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 | Summary




In the introduction author Marjorie Shostak explains the premise of the book: she has traveled to Botswana, Africa, to interview women of the !Kung San tribe and learn about their lives. The !Kung are hunter-gatherers who live in the traditional manner of their ancestors, moving from place to place in search of food and water sources. During her two years there (1969–71) Shostak finds one woman, Nisa, who stands out in storytelling ability and frankness. These 15 interviews are presented in the book in Nisa's own words (as translated by Shostak), along with Shostak's scholarly commentary on each topic.

Chapter 1: Earliest Memories

Shostak tells how !Kung infants spend their first several years nursing and in very close contact with their mothers. If the mother becomes pregnant again, she must wean her nursing child, who may throw tantrums at the unwelcome change. Nisa describes her own traumatic experience with weaning; she cries constantly after being forced from the breast. When her parents scold and beat her for bad behavior, an unhappy Nisa goes to live with her grandmother for a while. The grandmother reprimands her parents for not feeding Nisa enough, and after that they no longer yell at the girl.

Chapter 2: Family Life

!Kung children are usually born about four years apart, says Shostak, probably because prolonged nursing keeps the mother from becoming pregnant again. Sibling rivalry is not uncommon, and children may argue but their fights rarely become physical. The !Kung believe a woman becomes pregnant at the end of her menses, so many couples sidestep the taboo against having sex during menstruation. Nisa relates her love-hate relationship with her new baby brother, Kumsa, and how they sometimes fight. After a bad fight among the young cousins, Nisa's father Gau blames his pregnant wife Chuko for not watching them, and he kicks her in the stomach. After nearly losing the baby, she gives birth to a healthy girl, Kxamshe, who dies during childhood.

Chapter 3: Life in the Bush

Boys begin learning hunting techniques at an early age, Shostak writes, and most have their first large kill in their mid- to late teens. Meat is distributed so everyone gets a share. Men continue hunting into their 60s, but even the best hunter only succeeds one time in four. Nisa tells of her father's many successful hunting expeditions and her excitement when he returns from the hunt with meat. She also complains some people are stingy and don't share their food enough. Her nomadic family moves from water hole to water hole, and along the way, they find and eat a wildebeest, honey, caterpillars, and other foods. They also search for water during severe drought, drinking the bitter juice of the kwa root to survive.

Chapter 4: Discovering Sex

Shostak writes because there is little privacy, !Kung children may notice their parents having sex. Children experiment with sex play, and though the adults disapprove, they generally don't intervene or over-supervise their children. Nisa describes how children pair off for sex play, often with a partner of their own sex at first, but later moving on to boy-girl pairings. She prefers to play "nicely" (in a nonsexual way) with other children initially, but eventually gets a boyfriend and begins experimenting. She even plays sexually with her cousins when there are no other children available in her social group.

Chapter 5: Trial Marriages

Girls often marry older men before they reach puberty, says Shostak, and these men help "bring them up," usually waiting until they reach sexual maturity to initiate sex. These "trial marriages" are arranged by the parents, and they often don't last. Nisa's two trial marriages do not go well. Her first husband sleeps with another woman on their wedding night, while Nisa refuses to have sex with her second husband. Both marriages are dissolved when it becomes clear Nisa simply isn't ready to be a wife. During this time she also meets Kantla, a man who becomes her lifelong lover.

Chapter 6: Marriage

Shostak tells of a !Kung state of mind called kua, which is fear or awe shown during momentous occasions such as a girl's first menstruation or a boy's initiation into manhood. Marriage is often scary for young girls, who often marry older strangers, and their first experiences with adult intercourse may be traumatic. This holds true for Nisa when she marries Tashay, a handsome stranger whom she grows to like. After a consensual but painful first night of sex, Nisa refuses to have intercourse again, so Tashay rapes her. Her menstruation begins, and over time she learns to love Tashay. "I was becoming a woman," she concludes.

Chapter 7: Wives and Co-Wives

A !Kung man may take a second wife, Shostak explains, which gives him increased opportunities for sex, children, and food for the family. Most women, though, don't want to be co-wives, particularly as the second wife, who is subordinate to the first wife. However, co-wives often help each other with childcare and chores, and they may become good friends. Nisa tells of her father's attempt to marry a second wife, which ends abruptly when Chuko chases the woman away. Tashay also brings a second wife into their marriage, but although Nisa agrees, she doesn't like the situation. She refuses to have sex with him while Tiknay lives there, and eventually she chases the woman off.

Chapter 8: First Birth

Shostak relates !Kung beliefs about pregnancy and childbirth, such as the idea a woman should not show fear during birth. Women ideally try to give birth alone, and most women give birth four or five times. Nisa tells about her lovers, Kantla and Twi (Tashay's brother), who impregnates her while Tashay is away working. Tashay suspects the child isn't his but can't prove it. Nisa gives birth in the bush by herself, and the baby looks like Twi. Sometime later, an angry Tashay beats Nisa, and the baby becomes upset, falls ill, and dies. Nisa blames him for destroying the child, but eventually she becomes pregnant again, this time by her husband.

