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Sample Analysis: Majorie Shostak's Account of Nisa a !Kung Woman

Nisa’s story begins with author Marjorie Shostak’s introduction addressing the context for her conversations with Nisa, a woman of the !Kung ethnic group in southeast Africa. Shostak’s acquaintance with Nisa was not immediate, but evolved over a long period of field-work residence in the area. Shostak also had extensive contact with many other women whose testimonies confirmed the veracity of Nisa’s. Ultimately, Shostak decided that Nisa was the right informant on women’s roles among the !Kung because Nisa “understood the requirements of the interviews, she summarized her life in loosely chronological order; then, following [Shostak’s] lead, she discussed each major phase in depth.”4

 


Nisa, a !Kung Woman

The relationship that developed between Nisa and Shostak was that of teacher and student. And although Nisa and her family were fed and housed by Shostak during the period of their work together, it was understood that Nisa’s task was to teach Shostak about !Kung womanhood, educating her in a dispassionate way, as a caring, but objective instructor. Shostak conducted fifteen long interviews over a two-week period, and six more four years later. Nisa’s stories constitute only eight percent of all the interviews Shostak conducted with !Kung women, so she amassed a great deal of comparative data. Shostak rearranged the stories into chronological order for her book, but she tried to remain true to the nuances of !Kung forms of expression throughout the material.

 

One of the most important issues Shostak discusses in the introduction is her need to become capable in the !Kung language so that she could speak directly to the women among whom she did research. All cultures have different modes of communication within cultural subgroups that depend on slang, symbolic language, and nonverbal modes of communication. Even with the help of language tutors and hearing the language spoken all around her everyday, Shostak was unable to communicate in even a rudimentary way until she had been there six months, and the first real communication she had with !Kung women was in her tenth month of field work. This is the first level of “common language” necessary to the communication of personal accounts.

 

For Shostak and many other field workers, an important level of common language had to do with gender. Women are freer to talk with other women of foreign cultures than to mix with men. This also accounts for the relative dearth of material on women’s lives until very recently in the history of scholarship: most scholars in the field have, until the 20th century, been men who had little access to or focus on women’s lives. Interestingly, Shostak’s conversations with Nisa make for compelling reading because they are so ordinary: any young woman will be able to relate to Nisa’s own life, despite the cultural and geographic distance between them.

 

Section titles indicate a chronology from birth and first impressions through the discovery of sexuality, marriage, childbirth, maturity and old age. In addition, Nisa considers the universal questions of gender relations, health and healing, and dealing with loss in old age. Shostak considers that Nisa’s early memories may be more exaggerated than those of her more mature years, and cautions against a reader’s making Nisa’s story representative. It is but one of many such life histories that, because of their personal nature, will be different for each individual.

 

As young women reading Nisa’s life learn, there is as much about Nisa for them to compare as to contrast with their own experiences of being young and female in the world. Ultimately, no amount of common spoken language or shared gender identity will allow a field worker to know another’s perspective completely, but the investment of time devoted to language learning and familiarity with the subject’s place in society will lead to the acquisition of a deeper understanding.

 

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4 Marjorie Shostak, Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman (New York: First Vintage Books, 1983), p. 39

 

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