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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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.
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.
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.
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.