusing it, which is why God took the baby. Soon, though, Nisa becomes pregnant again, this time with Tashay's child, and life goes on. They fight and make up frequently, often over Nisa's affairs. Tashay dies suddenly from a chest illness, leaving Nisa as a young widow with two small children to raise.


Nisa does not really want to marry Besa, her fourth husband, but eventually he wears her down and she agrees. They live away from her family, since he works for the Tswana in the East. Besa helps raise her two children by Tashay, but they have no surviving children of their own. Their marriage is tumultuous at best, and they often fight. Sometimes it's because he wants far more sex than Nisa does, and she's worn out from his attentions. Other times, they fight over her lovers. He is highly jealous and also has a violent streak, even stabbing her in the leg with a knife once. Nisa supports Besa when he is out of work by working herself, and he repays her by stealing the money she's earned to drink beer. Soon after, he abandons Nisa, pregnant with his child, in a village of strangers far from her loved ones, refusing to let her come along and refusing to take her home. Nisa has a miscarriage and at last travels home. Besa eventually tries to win her back, but she won't have him after his unforgiveable behavior. In a fit of spite, Besa marries a younger woman—and lives to regret it.


Bo comes into Nisa's life when she is still trying to rid herself of Besa, her unwanted, ne'er-do-well husband. Bo stands by her side against Besa and declares his intention to marry her—and he eventually does. One personal tidbit Nisa reveals about Bo is he does not possess n/um, the healing force, because he is "afraid ... it would hurt too much." Bo has a temper, though, and beats Nisa and her lover Debe when he catches them together—he won't let anyone take away what is his. Nisa runs away in fear of him, but he chases after her and brings her back immediately. Nisa and Bo argue a great deal during their marriage, but they always make up and don't hold grudges against each other. As they begin to grow old together, their relationship changes and Bo wants sex less frequently, a source of frustration for Nisa. He threatens to leave her during an argument, but in the end they forgive and forget and live together fairly contentedly.

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