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Although we have yet to discover complete equality among the sexes in any pre-existing or presently existing society, the !Kung people are among the closest to reach such equality. The !Kung are an egalitarian society, meaning everyone has access to the valued resources. While the amount of access does vary, just the fact that everyone is includedat least on some levelwhen it comes to meeting the essential needs of living is significant.
Much of !Kung life consists of caring for one another and there is a strong effort put forth to keep everyone relatively on the same status level. A great example of this exists in the traditions of hunting. When a man returns to the village after killing a large animal, there is a certain role-playing he is expected to participate in. As people approach him about what happened, he pretends that nothing worth mentioning took place. This signifies to the rest of the !Kung that the hunt was a success as they continue to inquire for further detail. The successful hunter continues to tell his story, however, if he appears to be too proud the people will not hesitate to make jokes as a means of humbling him. The credit for the hunt invariably goes to the one who made the arrow (which, although rare, can be a woman as well as a man) and it is his (or her) duty to divide the meat fairly between everyone in the village. One way or another, either directly or indirectly, everyone will be given a part of the animal.
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The !Kung also have a "network" of relationships among them called hxaro relationships in which gifts of various quantities and qualities are given. Men have these relationships with other men and women have them with other women. Each adult has around five or six people with whom they exchange gifts. This system of gift giving contributes to the !Kung egalitarian way of life and in making sure that everyone, in one way or another, is taken care of. These relationships, along with kinships ultimately determine how much one gets. In short, the !Kung people work hard and take care of each other.
While much effort is put into maintaining a fairly equal status among the people of !Kung society, this is not to suggest that gender roles are non-existent. Men and women have different roles in society, while the roles of men and women are more equal than in most societies, men do have a more dominant role than women.
Both men and women can gather, however, women are the main gatherers and contribute the most toward food consumed on a daily basis. Despite this, there is still more importance placed on the contribution of meat through the hunting done by !Kung men.
The roles of men and women are taught to children through enculturation both directly and indirectly. Growing up, children, both boys and girls, accompany their mother when she gathers (some stay in the village and play). When boys get a little older (around 12-14) they begin to go out on hunts with their fathers to observe. Usually by their early twenties young men are able to start killing larger animals. Young men also go through an initiation called Choma (Shostak, 215). This initiation lasts six weeks and allows for the "ritual knowledge of male matters to be passed down from one generation to the next. (Shostak, 215)." These are the primary ways young men learn their place in society.
Women, in turn, learn their roles through observation and direction given by their mothers. Young girls gather with their mothers and marry young (around 16). When a young woman gets her first menstruation, she is brought to a hut made especially for the occasion and there she and the women of the village celebrate for three or four days or however long her period lasts. During this time, it is considered very bad luck for the hunt if a man were to see the young woman's face. The segregation of men and women during the celebration of a women's first menstruation is comparable to the secret segregation occurring for a young man's initiation. Other than these two instances, however, not much segregation among the sexes occurs. As Shostak reveals on page 215 of Nisa, most cultures isolate pregnant women, women with newborns, and menstruating women, however, this is not the case in !Kung culture.
Marriage among the !Kung is at first a mere "trial." Since women get married so young (and most often to men quite a bit older) her parents will find an appropriate man for their daughter to marry. Their choice is usually dependent on "age, marital status, hunting ability, and his willingness to accept the responsibilities of married life (Shostak, 116)." These are very important considerations since their daughter's future husband will not only have the responsibility of caring for their daughter, but for them as well. This responsibility and duty to the bride's family is referred to by Shostak as bride service, and can last anywhere from three to ten years, assuming a marriage lasts that long. During this first marriage, the man is expected not only to take care of his wife but also to help raise her. He also must wait until she has started menstruation cycles before having sex with her. Therefore, it is not uncommon for men to have lovers during this time. Nearly fifty percent of these first marriages are unsuccessful.
Although the beginning of a young woman's menstruating cycles is indication of becoming a woman in many cultures, it is not the case within the !Kung culture. Often times at this point many young girls are still being completely supported by their parents and in-laws and of course their husbands. The start of menstruation cycles, however, does indicate that a young woman has reached the last phase of being immature and without responsibility. Reluctance from a young woman in a trial marriage is considered normal and these girls are free to express their opposition and frustrations. When girls do convey resistance toward a marriage it is initially looked upon with considerable tolerance. The older a young woman gets, however, the more she is pressured to take on wifely responsibilities like gathering and submitting to her husbands desire for sex. If she continues to oppose her marriage, she most likely will not receive societal support and ultimately could potentially end her marriage. A young woman is finally considered an adult once she has had her first child.
Equality in a marriage becomes more prominent once it has survived a few years. The passage of years brings the young woman in particular much more significant life experience, often through major changes like childbirth and an active sex life. These changes have the power to open communication lines between couples (Shostak, 151).
Although much equality does exist among the sexes, it is a given that male dominance is evident among any society that has ever existed or even exists today. The !Kung are certainly no exception to this. For example, within !Kung society a man with more than one wife is viewed as acceptable. Men, however, may not make the decision to add wives to his family on his own (unless he is willing to experience the repercussions, such as a poor reputation, and perhaps his original wife leaving him or making his life unbearable). The reasons the idea of a co-wife may be preferable to a man are evident: "he gains a new sexual partner, he is likely to have additional children, and he adds a substantial new provider of food to his family (Shostak, 151)." Kinships are, keep in mind, determinants for how much one gets. One advantage of adding a co-wife for a first wife would be the slight, yet still existent, superior status she will have over her second co-wife. A first wife has a stronger position and can give her co-wife orders. With that in mind, many women find the idea of becoming a second co-wife less than desirable. The best circumstances involve close friends or sisters. Within the context of the !Kung culture the idea of having more than one wife is not an unreasonable concept. While to anyone outside this culture it may appear undesirable and sexist, when we examine the context and conditions of the environment where it exists, a different picture comes to view. Men with more than one wife make up about five percent of the population. This number, however, is not the result of people shaming those who choose to partake in this way of life. While it is not desirable for many, it is still viewed as acceptable.
Taking lovers is also something common among the !Kung. Sex is a big part of !Kung culture and within that context, having lovers is a normal behavior. It is unknown if these relationships were a part of traditional life or if they developed as an influence of the Herero and Twsana settlements (Shostak, 238). While this is a common occurrence, it is also kept as discreet as possible. Because the act of taking lovers is not necessarily about being in an unhappy marriage, it is important, to avoid confrontation and conflict, to keep one's lovers a secret from a spouse. According to Shostak (239-240), much of the desire for lovers stems from the importance of sex to the !Kung people. It seems to be based on the shallow desires of lust and irresponsibility. As she interviewed a !Kung man about his relationship with his lover as compared to his wife he stated that after marriage, passion simmers and "your wife becomes like your mother and you, her father (Shostak, 239)." This seems to demonstrate the appeal and practicality of taking lovers for the !Kung.
Ultimately, the sum of gender roles among society and in marriage are chiefly influenced by the !Kung's cultural ethos of interdependence. This ethos is demonstrated in all aspects of !Kung life and is what helps maintain the nearly equal relationships among men and women along with an egalitarian way of life. The concept of interdependence makes perfect sense within the !Kung way of life. And perhaps there is a lesson we might take away from this culture. Hopefully through learning about the !Kung not only can we begin to understand a little more about worlds that exist beyond our own, but may we also apply such knowledge to our society and help enrich our own culture.
Shostak, M. (1981). Nisa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.