Nisa’s interviewer. Shostak accompanies her anthropologist husband to Africa, where he is conducting his own studies, and sets out to understand !Kung life, particularly the lives of !Kung women, more deeply than previous researchers. She takes the tribal name Hwantla, although in the transcripts Nisa refers to her most often as “Marjorie” or “my niece.”
The pseudonym Shostak gives to the !Kung woman whose interviews constitute the bulk of the book. Nisa is about fifty years old at the time of the interviews. She is a member of the !Kung San, or !Kung, a group of bushmen who live in Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. The !Kung are hunter-gatherers, although at the time of Nisa’s interviews they are beginning to feel the influence of nearby cattle-herding groups and European settlements. Nisa has lived through many marriages, the deaths of all her children, and numerous other heartaches and happy memories, all of which she relates to Shostak.
Read an in-depth analysis of Nisa.
A !Kung woman Shostak interviews prior to Nisa. Bau tells Shostak particularly intimate details from her life, including incidents of childhood sex play, an extramarital affair, and domestic abuse.
Two !Kung men who accompany Shostak and her husband to their campsite after their arrival in Africa.
Nisa’s father. Gau sometimes exhibits a fiery temper, threatening to hit Nisa or his wife or actually hitting one or both of them. But he is also very protective of Nisa and his other children. Gau is a medical healer and is able to enter trance states and heal sick members of the village. In her storytelling, Nisa recalls her excitement at seeing Gau coming back into the village with meat for her to eat. Gau dies while Nisa is living near a Tswana village with her husband Besa, and she returns home to her parents’ village to mourn.
Nisa’s mother. As !Kung children are brought up in almost constant contact with their mothers in their early years, Chuko is an important presence in Nisa’s life. Nisa vividly remembers Chuko’s attempts to wean her, despite Nisa’s distress at having to give up nursing at her mother’s breast. Nisa accompanies her mother when Chuko gives birth to Nisa’s younger brother, Kumsa, and is horrified when Chuko says she plans to bury Kumsa so that Nisa can drink the milk in her breasts. Many years later, after Chuko dies, Nisa goes into an intense period of mourning.
Read an in-depth analysis of Chuko.
Nisa’s older brother. Dau is protective of Nisa and intervenes when their parents treat her too harshly. He also brings her mongongo nuts to eat because he knows they are her favorite. Later, after Dau’s wife dies, Nisa takes care of their daughter as her own. Nisa says she loves Dau and looks up to him enormously, and she demonstrates this adoration again and again in her stories.
Nisa’s younger brother. Nisa is present at Kumsa’s birth, and she is horrified when her mother tells her to get a digging stick so that she can bury the infant. Nisa is jealous of Kumsa and steals some of his milk from her mother’s breasts, only to be scolded by her mother.
Nisa’s sister who dies in childhood after a “trembling sickness.”
Nisa’s young boyfriend with whom she begins to learn about sex, as all young !Kung children do.
Nisa’s cousin who wants to engage in sex play with her, though Nisa refuses.
Nisa’s first real love and one of the “important men” in her life. Kantla is married to a woman named Bey, and they both want Nisa to be a co-wife. They have a trial marriage, but it fails. Later, Kantla continues to make overtures of marriage but Nisa continues to refuse him. Kantla remains in Nisa’s life as her lover.
Kantla’s younger brother. Dem is Nisa’s lover for a time, and he and Kantla get into a fight over her.
Nisa’s first husband. Bo sleeps with Nukha while they are in the marriage hut. Nisa hears them and tells her parents, who scold Nukha sternly and dissolve the marriage.
Nisa’s second husband. Nisa likes Tsaa a great deal more than Bo, but she is still young and refuses to have sex with him. Tsaa refuses to give Nisa and her father meat, and Nisa’s father sends him away.
Nisa’s third husband. Her marriage to Tashay is Nisa’s first substantial marriage, and Tashay becomes the father of her children. Tashay is jealous of Nisa’s lovers, and after Tashay dies, his relatives say that the spirit of Nisa’s lovers killed him. “Tashay” is also the tribal name given to Shostak’s husband.
Read an in-depth analysis of Tashay.
Gau’s co-wife, briefly. Gau brings Saglai home to be his co-wife, unbeknownst to his wife. However, Chuko flies into a rage and drives Saglai out of the village.
Nisa’s co-wife, briefly, during her marriage to Tashay.
Nisa’s first daughter. Nisa conceives her first child out of wedlock, and she tries to conceal this fact from her husband at the time, Tashay. However, the child grows to look just like her lover, Twi. The !Kung believe in the power of spiritual forces to cause sickness and death, and when Little Chuko dies in infancy, Nisa blames the fact that Chuko was her lover’s child and not her husband’s.
Nisa’s second daughter and her only daughter to survive infancy. Nai dies when she is sixteen or seventeen, by Shostak’s estimate, after a physical brawl with her husband that results in a broken neck. She lives for a few days after her injury, and Nisa goes to her side, but there is nothing the healers can do to help her. After Nai dies, Nisa attacks Nai’s husband and the husband’s older sister in retaliation.
Nisa’s fourth child, a daughter, who does not survive infancy.
Nisa’s son and last born. Kxau dies as a teenager from a disease that strikes him as a result of eating some honey from a hive that has been partially consumed by a honey badger. When Dau performs a trance, he sees that God has made Kxau sick because he intended the honey for the badger.
Nisa’s fourth husband. Nisa comments several times on Besa’s sexual demands, and she calls him “very bad.” He leaves Nisa while she is pregnant with their child, and the marriage eventually dissolves.
One of Nisa’s lovers. Besa chases him with a knife, and eventually Nisa’s father drives Kashe away.
Nisa’s fifth husband. Nisa is married to Bo during the initial fifteen interviews, and she is still married to him four years later, when Shostak returns to Africa. Nisa admits that they have big fights and small fights but says that they love each other.
Another of Nisa’s lovers. When Bo finds out that Nisa and Debe have stolen away into the bush for a tryst, he kicks Nisa in the chest, almost killing her.