(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The Kung San, more widely known as Bushmen, who live in and around the Kalihari desert in Angola, Botswana, and Namibia, are among the last survivors of the hunters and gatherers whose way of life sustained the human race for tens of thousands of years. Now, as growing populations move with agriculture and modern technology into the lands the !Kung depend upon for their livelihood, their culture seems doomed to extinction. Within another generation a book like this one will be impossible to write. Nisa, therefore, is much more than only another volume of popularized anthropology; it is an irreplaceable record of a society that has an important place in human history.

Author Marjorie Shostak, an anthropologist associated with Harvard University, has based her work on her belief that there are many elements linking modern society and the ostensibly primitive !Kung. In recounting the story of one woman’s life, and in addressing this story to the general reader rather than to specialists in her field, she is affirming the universality of human experience. She notes in her Introduction that when she went to northwest Botswana in 1969, she hoped to find the answers to two questions: “What was it like being a woman in a culture so outwardly different from my own? What were the universals, if any, and how much would I be able to identify with?” Her book provides clear and detailed answers to both questions.

A part of the fascination of this book for some readers will be Shostak’s account of how her research evolved. She spent twenty months among the !Kung on her first visit in 1969 and 1970, observing the culture, living and working with the people, and learning the language and its complicated clicks (represented in English by such symbols as the exclamation point). Once she could speak fluently enough to communicate, she set up a series of interviews with nine women ranging in age from fourteen to seventy-five. These interviews provided her with an accurate picture of the typical !Kung woman’s life, and they are the primary sources for the ethnographic discussions that make up about half of each chapter in the book.

Although she had in effect fulfilled at least one of her goals, Shostak was still dissatisfied with her results as she approached the end of her stay. After a year and a half she had failed to achieve any real intimacy with her subjects, and she had been unable to obtain a truly vital account of one individual’s experiences. Just a few weeks before she was scheduled to leave, she decided to try once more to achieve deeper communication with one of her subjects, the woman she here calls Nisa. Her initial reaction to Nisa had been negative. The African woman appeared loud, demanding, and none-too-subtle in her constant allusions to the generosity of other anthropologists, who had given her tobacco, food, and clothing. However, Shostak had recognized in Nisa’s early interviews both gifts as a storyteller and a willingness to share her experiences. She decided to try once more. The two women carried on a number of conversations during Shostak’s final weeks in Africa in 1970 and renewed their friendship on her second field trip four years later. This book is the result.

In her Introduction, fifteen chapters, and Epilogue, Shostak interweaves Nisa’s vivid first-person narrative with commentary that sets her experiences in context. The restrained, objective tone of Shostak’s explanations of the !Kung culture provides an effective contrast to the often highly colored, almost lurid episodes in Nisa’s monologue.

The typical !Kung community is small, family-centered, and, in spite of the striking amount of violence in Nisa’s story, generally peace-loving. While this society is not completely egalitarian, men and women share many responsibilities, especially those connected with child-rearing. Both groups spend much of their time accumulating food essential for the survival of the group. The women, occasionally accompanied by the men, are responsible for gathering the roots and nuts that form the staples of their diet, while the men hunt the more greatly prized meat. These activities leave them ample time for playing with children, talking endlessly, participating in ritual ceremonies, and, if the evidence of Shostak’s interviews is accurate, engaging in enough romantic intrigues to satisfy the most avid soap opera fan.

The !Kung move frequently to find new sources of food and water; they have few possessions, and they can quickly construct the grass huts in which they live. Their stability comes from family ties. Brothers and sisters maintain lifelong connections, grandparents and aunts help with child care, and the different generations provide education and support to one another. They pass down the skills most crucial to their survival—the ability to track animals, to recognize the footprints of their companions, to find rich food sources in the most barren-looking land, and to minister to the sick with the appropriate herbs. Although illness and death are everpresent threats, their way of life seems appealing and extraordinarily efficient.

Both the pleasures and the sorrows of !Kung life are illuminated in Nisa’s words, skillfully translated by Shostak to communicate both the intensity of the experiences and the picturesqueness of the language. There is childlike simplicity in some of Nisa’s phrases, yet her reactions to her encounters with birth, death, love, and separation are those of an adult, and it is in them that Shostak found those universals for which she was searching.

The earlier chapters convey a sense of the lively, spirited, sometimes self-willed child Nisa must have been. Her first memories, from the early 1920’s, are of her weaning, which she bitterly resented, and of the birth of her younger brother. Since the !Kung child is nursed until the mother becomes pregnant again, usually in three to...

(The entire section is 2427 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVIII, December, 1981, p. 92.

Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, October 1, 1981, p. 1282.

Library Journal. CVI, December 15, 1981, p. 2404.

Nation. CCXXXIV, January 2, 1982, p. 21.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, December 17, 1981, p. 67.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, November 8, 1981, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXX, September 25, 1981, p. 81.