The Dobe !Kung:
A Comparative Ethnography
By Stephanie Segal
In 1963, Richard B. Lee went to southern Africa to study a tribe called the !Kung in an area of Botswana known as the Dobe. Six years later, Marjorie Shostak traveled to Africa to live with the !Kung hoping to discover, in particular, how the lives of !Kung women differed from her own. In this essay, I will contrast and compare Lee's book, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 1984, 1993 and Shostak's book, Nisa The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman,1981, 1983.
Lee's book is a comprehensive study of numerous aspects of !Kung life, such as food-gathering, marriage, social control, rituals, belief systems, etc. Conversely, Shostak's book is a combination of her own observations and the anecdotal tales of one !Kung woman, known as Nisa. While much of the information amassed by the authors is in agreement, the books are approached from entirely different perspectives. The Dobe Ju/'hoansi is a fascinating, extremely well written study of the nature and functions of a tribal society from a social and environmental perspective. It is interesting and enjoyable. Shostak's Nisa is a compilation of observations made by Shostak followed by a series of transcriptions of taped interviews with Nisa. It is somewhat disjointed, and a bit more difficult to follow than The Dobe.
The !Kung are a foraging tribe who live in the northwest Kalahari Desert. They speak a language that is infused with a series of clicks, represented on paper by exclamation points and slashes. They rely on the nuts of the mongongo, an indigenous tree, as a staple of their diet. Meat provides about 30 percent of their food. They also eat a variety of plants and small animals. Occasionally one of the men will kill a larger animal, such as an antelope. According to Shostak, "!Kung women contribute the majority (from 60-80 percent by weight) of the total food consumed." (Shostak, 12). Monogamy coexists with polygamy and divorce is not uncommon among the !Kung. They have a post-partum sex taboo, incest taboo, and arranged marriages. Despite a fair amount of equality between !Kung men and women, there is an interesting phenomenon with regard to marriage. It is known as the marriage-by-capture ceremony:
The Ju/'hoansi marriage ceremony involves the mock forcible carrying of a girl from her
parent's hut to a specially built marriage hut, and the anointing of bride and groom
with special oils and aromatic powders. Unlike our western fairly tales in which the
couples live happily ever after, !Kung marriages start on a stormy note and continue in
that vein for weeks or months after. (Lee, 82).
Despite what might be interpreted as a rather sexist ritual, the !Kung actually have quite a lot of equality between the sexes. The women are given a fair amount of authority and responsibility and do more food-gathering than the men.
Another intriguing paradox of !Kung life is the way men act and are treated after they have gone hunting. In a strange ritual known as insulting the meat, when a man hunts and kills an animal, especially a large one, he is expected to act extremely modest and to minimize the importance of his contribution to the tribe. In addition, the other tribe members insult his kill by proclaiming how small and worthless it is. Lee illustrates this by quoting a tribesman named Gaugo:
Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, "I have killed a big one in the bush!"
He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, "What did you see today?"
He replies quietly, "Ah, I'm no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all maybe just a tiny one." Then I smile to myself because
I know he has killed something big. This continues with the insults of the others. You mean you dragged us all the way out
here to make us cart home your pile of bones? Oh, if I had known it was this thin I wouldn't have come. People, to think I
gave up a nice day in the shade for this. At home we may be hungry, but at least we have cool water to drink. (Lee, 54).
Lee explains that the goal of all the joking and insults is to prevent the hunters from becoming arrogant. It is a leveling mechanism that promotes an egalitarian society.
Shostak went to the Kalahari in hopes of finding one woman who could give her a personal account of what life as a !Kung woman is like. She interviewed a number of !Kung women, but had not found what she was looking for until she interviewed a middle-aged woman named Nisa. "I was struck by her gifts as a storyteller; she chose her words carefully, infused her stories with drama, and covered a wide range of experience." (Shostak, 7.) Shostak did fifteen interviews with Nisa, resulting in thirty hours of tape in the !Kung language.
