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

Marjorie Shostak

Get the eBook on Amazon to study offline.

Buy on Amazon Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman Study Guide." Course Hero. 6 Feb. 2018. Web. 2 Oct. 2023. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2018, February 6). Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved October 2, 2023, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2018)



Course Hero. "Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman Study Guide." February 6, 2018. Accessed October 2, 2023.


Course Hero, "Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman Study Guide," February 6, 2018, accessed October 2, 2023,

Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman | Main Ideas


Hunter-Gatherer Way of Life

Marjorie Shostak takes great care in describing the day-to-day lives of the !Kung: what they eat, where they sleep, the types of work people do, leisure activities, physical and social milestones for both sexes, and so on. Her descriptions shatter any preconceived notions of the hunter-gatherer life as one of constant toil and little pleasure. In fact, Shostak points out, most women work about four to five hours per day doing tasks such as childcare, cooking, and gathering food. That's far less work than the average corporate Joe puts in during a day at the office and in fact research on hunter-gatherer groups worldwide shows a relatively large amount of leisure time in hunter-gatherer and pastoralist groups when compared to agriculturalists. Children, too, do very little work until their late teens, enjoying almost uninterrupted leisure and play. Another notion Shostak puts to bed is the !Kung (and by extension, other hunter-gathering cultures) are unsophisticated. It may be true such tribal nomads know little of the modern world; however, they have a very sophisticated knowledge of their own environment. The average !Kung can identify hundreds of plants and animals, and the !Kung also practice an intense form of spiritual healing which requires years of practice and training to master.

There is also a greater equality between the sexes among the !Kung, Shostak argues, than is found in many modern societies of the West. Women contribute up to 80 percent of food gathered, may be respected leaders or powerful healers, and have a good amount of autonomy in their actions. The author points out the hunter-gatherer lifestyle has been successful for tens of thousands of years, whereas agricultural societies are a far more recent development. Overall, Shostak portrays the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as an evolutionarily successful one that offers excellent physical fitness, adequate nutrition, deep social connections, and plenty of leisure time to enjoy with friends and family.

Women's Lives

Shostak was keenly interested in feminism and the women's movement in the West, so her curiosity about !Kung women's lives comes as no surprise. Beyond an intellectual interest, though, Shostak sought to compare her own experiences as a young bride with the experiences of the women around her. (Shostak was 24 when she went to Botswana with her husband in 1969.) She wanted to know about more than just the surface statistics (birth rate, life expectancy, and so on). She wanted to understand what made these women tick; what the human experience was like at its core for them. Some of the universal themes Shostak explores in her interviews with the !Kung women are easily summarized by the chapter titles: Discovering Sex; Marriage; Motherhood and Loss; Growing Older. The author's understanding of the !Kung perspective (and her own) on these issues doesn't end with the conclusion of the text, however. Her insights continue to evolve when she returns to Botswana later in life to continue her work.


Sexuality is a main topic of discussion with the women Shostak interviews. Every uncomfortable detail of sexuality is explored, particularly as concerns women. Awareness of sexuality often begins when young children notice their parents having sex. No matter how discrete a couple may try to be, when the whole family lives in one room, it's hard to hide such activity. Nisa describes how children begin to play with each other's bodies as they start to grow up, imitating adults having sex. This type of play isn't limited to boy-girl, either; girls may play with girls and boys may play with boys. A typical girl's first adult sexual experience, marriage, having affairs, and commenting on other people's genitals (either in jest or as an insult) are all described in detail, too. Sexuality is clearly an intricate part of everyday life and of a !Kung's identity. Many times in the book, the role of a husband or wife is stated as a person one has sex with. As Nisa explains in Chapter 15, "When you marry, your husband has sex with you ... if he doesn't ... your heart dies!"

Nisa shares her views on sex unabashedly, reveling in her attractiveness and her own nature as a sexual being. She comments on her own beauty frequently, pointing out how many men want her, even as an old woman. Her sexuality is empowering and she is not ashamed of it. It is both a pleasure and a means to an end, as the reader discovers through her frank talk on lovers. Nisa recommends women take on lovers wherever they go in order to gain more food, money, and other gifts; she sees nothing "wrong" about this commodification of the act. (Don't forget her comment "Having affairs is one of the things God gave us"!) The !Kung men seem equally in touch with their sexuality, and sex (with both wives and lovers) is a high priority for many men. The importance of sexuality is further emphasized by the fact a !Kung euphemism for sex is "food." No one can survive without sex, they believe, and so it plays a central role in their lives.

Cultural Beliefs

Shostak and Nisa relate numerous beliefs of the !Kung culture, including religious beliefs and long-held taboos. The !Kung believe in a benevolent creator God (the "Great God"), a "Lesser God" who brings misfortune, and a host of other spirits, including those of beloved ancestors from the past. These gods and spirits are called on to intervene in human affairs when illness or other troubles strike. Shostak also explains the !Kung concept of kua, an attitude of awe, fear, or respect that people assume during milestones of great importance in their lives, such as a girl's first menstruation or a boy's initiation into adulthood. Many cultural beliefs surround pregnancy and childbirth, including the notion a !Kung woman must show courage during birth, or else she and the baby may both die. The !Kung also believe healing occurs through n/um, a spiritual force that is channeled when a healer lays hands on the sick person. (A similar belief can be found in the Japanese custom of reiki, a form of energy healing.) Taboos are also present in !Kung culture. For example, men are prohibited from seeing a girl during her first menstrual cycle; it is believed doing so would bring them bad luck in the hunt. These and many other beliefs are woven throughout Shostak's observations and Nisa's narratives as an integral part of !Kung life.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!