Chapter 9: Motherhood and Loss

Although the !Kung have a healthy diet and exercise frequently, their health is still poor overall due to infectious diseases, writes Shostak. They believe these diseases are caused by gods or spirits, and !Kung healers attempt to intercede with these entities on behalf of the sick person. A death in the family can cause major changes, as the deceased person's skills and contributions are lost. The social group may also break up if the deceased married into the family. Nisa relates the death of her first child, Little Chuko, the birth of her daughter Nai by Tashay, and a subsequent miscarriage. She then gives birth to a girl, Bau, who dies quite young from a chest sickness. Finally, she gives birth to her son Kxau, but soon after, Tashay also dies from a chest sickness. Nisa becomes angry at God for taking away her husband and children and goes home to her mother's village to grieve and heal.

Chapter 10: Change

Life begins to change for the !Kung, Shostak relates, when Tswana and Herero tribes begin to move closer, make permanent settlements, and graze their herds on !Kung hunting land. A regional headman is appointed by the Botswana government to represent the interests of the tribes as the world becomes more and more modern around them. Now widowed, Nisa rejects various proposals of marriage, including that of her lover Kantla (who is already married). Eventually, she reluctantly agrees to marry Besa, a persistent suitor, and they fight frequently. He is jealous of her affairs and beats her.

Chapter 11: Women and Men

Shostak states !Kung women have nearly equal status as men, and they are the primary providers of food for their family. Women can own and inherit land, have a great deal of personal autonomy, and are key decision makers when it comes to their children. Even so, men have the advantage: more males than women become healers and leaders. Nisa tells how Besa leaves her high and dry in a Tswana village in the East, abandoning her when she is pregnant. She loses the baby and moves back to her mother's village where she takes a new lover, Bo. Besa returns and wants her back, but she adamantly refuses to have him. The headman takes Nisa's side and declares their marriage over, and a happy Nisa marries Bo.

Chapter 12: Taking Lovers

Sex is as vital to the !Kung as food, and married people often have affairs despite the fear of discovery, which can lead to violence. A person's spouse must come first, writes Shostak, but lovers offer excitement, sexual satisfaction, and affection. Women usually find themselves to be attractive and have no trouble finding suitors, and all women eventually get married. Nisa declares affairs are a gift from God, and a woman should have many lovers and should profit from them in the form of sex, food, gifts, and money. Nisa only meets her lovers in secret, and only after her work for her husband is finished. She also tells of her mother Chuko's affair with Chuko's sister's husband, Toma, when Nisa is a child. The affair breaks up both marriages when Chuko and Toma leave their spouses to live together. Chuko returns to live near her children after Toma dies, but Gau never takes her back.

Chapter 13: A Healing Ritual

The !Kung believe in humanlike gods and spirits who strike people with misfortune and illness through "invisible arrows," says Shostak. Healers, both male and female, try to remove these spiritual arrows during medicinal curing ceremonies of singing, dancing, and trance. They heal using a "powerful healing force" known as n/um, and spend many years learning how to trance and effectively channel n/um. Nisa relates how she learned to trance from her mother, with the help of a psychoactive root called gwa. She no longer heals people, though, because doing so now makes her fall ill.

Chapter 14: Further Losses

Shostak tells how, in the past, !Kung were sometimes killed during arguments that turned violent. Such murders have ceased since Tswana law came to the region, however. Nisa then relates the death of her last remaining children, Nai and Kxau. Nai is accidentally killed by her husband when she refuses to have sex with him; he pushes her down forcefully, and her neck breaks. Kxau contracts a chest sickness from eating tainted honey, and slowly withers away until he dies. Nisa mourns so deeply her brother Kumsa offers her his young daughter, Nukha, to raise.

Chapter 15: Growing Older

!Kung elders are respected for their knowledge of history, the land and its resources, and their spiritual healing abilities. However, their activities slow down as they age, from having sex to gathering food, and elders without family may become burdens to those around them. Nisa describes the onset of menopause and how she mourns the loss of her fertility. She feels older now and "ugly," and she's mostly lost interest in having lovers, though there are still a few around. Her husband, Bo, no longer wants to have sex often, which worries and frustrates her. They argue frequently, and their fights sometimes lead to blows.


Shostak returns to Botswana four years later to conduct interviews with a new group of women concerning menstruation and their daily lives. She also interviews Nisa again several times and catches up on her life. Nisa is living contentedly with Bo, at peace with aging, her fading libido, and the changing times. She and Bo have started raising food and livestock, and Nisa also makes crafts to sell for money. Shostak concludes Nisa is a good representative of the typical !Kung woman and receives Nisa's blessing on her book.

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