Nisa is a 50 year-old woman whose willingness to speak about her childhood and life gave Shostak a solid basis on which to write her book. Through the interviews, Nisa shares intimate details of her life but, interestingly, Shostak has some question as to the validity of some of Nisa's stories:
To make her story lively and dramatic, she often assumed the high, somewhat insistent voice of a young child, as though trying to describe the events of her childhood through the eyes of Nisa, the little girl. It is probable that these early accounts are somewhat exaggerated a combination of actual memory, information about her childhood related to her when she was older, generalized experiences common to the culture, and fantasy. (Shostak, 43).
Shostak explains that "!Kung children have the nearly exclusive attention of their mothers for 44 months, 36 of them with unlimited access to the food and comfort afforded by nursing." (Shostak, 48). Nisa tells of her obsession with nursing and the terrible rejection she felt when her mother became pregnant with her little brother and insisted that she stop nursing. She is so insistent on nursing that her mother says to her, " 'Now, get up and go back to the village and bring me my digging stick.' I said, 'What are you going to dig?' She said, 'A hole. I am going to dig a hole so I can bury the baby. Then you, Nisa, will be able to nurse again.'" (Shostak, 54). She goes on to imply that her mother is planning to kill the baby so that Nisa can continue to nurse. Nisa begs her mother not to kill the baby. So much of this seems questionable. Infanticide is rare among the !Kung and it is unlikely Nisa'a mother would have actually gone through with murdering her child.
Nisa's life is filled with terrible tragedies, probably more than most !Kung endure; she loses two of her children in infancy, and her other two as adults. Her husband dies soon after the birth of one of their children. Shostak even says in her epilogue that, "Nisa did not fairly represent the mainstream of !Kung life, either in her experiences or in her personality. None of the other women I interviewed had encountered as much tragedy as Nisa, or had a comparable extravagance of personal style." (Shostak, 351). It almost seems as if Nisa's are tales that have been woven and distorted through the years and through her vivid imagination.
A fascinating aspect of !Kung life is the strong belief in the / / gangwasi. These spirits of recently deceased Ju/'hoansi are considered to be responsible for illness and misfortune. Lee explains that if herbs, spells, potions, etc. don't cure ills, the !Kung resort to a healing power known as n/ um. (Lee, 109). It is interesting to note that n/ um is not only available to shaman or special medicine people, but is available to all who want to learn to use the power. As Shostak explains, "N/ um reflects the basic egalitarian nature of !Kung life. It is not reserved for a privileged few: nearly half the men and a third of the women have it." (Shostak, 295). The healing happens while the healer is in a trance state. At this time, healers claim to be able to see things that ordinary people cannot:
The healing trances take place at all-night dances, the major ritual focus of the Ju/'hoansi in the 1960's. 1970's and 1980's. There are both men's and women's dances and new manifestations of n/ um with new rituals are constantly appearing as young healers experience revelations during dreams, trances or illness. (Lee, 109).
In addition to the / / gangwasi, there are two other gods: / / gangwan!an!a, a big god and / / gangwa matse, a small god. There is a contradiction amongst the !Kung, while some believe that / / gangwan!an!a is responsible for good and the other evil, and others believe exactly the opposite.
I found Shostak's book to be tedious. Her method of using taped interviews of only one subject seemed extremely limiting to me. I was not particularly won over by Nisa's personality or her stories, and I found Shostak's writing to be fairly pedantic. In contrast, Lee related both personal experiences and events he observed in an engaging, page-turning style. His field methods gave a more holistic understanding of !Kung life than did Shostak's. He seemed to be more open to fully experiencing what it is like to be a member of the !Kung tribe, while retaining some objectivity. While Shostak seemed frustrated and gave the impression that she couldn't wait to leave the village, Lee truly seemed to genuinely enjoy his time with the !Kung,
Now that the !Kung have been studied by a number of anthropologists over a period of years, there must be some western influences that have been adopted by the !Kung. Although the customs and beliefs have probably remained similar to what they were 20 years ago, it would be interesting to go back and see what kind of impact western culture has had an on present day !Kung life.
1981 Nisa The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman.
New York: Random House, 1983
Lee, Richard B.
1993 The Dobe Ju/'hoansi .
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Rpt. of The Dobe !Kung . 1984.