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Academic Book Review, Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak

Updated on August 3, 2016

This text provided a highly interesting and graphic account of the way of life adopted by a courageous woman in a different culture, hemisphere and continent. The name of this women is Nisa, whom has experienced a great deal of loss, suffering and also hardship- there have been true horrors in her life. !Kung are a tribal group, who dwell in the Kalahari Desert, renowned as being one of the harshest environments on the planet. The land is barren, scrub. The threats of attack by predators and also the climate, make it a difficult and dangerous place to live. The mode of subsistence adopted by the !Kung is of hunting-gathering. This mode is their life style and is therefore central to their culture. Woman are the gatherers, they forage for food stuffs such as plant materials i.e. the monogo nut (this is a key part of the !Kung diet, as important as the potato is to many Western societies. The role of the men is to hunt. Both hunting and gathering are essential to survival and to be carried out efficiently great skill and intelligence is needed: this has been passed down through the generations. “They survive- even thrive- in an environment that is hospitable only to who know it intimately”. The !Kung have great knowledge as they know exactly where to look for foodstuffs even if they are out of sight, i.e. buried underground. The !Kung truly are a remarkable group of people.

By writing this book Shostak’s aim was to convey the role of women in a different society. The setting of the book in terms of time is also a crucial factor. Shostak compiles her research between 1970 and 1971. The women’s movement was, at this time in full force in the West. The West is the area in which Shostak herself originates from. This too is a factor, influencing Shostak to study women in !Kung society. On the outset of her research, Shostak’s goal was to study specific plants used by the !Kung for birth control and termination. Shostak’s goal changed however, as she began to become more acquainted with the !Kung women- one in particular, Nisa. The the premise of her published book is therefore to catalogue the life of a !Kung woman. Raising awareness of particular times which are important, day to day life, how women are perceived and their role in society as a whole i.e. in terms of religion.

The format of the chapters is a particularly important factor of the book. At the beginning of each chapter there is a factual dialogue describing !Kung life as a whole. This part a-few gave examples from many peoples lives whom were interviewed or observed. This was mostly facts, which Shostak had found out herself without reference from others. The latter part of each chapter was Nisa’s account of her life. The book went through Nisa’s live in an orderly fashion. In chapters one to five it is Nisa’s childhood. The next 3 chapters are about marriage and transition into adulthood. Chapters 8 and 9 are about motherhood. The final few chapters represent Nisa’s life as she becomes older, detailing her losses, lovers and more generally rituals of healing and also change imposed on the !Kung. This change is prevalent due the arrival of the Tswanas and Hereroes, whom live alongside the !Kung. Implications and also benefits of these peoples co-existence are prevalent. The difficulties of the !Kung way of life become clearer to them, when they compare themselves to the Hereroes’s and Tswana’s. These groups are cattle herders and therefore have a definite food supply, whereas the hunting-gathering !Kung do not. The book also included a lengthy introduction and an epilogue.

Key stages in a !Kung women’s life are menstruation, first marriage and childbirth. On average a girl menstruates at the age of 16.5. This event is a public occasion involving dancing and singing. The young girl is left alone in isolation and is rubbed with oil, her face is also covered. The ritual continues for all the days of her menstruation and afterwards she is cleaned. Nisa gives her account of her first marriage, upon reading you get a real sense of Nisa’s fear. She did not feel that she was ready for marriage. After a relatively care free childhood, !Kung girls are expected to live with a man. The difficulties are greater as this will be the first time that a girl is away from her family and also due to her husband being so many years older than her. Nisa was still incredibly young when she gave birth to her first child. On average women are between the ages of 18 and 21. There are no medical facilities to care for Mother and baby as are present in our society and also no methods of pain relief. Specific taboos are related to pregnancy including: “women who scream during pregnancy are more likely to have difficult births or even die”. Nisa’s first birth was carried out all on her own. There were no others present and she delivered the baby herself. Childbirth is a stressful time for any women not least when there is no assistance at all. This further reflects upon how strong and brave Nisa is.

