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Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman

Marjorie Shostak

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Important Quotations Explained

Themes

The Intrusion of the Modern World

In Nisa in general, and the chapter called “Change” in particular, Nisa describes how the !Kung people and their traditional ways are increasingly faced with the modern world. The cattle-herding Tswana and Herero peoples intrude on the !Kung way of life when they establish settlements in the once-isolated Dobe region. Their cattle and goats pollute once pristine streams, cars and trucks occupy the region, and Tswana justice becomes the law of the land. Their growing influence on the !Kung is one of the central themes of Nisa, and the changes wrought effectively divide Nisa’s life in two. In the first half of her life, Nisa does not know any way of life but her own. In the second half, she not only observes the new, agrarian lifestyle but also enters into it as the wife of a “village man” and the employee of a woman living on a European settlement. Nisa therefore embodies a tension between the old, traditional mode of subsistence, which involves hunting and gathering one’s food, and the modern, agrarian method of food production, in which animals are herded and crops are planted.

The Western anthropologists themselves also introduce modern ideas into !Kung society, though this intrusion is much less overt that that of the Herero and Tswana groups. The anthropologists pay their subjects in tobacco or other goods, use tape recorders, cameras, and other gadgets, and drive their trucks near the villages. A striking example of the influence of Shostak’s modern world on the traditional !Kung people is when Shostak catches a !Kung girl looking at herself in the side-view mirror of Shostak’s truck—new self-perceptions and the possibility of a new focus on appearance are suddenly introduced. Such is the unavoidable confluence of modern and traditional in any anthropological study of bush societies like that of the !Kung.

The Universality of Women’s Experience

Shostak aimed to observe women in an unfamiliar culture and determine what constants bind women in societies around the world. She also wanted to examine the !Kung women in light of the women’s movement of the 1960s. Shostak pays particular attention to how !Kung women experience menstruation, sexuality, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause, and she observes their stoic approach to pain associated with women’s conditions. The work done by !Kung women, who gather the bulk of a village’s food supply, puts them in a position of power and strength, and, as a result, a high degree of sexual equality exists. The condition of !Kung women is therefore not directly similar to the condition of American women, though Shostak posits that the !Kung women represent an archetypal experience of womanhood. She argues that the !Kung division of labor and relative sexual equality present a truer picture of the intrinsic role of women than what we see in western society, in which there is a more pronounced male bias. Shostak also uses her connection to Nisa to suggest the power of sisterhood. She feels she is better able to reach across cultural boundaries to the !Kung women than to the men, with whom she has little in common.

The Importance of Sexuality

Nisa’s narrative is full of sex in the form of sexual slang used as insults, descriptions of genitalia, accounts of sexual activities, and philosophical discussions about the nature of sex. The women of the !Kung tribe are eager to discuss their sexual relationships, and in !Kung marriages, infidelity is almost a given. Many of the people Nisa mentions are her former and/or current lovers. Nisa tells Shostak many of the liberated ideas the !Kung have about female sexuality, such as the belief that a woman who is having intercourse must finish her work (a euphemism for having an orgasm) or else risk falling ill. She also reveals the !Kung belief that a woman who does not satisfy her sexual desires will die. Despite the frankness of Nisa’s narration and the bawdiness of her fellow !Kung women, jealousy over extramarital affairs and lovers is common, and, ideally, affairs are kept hidden. Still, the frequency with which men and women take lovers outside of their marriages points to the primacy in !Kung society of satisfying sexual desires and maintaining a fulfilling sexual life.

