Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman
Analysis of Major Characters
Marjorie Shostak is the author and narrator of Nisa as well as Nisa’s interviewer, but with an academic background in English literature, she is not your average anthropologist. She travels to Africa with her husband, who is conducting his own work in the Dobe region, and begins studying the !Kung as a means of occupying her time while she is there. Most of this backstory does not appear in Nisa, however, and Shostak does her best to prove her capability as an anthropologist. She thoroughly describes her research methods, from providing full disclosure about the kinds of payment she offers to her subjects to corroborating Nisa’s stories independently to assess their truthfulness. Upon her arrival in Africa, she throws herself fully into the !Kung group. She learns the language, joins the hunts and gathering expeditions, listens to discussions around the fire, watches medicinal ceremonies, and observes food division, preparation, and consumption.
Despite her efforts to immerse herself in the group, she continues to feel dissatisfied with the depth of her knowledge of the !Kung, so she begins talking individually to the !Kung women. Shostak’s willingness to show herself to the !Kung as a woman who is herself struggling with issues of sexuality, marriage, work, age, and love helps convince the women to be interviewed. Though Shostak does not become a confidante or a best friend to any of the women, even Nisa, she does break down many of the barriers between their two cultures, attaining a very vivid picture of women’s roles in !Kung society.
Nisa is a member of the !Kung San, or !Kung, a group of hunter-gatherers who live in the isolated bush areas of Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. Nisa’s own tribe lives in the Dobe region in Botswana, at the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Though they live mainly off the land, the !Kung of Nisa’s generation are beginning to feel the influence of nearby cattle-herding groups and European settlements. Nisa says that when she was young, she did not know about any way of life other than her own, but by the time Shostak meets her, her knowledge of the world has increased dramatically. Shostak is not the only anthropologist to travel to the !Kung of the Dobe region, and Nisa is savvy enough to understand what she stands to gain from these outsiders. She often mentions two previous researchers, Richard and Nancy, who were very generous to her, in an effort to goad Shostak into generous giving as well. In return, Nisa provides Shostak with hours of fascinating narration.
Nisa is about fifty years old at the time of her first fifteen interviews, and she uses her age as proof of her wisdom. She cultivates an authoritative and somewhat indulgent relationship with Shostak, calling her “my niece” and teasingly saying she will educate her about sexual relationships. Though Nisa is real, she exhibits some of the characteristics of a classic literary heroine. She experiences more than her fair share of tragedy, and at times her network of lovers and extramarital affairs can read like a soap opera. Above all, her narration is rich, engaging, and extremely colorful, captivating her listeners by using imagery and original turns of phrases.
Since Shostak focuses her book mainly on the lives of the !Kung women, Nisa’s mother, Chuko, plays an especially important role. Chuko’s behavior sets an example for Nisa in many ways, from the expected (pregnancy, childbirth, child rearing) to the unexpected (the taking of lovers). Many of Nisa’s early memories concern maternal events, such as when she witnesses her mother giving birth alone or when she sees her mother with a lover who is not her husband. Indeed, Chuko is inevitably an integral part of Nisa’s own life story, particularly in its early stages, since !Kung children are brought up in almost constant contact with their mothers. While a small female !Kung child would not ordinarily be allowed to follow her father on a hunt, for example, she would certainly be able to accompany her mother on a gathering expedition, either walking on her own or carried by her mother. Nisa expresses poignantly her closeness to her mother in describing the intensity of her mourning following Chuko’s death.
Tashay, Nisa’s third husband, is particularly significant in Nisa’s life because he is the father of her children. Unlike Nisa’s first two “trial” marriages, her marriage to Tashay contains a strong element of love. Nisa and Tashay actually build a life together, although it does start on somewhat rocky ground. With Tashay, Nisa has her first experience of intercourse, after which she feels such pain that she binds herself with a leather strap so Tashay can’t have her. Eventually, she comes to enjoy their sexual relationship, and this sexual development corresponds with her growing understanding of her adult responsibilities and her own womanhood. Though Tashay is but one of Nisa’s five husbands and only one of her numerous sexual partners, he occupies a special, central place in Nisa’s storytelling, and she mourns his death deeply. Nisa’s sadness over this death is complex, given Tashay’s occasional physical aggression toward her. However, Shostak presents Nisa’s marriage to Tashay as the epitome of !Kung marriage, in which the bride is much younger than the groom, intense fights occur and then get resolved, and both parties may have extramarital affairs.
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