Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak

Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak

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“Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman” by Marjorie Shostak


     In the book, “Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman,” written by Marjorie Shostak; is a culturally shocking and extremely touching book about a woman who had gone through many struggles and horrific tragedies in her life. This book also emphasizes the perspective of most of the women in the society. There are many striking issues in this book that the people of the !Kung tribe go through.

     Marjorie Shostak, an anthropologist who had written this book had studies the !Kung tribe for two years. Shostak had spent the two years interviewing the women in the society. The !Kung tribe resided n the Dobe area of Northwest Botswana, that’s infused with a series of clicks, represented on paper by exclamation points and slashes. Shostak had studied that the people of the tribe relied mostly on nuts of the mongongo, which is from an indigenous tree that’s part of their diet.

     Shostak, out of all the women in the tribe had made close connections with a fifty year old woman with the name of Nisa. The woman, Nisa, is what the book is about. The book is written in Nisa’s point of view of her life experiences while growing up in that type of society. Nisa’s willingness to speak in the interviews about her childhood and her life gave Shostak a solid basis on what to write her book on. Nisa’s life was filled with tragedies. She had gone through certain situations where Nisa loses two of her children as infants and two as adults. She had also lost her husband soon after the birth of one of their children. According to Shostak, “None of the women had experiences as much tragedy as Nisa…” (Shostak, 351).

     Shostak, when interviewing Nisa, considers that in the beginning of the book, Nisa seems to exaggerate the stories from when she was an infant. Although the stories are exaggerated by Nisa, a lot of women can relate to her life even with the geographic distance between them or if the society is completely different. Women of the same age can relate to Nisa, or if they went through the same situations like her. Certain women, even in America, have gone through a situation where they had to bury their own child or if they have lost a husband.

     This book had first started out by introducing the readers to what this book is going to sound like, which was the Introduction.

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Then once the introduction was read, Shostak had written it in a way that the book is in Nisa’s point of view. Nisa had her own words in the book talking about her life as an infant. As an infant, parents, in general, in the !Kung tribe are very focused on their children. The parents in that tribe make sure their children are healthy and nursed. One of the situations that occurred in Nisa’s life was in the beginning of the book when her little brother was on the way for delivery and Nisa had always cried since she was not being nursed. Every time Nisa had cried, her father had threatened to beat her and when that threat was made, she had to automatically be quiet or Nisa would tell her mother that her father was going to beat her. Telling her mother would help in a way because mothers also have an equal say in things in that type of society. Every person in that particular society has a say in things, and they are all equal. Because Nisa had cried every time, her mother, because Nisa was getting extremely skinny since she was not being nursed, her mother had delivered her son and had told Nisa to get a digging stick. When Nisa’s mother had asked for this, she started crying again and tried to convince her mother not to go through with the burial and to just nurse her little brother and not worry about herself. Not being able to convince her mother, Nisa had to walk all the way back into where there are people, crying on the way, a person had stopped her and was wondering what was wrong. When Nisa was stopped, she had told the person what her mother was going to do, and they both ran back to her mother and had stopped her from burying her son. When told about this story to the readers, it comes to the realization that not only the parents care too much about the children but so do other people in the same village or the same tribe. Other people not only care about what’s going on with the children, but they also care about what’s going on with the family itself. The people of the !Kung tribe come now and then to check up on families to see how they are doing. Each section of the tribe has a chief. The chief in each section of the village is the person that is in charge of checking on the families. If the chief hears that a wife is being beaten by her husband, he or she will check up on them to make sure things aren’t getting too bad. This was shocking because when compared to America, the people in America make sure they do not get into other peoples business.

     The roles of the male and female of the !Kung tribe are different. The males of the tribe have to go out hunting for food so he could support his family. If the male, when going out hunting and he catches a large animal, it is considered to be wrong to brag about the size of the animal. Each male, after hunting has to be humble when catching a large animal. The male often hold positions such as a spokesperson for a certain group or as a healer. If the male is a healer, he has a much greater authority over many of the people in general of the tribe.

     Women, although still equal to the male have a great responsibility of taking care of the family. In the !Kung tribe, the sex of the child does not matter, but in certain cultures, “A mother’s influence is thought to pose a threat to her son’s masculinity or ability to attain full male status, and boys are separated from their mothers to counteract this feminizing influence (Shostak, 214).” In the !Kung tribe, both the boys and the girls are allowed to sleep beside their parents, it wouldn’t matter if a boy sleeps with his mother. The only time that the boy child is being separated from the mother is when there is a ceremony being held for the boy around the ages of fifteen and twenty. The ceremony is called “Choma,” which is a male initiation ceremony. What happens here is that the boy experiences famine, cold, thirst, and fatigue from dancing at the ceremony.

     Parents in America are not completely different from the parents of the !Kung tribe, although there are shocking differences. What is different from the parents of the !Kung tribe to the parents of America is that they would not bury a child or that would be considered murder in America. If that is done by a parent of the !Kung tribe, then that is considered to be normal because the parent, if he or she has another child and the child is getting sick, they would pay closer attention to the sick child than the child that is in the womb. Parents in America make sure that they pay attention to all of their children, if they don’t, the child would end up growing up a certain way, and that is what makes society in America.

     Nisa’s life, when compared to other females is extremely tough since she had gone through many horrific tragedies. As Shostak had mentioned, not many females of the same tribe have experienced what she had through out her life. Average females of the !Kung tribe go through marriage at a young age. Marriage is a sacred thing that starts when the females are very young. If a female gets married at a very young age, they would be with an older man, this is more like a “trial” marriage. It’s called a trial marriage because the females of the tribe get married more than once. If they do not like the person they are with at that time, they have the right to divorce. Nisa speaks of her many marriages and how they worked out and why they turned out that way. Nisa was married for the first time at a very young age. She had not even gone through menstruation yet, knowing this fact, Nisa was probably around ten years old when she had gotten married. This is shocking because when talking about marriage at such a young age, it’s called “child marriage,” however; there it is just called a “trial” marriage. That is the way that it is in her culture. A woman marries an older man when she is very young. Sometimes the girl is too scared to stay in their new home alone together right away. Because of the fear of the girl a nurse would come and stay with them for a short period of time until the girl’s comfortable with the male.

     Marriage in America is very simple, a person usually falls in love with someone and then marries them, or if they do not find any one as a companion, an arranged marriage or “blind dates” are being made by the parents so they could get married sooner. Marriage in America is varied because of the different culture, but the only way it is different from the !Kung tribal culture is that no one gets married at such a young age. The normal way to get married is to fall in love in America.

     By understanding the economics and gender behavior of this tribe, we can see how they function in the scope of a larger American civilization works. The people of the !Kung tribe have many similar customs as a Westerner but they are different in many ways also. Shostak had spent a good amount of time to find out the similarities and differences of tradition and customs being done in the Dobe area of the Kalahari desert compared to Western cultures, or more modern places.

Works Cited

Shostak, Marjorie. 1945 - Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. Harvard University      Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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