Marjorie Shostak – Nisa’s interviewer. Shostak accompanies her anthropologist husband to
Africa, where he is conducting his own studies, and sets out to understand !Kung
life, particularly the lives of !Kung women, more deeply than previous
researchers. She takes the tribal name Hwantla, although in the transcripts Nisa
refers to her most often as “Marjorie” or “my niece.”Read an
in-depth analysis of Marjorie Shostak.
The pseudonym Shostak gives to the !Kung woman whose interviews
constitute the bulk of the book. Nisa is about fifty years old at
the time of the interviews. She is a member of the !Kung San, or !Kung, a group
of bushmen who live in Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. The !Kung are
hunter-gatherers, although at the time of Nisa’s interviews they are beginning
to feel the influence of nearby cattle-herding groups and European settlements.
Nisa has lived through many marriages, the deaths of all her children, and
numerous other heartaches and happy memories, all of which she relates to
in-depth analysis of Nisa.
Bau – A !Kung woman Shostak interviews prior to Nisa. Bau tells Shostak
particularly intimate details from her life, including incidents of childhood
sex play, an extramarital affair, and domestic abuse.
Kxoma and Tuma – Two !Kung men who accompany Shostak and her husband to their campsite
after their arrival in Africa.
Gau – Nisa’s father. Gau sometimes exhibits a fiery temper, threatening to
hit Nisa or his wife or actually hitting one or both of them. But he is also
very protective of Nisa and his other children. Gau is a medical healer and is
able to enter trance states and heal sick members of the village. In her
storytelling, Nisa recalls her excitement at seeing Gau coming back into the
village with meat for her to eat. Gau dies while Nisa is living near a Tswana
village with her husband Besa, and she returns home to her parents’ village to
Chuko – Nisa’s mother. As !Kung children are brought up in almost constant
contact with their mothers in their early years, Chuko is an important presence
in Nisa’s life. Nisa vividly remembers Chuko’s attempts to wean her, despite
Nisa’s distress at having to give up nursing at her mother’s breast. Nisa
accompanies her mother when Chuko gives birth to Nisa’s younger brother, Kumsa,
and is horrified when Chuko says she plans to bury Kumsa so that Nisa can drink
the milk in her breasts. Many years later, after Chuko dies, Nisa goes into an
intense period of mourning.Read an
in-depth analysis of Chuko.
Dau – Nisa’s older brother. Dau is protective of Nisa and intervenes when
their parents treat her too harshly. He also brings her mongongo nuts to eat
because he knows they are her favorite. Later, after Dau’s wife dies, Nisa takes
care of their daughter as her own. Nisa says she loves Dau and looks up to him
enormously, and she demonstrates this adoration again and again in her
Kumsa – Nisa’s younger brother. Nisa is present at Kumsa’s birth, and she is
horrified when her mother tells her to get a digging stick so that she can bury
the infant. Nisa is jealous of Kumsa and steals some of his milk from her
mother’s breasts, only to be scolded by her mother.
Kxamshe – Nisa’s sister who dies in childhood after a “trembling
Tikay – Nisa’s young boyfriend with whom she begins to learn about sex, as
all young !Kung children do.
Tuma – Nisa’s cousin who wants to engage in sex play with her, though Nisa
Kantla – Nisa’s first real love and one of the “important men” in her life.
Kantla is married to a woman named Bey, and they both want Nisa to be a co-wife.
They have a trial marriage, but it fails. Later, Kantla continues to make
overtures of marriage but Nisa continues to refuse him. Kantla remains in Nisa’s
life as her lover.
Dem – Kantla’s younger brother. Dem is Nisa’s lover for a time, and he and
Kantla get into a fight over her.
Bo – Nisa’s first husband. Bo sleeps with Nukha while they are in the
marriage hut. Nisa hears them and tells her parents, who scold Nukha sternly and
dissolve the marriage.
Tsaa – Nisa’s second husband. Nisa likes Tsaa a great deal more than Bo, but
she is still young and refuses to have sex with him. Tsaa refuses to give Nisa
and her father meat, and Nisa’s father sends him away.
Tashay – Nisa’s third husband. Her marriage to Tashay is Nisa’s first
substantial marriage, and Tashay becomes the father of her children. Tashay is
jealous of Nisa’s lovers, and after Tashay dies, his relatives say that the
spirit of Nisa’s lovers killed him. “Tashay” is also the tribal name given to
Shostak’s husband.Read an
in-depth analysis of Tashay.
Saglai – Gau’s co-wife, briefly. Gau brings Saglai home to be his co-wife,
unbeknownst to his wife. However, Chuko flies into a rage and drives Saglai out
of the village.
Tiknay – Nisa’s co-wife, briefly, during her marriage to
Little Chuko – Nisa’s first daughter. Nisa conceives her first child out of wedlock,
and she tries to conceal this fact from her husband at the time, Tashay.
However, the child grows to look just like her lover, Twi. The !Kung believe in
the power of spiritual forces to cause sickness and death, and when Little Chuko
dies in infancy, Nisa blames the fact that Chuko was her lover’s child and not
Nai – Nisa’s second daughter and her only daughter to survive infancy. Nai
dies when she is sixteen or seventeen, by Shostak’s estimate, after a physical
brawl with her husband that results in a broken neck. She lives for a few days
after her injury, and Nisa goes to her side, but there is nothing the healers
can do to help her. After Nai dies, Nisa attacks Nai’s husband and the husband’s
older sister in retaliation.
Bau – Nisa’s fourth child, a daughter, who does not survive
Kxau – Nisa’s son and last born. Kxau dies as a teenager from a disease that
strikes him as a result of eating some honey from a hive that has been partially
consumed by a honey badger. When Dau performs a trance, he sees that God has
made Kxau sick because he intended the honey for the badger.
Besa – Nisa’s fourth husband. Nisa comments several times on Besa’s sexual
demands, and she calls him “very bad.” He leaves Nisa while she is
pregnant with their child, and the marriage eventually
Kashe – One of Nisa’s lovers. Besa chases him with a knife, and eventually
Nisa’s father drives Kashe away.
Bo – Nisa’s fifth husband. Nisa is married to Bo during the initial
fifteen interviews, and she is still married to him four years later, when
Shostak returns to Africa. Nisa admits that they have big fights and small
fights but says that they love each other.
Debe – Another of Nisa’s lovers. When Bo finds out that Nisa and Debe have
stolen away into the bush for a tryst, he kicks Nisa in the chest, almost