Love is crucial aspect of the book. !Kung society is open, there is little segregation of children and they are able to play freely. From a young age sexual practice occurs. Children are interested in sex possibly because they hear and see their parents doing so. They, then try to replicate activity they have seen upon one another. When a !Kung enters into marriage there are no strict rules tying person to person. Women and men are both free to take lovers as and when they like. Although it is heavily frowned upon if a married woman becomes pregnant with another man's baby. Only men are permitted to have more than one wife. A women can only remarry if she has left her marriage or her husband dies. Men and women are reliant upon one another. Women provide a considerable level of food through their gathering pursuits- on average 60-80% of the food consumed is provided by gathering. Females, run the household, look after the men & provide them with nourishment and care for children. Men provide meat, make the tools necessary for gathering, clothing, blankets and other commodities. Cooperation is therefore key as males and females are so dependant upon one another.

The losses experienced by Nisa were prevalent. The number of people Nisa lost were high and this point reflects how difficult survival in a desert environment is. Nisa experienced 2 miscarriages and the losses of four children, all due to illness. Her daughter had almost reached adulthood when a sickness killed her. Statistics regarding death are shocking, “50% of children die before they reach the age of fifteen”. Nisa suffers the loss of her husband, father, mother and brother too. Bad treatment is experienced largely from the men she married. Men are stronger than women and they often use their strength to beat women. Women are expected to act in a certain way, therefore if their behavior ever deviates from the way expected, men very often retaliate with violence. This I only know is true of the men that Nisa married. I am therefore uncertain whether beatings and bad treatment of women by their husbands is universal amongst the !Kung peoples.

Altogether I found the book fascinating, it successfully portrayed the colorful culture of the !Kung. It opened my eyes to the ways, people in a different societies live their lives. Interesting to read about the values they uphold and the life events that make them happy and sad. It made me reassess the way of life hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers have been considered to backward with a poorly developed culture, a poor diet and to lack intelligence. A viewpoint as mentioned, is heavily influenced by Western ideals, placing blinkers. These place blinkers. Such examples are that hunter-gatherers are unable to be intelligent as they do not attend school. What they do is learn throughout their life, from their family, those in their community- skills and knowledge that has been passed down through the generations. This knowledge is essential to their survival. Great levels of detail were evident and I found the book to be clear, concise and well written. The style that the book was written meant that it was easy to read and to follow. Ease of understanding is particularly evident in that, all terms used that the reader may find unfamiliar are explained. As well as this the language used was simple. The book had a high impact as it placed so much emphasis upon a single person. It also wrote generally and from a more scholarly stance too. Occasionally when I read a nonfiction book, I find it to be a challenge, a bombardment of facts and figures. Marjorie Shostak’s book was not like this in the least, the dialogue was well proportioned, balanced and descriptive.

!Kung San people in the Kalahari
!Kung San people in the Kalahari

A drawback of the book having a-lot of detail is that there was a-lot of material to read through. On occasions I felt that specific points were over explained. Explanation is of course crucial to understanding but the level at times was a bit too much. There were instances that points were repeated in the book, this therefore affecting consistency. I feel that the book could have been improved if there was more evidence of the life other !Kung women. Shostak conducted interviews with other women, it would have been interesting if Shostak had included, in the course of her book more findings from these. The book was successful to concentrate on one life but by doing so it meant that generalisations were placed. It is therefore unknown whether other women in !Kung society had, had similar experiences or else had similar outlooks and values. An example of this was when Nisa experienced beatings from her husband Besa. Did other women in !Kung society also experience this type of treatment from their husbands? There are other questions, which will remain unanswered.

In conclusion the text provided a breathtaking sweep across the life of a woman. This woman’s journey was infested with problems, loss and fear. The book was therefore a harrowing read. It explored various realms of her life reflecting the strength and also bravery of the book’s main subject, Nisa. The level of detail provided by the text, meant that it was easy to compare the life lived by a !Kung woman to the life lived by a Western woman. There are obviously striking differences, particularly since Nisa’s culture is so different to my own. I was, however interested to see that there were similarities between the two. Like many Western peoples !Kung have a fear of growing old. This factor is prevalent at a very young age in the !Kung. !Kung women also have a wish to be loved, which is shared in Western society too. Shostak immersed herself in !Kung society. Before beginning, she did a great deal of research and consulted peoples whom had compiled ethnographic studies amongst the !Kung before her. She also learnt to speak the language. This great deal of effort truly paid off as Shostak produced a book, which I believe is revolutionary in the sense that it met all of its aims and provided a very personal reflection of how Nisa lived her life as a !Kung woman. Shostak successfully captured the personality and life story of a truly remarkable woman.


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