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 | Quotes


People failed at bringing me up. I was too difficult for them.

Nisa, Chapter 1

Nisa's parents beat her as a child when she cried, and she may have gone hungry often. She acted out by stealing, and sometimes went to live with other relatives. This statement may express her resentment at the family's failure to nurture her, or it may show self-awareness of her own obstinate nature.


Life for the !Kung child appears generally hospitable, but for the nearly fifty-fifty chance of dying.

Marjorie Shostak, Chapter 4

Shostak explains !Kung children have little supervision or responsibilities and spend much of their time playing, including at sexual play. While such a childhood may seem easy, she puts this into perspective by reminding the reader half of children won't reach adulthood.


Bad play is when you touch each other's genitals; good play is when you don't.

Nisa, Chapter 4

As a young girl, Nisa and her friends are torn between the innocent play of youth and the growing awareness of their own sexuality. The adults around them disapprove of sexual play among the children, and Nisa tries to avoid it initially.


Sometimes Nai and I married. I really liked her—she was beautiful!

Nisa, Chapter 4

Nisa's first exploration of sexuality happens with her female playmates as they pretend to be married and sometimes play sexually together.


A child has no sense and just tries to do as the adults do.

Nisa, Chapter 4

The !Kung belief children have "no sense" is often used to excuse their inappropriate behavior. In this instance Nisa is rationalizing her sexual play with her cousins by saying the children have seen adults having sex and are simply trying to imitate them.


A co-wife is truly a terrible thing!

Nisa, Chapter 7

Although the genders are fairly equal among the !Kung, the men still have the advantage of being able to take more than one wife. Being a co-wife often creates strife for the women, and Nisa herself dislikes the practice and refuses to be a co-wife.


Giving birth is like something that kills. Those who fear, die and are buried.

Unnamed 15-year-old girl, Chapter 8

The !Kung believe mental attitude in part determines whether a woman survives childbirth. If she is mentally strong and brave, she will survive. If she calls out in fear, she will die.


You destroy me every day. Now you have destroyed my child, my very first born child.

Nisa, Chapter 8

Nisa blames her husband Tashay for the death of her infant daughter Chuko. Tashay had beaten Nisa with a branch while she was wearing Chuko in a sling, and Nisa points to this as the cause of the baby's death. He had "refused" the baby (because he knows it is not his child), so the baby dies.


I'm really stubborn! I've been beaten because of this, yet here I am still doing it.

Nisa, Chapter 10

Nisa has a moment of clarity about her own self-destructive behavior. Her husband Besa has beaten her severely for having an affair with Tsaa, yet she continues to see Tsaa behind his back.


I worked. I alone, a woman.

Nisa, Chapter 11

Nisa bitterly reprimands her husband Besa when he threatens to leave her, pointing out she has kept their household afloat by working, while he has done nothing.


He left me with nothing; the people ... had to give me blankets to sleep with.

Nisa, Chapter 11

Besa abandons his pregnant wife Nisa in a village with strangers, far from her family. He has taken all of the possessions Nisa earned the money to buy, leaving her destitute and at the mercy of others.


Having affairs is one of the things God gave us.

Nisa, Chapter 12

Nisa has a robust enjoyment of her sexuality and doesn't hesitate to express it with men other than her husband. She also gains economically through her lovers, who bring her food, money, beads, and other gifts. Despite the fact affairs are disapproved of, Nisa sees them as a blessing that makes life easier and more enjoyable.


A woman can bring a man life, even if he is almost dead.

Nisa, Chapter 12

Nisa claims a woman's genitals are powerful and important, and men could not live without women. She believes sex has the power to restore a man's vitality—that the vagina is a life-giving force in more ways than simply giving birth.


When you give birth to a number of children, you know one of them will probably die.

Nisa, Chapter 14

The childhood mortality rate among the !Kung is high, and here Nisa plainly states the fact some children won't survive. Her own losses are far higher than usual; none of her children survive past their teenage years.


That's when God speared his chest with a spiritual arrow.

Nisa, Chapter 14

The !Kung believe if God wants a person to die, they cannot be saved by medicine. Here, Nisa relates the death of her youngest and last remaining child, her son Kxau, who ate a honey badger's honey and died. When her brother can't cure Kxau, he says God didn't want him to eat the honey, so he died.

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