The Life and Words of a Kung Woman

Taking the explication of experience as its object as well as its method, Marjorie Shostak’s Nisa: The Life and Words of a Kung Woman weaves together three narrative strands, and in doing so challenges the ethnographer’s penchant for the general and the anonymous. The first strand, the autobiographical details of a 50-year-old woman’s life among the seminomadic Kung hunter- gatherers of Botswana, adds to the ethnographical literature on the Kung. The second presents Nisa’s story that reflects many of the experiences and dilemmas addressed in recent feminist writing. The third tells the story of an intercultural encounter in which the distinction between ethnographer and subject becomes blurred.

Nisa explains Nisa’s personality in terms of Kung ways and, for the general reader, corrects and qualifies a number of received attitudes about “simple” societies. Michel Leiris’ warning that “we are all too inclined to consider a people happy if considering them makes us happy” applies particularly to the Kung, whose seemingly uncomplicated way of life, enlightened attitudes toward child rearing, and undeniable charm make them prime candidates for western appreciation. But Nisa’s answer to shostak’s question, “ what is it to be a Kung woman?” makes us feel the force of ugly facts we might otherwise skim over. Only 54 percent of Kung children live to marry; Nisa loses all four of her children and a cherished husband. Nisa’s memories of sibling rivalries, of her terrible rages when denied her mother, of nasty fights over food undermine the idyllic vision Westerners cherish of childhoods lived in such “simple” circumstances.

Woven into Nisa’s autobiography are allusions to Shostak’s personal engagement with issues of gender. Nisa’s response to “What is it to be a Kung woman?” also seems to answer another questions, “ what is it to be a woman?” In fact, Nisa’s answers illuminate not just one woman’s experience, but women’s experience in general. It is a salutay shock to realize how much ethnographic literature omits the perspective of women about women.

Nisa’s story is interwoven with Shostak’s presentation of their encounter; at times each seems to exist primarily in response to the other. Nisa’s autobiography is a distinct narrative in a particular voice, but it is manifestly the product of a collaboration. Indeed, by casting Nisa is the shape of a “ life,” Shostak employs a potent Western literary convention. Real lives, in fact, do not easily arrange themselves as stories that have recognizable shapes; Nisa, for example, often says “ We lived in that place, eating things. Then we left and went somewhere else.” It is in the process of the dialogue between Nisa and Shostak that a shaped story emerges from this seemingly featureless background.

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