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Nisa opens with an introduction by Shostak, detailing her own preparations and expectations for her first trip to the Dobe region of Africa, in northwest Botswana and at the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Shostak describes Nisa’s people, the Zhun/twasi (“real people”), bushmen who are hunter-gatherers and members of a racial group known as Khoisan. The Khoisan are considered by biologists to be distinct from black Africans, with fair skin, high cheekbones, and an average height of only about five feet.
Shostak narrates from a position in the present, reflecting back on her experiences in Africa. (Nisa, too, tells her stories in the past tense.) In the introduction, Shostak says that her motivation for coming to Africa was primarily to learn about the internal lives of the !Kung people, whose more easily discernable qualities (such as diet, life cycle, and demographics) had already been studied by other anthropologists for years. She and her husband join in the ongoing research, Shostak feeling particularly inclined to study the women of the !Kung tribe. She learns the language and interviews a number of women, but it is Nisa who captures her attention most. Nisa answers Shostak’s questions with colorful language and vivid stories. After a few interviews, Nisa tells Shostak that her mother wanted to kill Nisa’s younger brother right after he was born so that Nisa could continue to nurse. Shostak is taken aback and starts to doubt Nisa’s truthfulness, but she eventually comes to trust her.
The rest of the book is divided into fifteen chapters, one for each of the interviews Shostak has with Nisa during her first Dobe visit, plus an epilogue. Each chapter opens with an overview by Shostak on the topic, theme, stage of life, or experience Nisa is about to narrate. In these introductions, Shostak draws from interviews with other !Kung men and women, work done by other anthropologists, her own observations and analyses, and historical and geographical contexts.
In Chapter 1, Nisa describes her early memories of accompanying her pregnant mother as she gives birth to Nisa’s baby brother, Kumsa, and threatens to kill him, though she does not actually commit infanticide. In Chapter 2, Nisa recalls growing up with her brother, playing with him, experiencing sibling hatred, and protecting him from harm. She remembers her mother’s pregnancy with her fourth child, Kxamshe, who dies young. In Chapter 3, Nisa describes the life of a hunter-gatherer, hunting prey, celebrating the arrival of meat in the village, gathering roots and bulbs, experiencing thirst in times of drought, and gorging on caterpillars in times of rain.
In Chapter 4, Nisa remembers what it was like to engage in sex play with other children in the village for the first time, and she recalls some of the boys’ sexual aggression toward her and other girls. She notes that parents and children sleep in the same hut, so that the children become aware of what their parents are doing when they move under the blankets. In Chapter 5, Nisa tells Shostak about her first two marriages, one to a man named Bo, the other to a man named Tsaa. Both marriages end quickly, as is typical of early “trial” marriages in !Kung society. Nisa also describes her feelings of love for a man named Kantla, who is already married and who invites her to be a co-wife, an offer that Nisa refuses.
In Chapter 6, Nisa enters her first long marriage, to a man named Tashay. She and Tashay grow to love each other. Early in their marriage, Nisa experiences her first menstruation, and the women of the village enclose her in a hut and perform the ritual ceremonies that accompany that momentous event in a !Kung woman’s life. Chapter 7 concerns the infrequent though not uncommon practice of adopting a co-wife. Nisa tells of her own brief experience with a co-wife Tashay brings to the hut. Before long, Nisa drives the co-wife away and the marriage resumes as normal.
Nisa takes on several lovers, as is common in !Kung society, and when she becomes pregnant, as recounted in Chapter 8, her husband gets very jealous. He accuses her of infidelity and questions the baby’s paternity. Nisa gives birth to a baby girl, Chuko, who dies in infancy. In Chapter 9, Nisa describes her four subsequent pregnancies. She has a baby girl, Nai, then miscarries, then has another girl who dies young, and then has a son, Kxau.
Chapter 10 begins with Shostak’s observations of the !Kung’s changing environment and way of life, which have been increasingly influenced by neighboring cattle-herding groups, the Tswana and the Herero. Nisa then discusses her marriage to a Tswana man named Besa, as well as the complications of her several love affairs with other men. In Chapter 11, Nisa travels from the Tswana village back to her parents’ village after learning her father has died. Soon after, her mother dies, and Nisa herself falls ill but is cured by her elder brother, Dau, who is a healer. Nisa begins working in the house of a European woman who lives near their village. She also becomes pregnant with Besa’s child but miscarries. In Chapter 12, Nisa continues to tell Shostak about her many lovers and also recalls being a child and seeing her mother with her lover and telling her father about her mother’s affair. She also explains to Shostak that the !Kung women talk freely with each other about sex, and she asks Shostak if that isn’t the same with all women.
Chapter 13 deals with the !Kung belief in the spirit world and, in particular, with the role spirits are thought to play in illness and healing. Nisa describes her father’s and older brother’s healing abilities. She also tells Shostak about how her mother taught her to go into a trance and about her own once-potent capabilities as a healer. In Chapter 14, Nisa painfully recounts the deaths of her two last surviving children. Nai dies after being shoved by her husband, and Kxau succumbs to serious illness after eating honey that the spirits have designated for the honey badger. In Chapter 15, Nisa expresses hurt over the fact that her husband no longer wants to sleep with her very often, and she says she feels she has grown ugly. She mentions that she has been through menopause and asks Shostak for medicine to bring back her menses.
The epilogue briefly describes Shostak’s return to Dobe in 1975, when she, her husband, and a graduate student conduct a research study on women’s menstrual cycles. She also meets with Nisa and interviews her again. She finds Nisa to be calm and in good spirits, and Nisa agrees when Shostak asks if it would be all right to publish the interviews as a book.