Motifs

Food and Hunger

As hunters and gatherers, the !Kung people do not have a perfectly reliable source of food and water. During Nisa’s childhood, before the influx of agrarian settlers to the area, drought and other weather conditions wreak havoc on the food and water supply. Moreover, even the best of !Kung hunters bring home meat only once every few days, and the young Nisa is constantly hungry. She gets very excited when her father or brother brings home meat or honey, a special treat, and she gorges herself on plant foods such as klaru and mongongo nuts. Periods of bounty alternate with periods of scarcity, and Nisa recalls a time of drought when the only water she had to drink was collected by mashing up bitter plant roots. The focus on food and hunger among the hunter-gatherer !Kung is contrasted later in the book to the agrarian lifestyle of cattle-herding groups. As these groups exert their influence on the !Kung, Nisa’s people begin to keep cattle and goats and to plant gardens as ready food sources. Still, many of the !Kung continue to hunt and gather their food, citing an intrinsic appetite for foods of the bush.

Violence

Nisa’s narrative is shockingly violent, in terms of both her own assaults on others and the violence perpetrated against her, and this violence contradicts the popular Western view of bush tribes like Nisa’s being very peaceful societies. Though the !Kung do not have any weapons developed specifically for harming other humans, and they have no ritualized notion of warfare, they often engage one another in verbal squabbles that tend to escalate into physical altercations and, sometimes, homicides. Tswana law sends convicted !Kung murderers to jail, but for much of the !Kung’s long history, violence persisted, with only disapproval and occasional intervention to thwart it. Nisa’s parents and husbands often hit her, and she occasionally lashes out and attacks others. She tells of some disturbing accounts of men attacking women, such as when Nisa’s father kicks his pregnant wife in the stomach. Most notable is the fact that Nisa’s daughter, Nai, is a victim of domestic abuse. Nai is killed when her husband pushes her down to the ground because she refuses to have sex with him. The fall breaks Nai’s neck, and she dies. In retaliation, Nisa attacks Nai’s husband and his sister.

Travel

The !Kung are essentially nomadic, though they frequently travel back and forth among the same villages. The !Kung may spontaneously get up and move to the bush for a few days, tracking prey, or may erect an entirely new village in the aftermath of a villager’s death. Their huts are easily and quickly assembled, and they do not own very much in the way of material possessions beyond the essential equipment for hunting, gathering, and preparing food, as well as decorative objects such as jewelry and clothing. Traveling light is necessary since they travel so often. Nisa describes her journeys back and forth from village to village, moving from location to location. She attributes much of the journeying to her succession of husbands, each of whom takes her to live in a different place. On a smaller scale, daily hunts and gathering expeditions involve travel away from the village for much or all of the daylight hours, and this extremely active lifestyle is one of the reasons for the tribe members’ generally good physical condition.

Ritualistic Dancing

When a member of a village falls ill, it is up to a healer or healers to fall into a trance, harness his or her n/um (healing force), and make every effort to pull the sickness out of the body or converse with the spirits and convince them to let the victim live. N/um is typically activated during a ritual medicinal or trance dance, in which participants clap, sing, and dance around a campfire while the healer works himself into a trance state. Other than in times of serious illness, such dances may be spontaneous, and Nisa mentions several occasions when her father and brother, both healers, sing a ritual song or enter a trance in order to cure someone who is ill. Trance dances are core elements of village social life, and they continue to be even with the influence of Tswana and Herero settlers. The Tswana and Hereros often come to observe or participate in the dances, which are highly energetic and occasions for exuberant celebration.

Symbols

The Mongongo Nut

In a society that subsists on food that is hunted or gathered, a dietary staple, such as the mongongo nut, represents existence and nourishment, especially when other food sources are scarce. The mongongo nut, plentiful in the Dobe region, is a very hard nut that must be cracked with a stone in order to release the edible portion inside. Nisa loves mongongo nuts and talks often about eating them as a child. She fondly remembers the time when her brother Dau collected nuts for Nisa and forbade anybody else from eating them because he knew how much she liked them.

Names

The !Kung have a limited number of names they give to infants as well as honorary members of the tribe, such as Shostak and her husband, and many members of a village or larger group have the same name. Rather than being considered an inconvenience or a lack of creativity, however, the repetition of names is thought to enhance the bonds between members of a group. Often, names are given specifically to create a special bond, as when Nisa names her first daughter Chuko, after her mother. Names are therefore imbued with the characteristics of the namesakes, those who already possess them.

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