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

NISA: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman

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While there have been many rich descriptions of the life--and the now-changing times--of the !Kung of south central Africa, anthropologist Shostak's account is noteworthy for its focus on a single individual. Nisa (the name is fictitious) is a woman now 60-ish, forthcoming in personality, and unabashed and expressive in her native tongue (which Shostak painstakingly learned in order to conduct her investigations). The result is the narrative of an idiosyncratic life, but one that mirrors the conventions and culture of a group as well. The portrait is unsentimental. Shostak even reports early ambivalent feelings about Nisa, whose demanding, manipulative behavior, along with her constant reminders of the generosity of past anthropologists, were not likely to endear. Over time, however, Shostak and Nisa both changed. The anthropologist interviewed over a dozen women of all ages--inviting recall, asking pertinent questions, seeking biographical highlights. Nisa emerged as particularly compelling, colorful in language and generally truthful. Each chapter begins with a broad view of the stage or age about to unfold, based on other sources and interviews. Then we focus on Nisa, starting with her earliest memories of weaning and of the near-infanticide of her younger brother (a rare event, we're assured). We learn of a free-wheeling childhood and sex play; of seasonal comings and goings; child marriages; the first menstruation and attendant rituals; of childbirth, in the bush, unattended. If the narrative is highly charged with sex it is because sex is important in !Kung life. Marriages are largely monogamous, with some sanction for a second wife; lovers are accepted for both husbands and wives, but discretion is important--discovery can lead to mayhem and even murder. Some cultural details we have heard before from Richard Lee or Irven DeVore--the elaborate gift-exchanges, the bounteous mongongo nut, the meat-sharing, the canny skills (the ability to recognize an individual's tracks, for example), the storied botanical and animal lore. Shostak sees some potential for good (the preservation of rituals, healing rites, drum dances, stories) even as domestication takes place and the !Kung begin to cultivate their gardens, to crave tobacco and money. Time will tell. For now we have a remarkable anthropologist to thank for an absorbing account of the far-from-happy life of a woman of admirable strength and self-possession.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1981
ISBN: 0674004329
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press