Source of Information: Shostak, M. (1981). Nisa: The life and words of a !Kung woman. New York: Random House.
The !Kung population is located in isolated areas of Botswana, Angola, and Namibia. They refer to themselves as the Zhun/twasi, "the real people," and are also referred to as the !Kung San. The semi-arid region in which they live features some trees but is mostly brush and grass-covered low hills and flat spaces. Rainfall during the wet season varies from only five to forty inches. Temperatures during the winter are frequently below freezing, but during the summer are well above 100F.
This harsh environment was avoided by most outsiders, but the !Kung are able to survive by adapting to their surroundings. The villages, consisting of 10-30 people, are semi-permanent; once the water source dries up, the band has to carry their belongings to a new site where a reliable source of water can be located. The huts are small and built of grass with all doors facing the center, circling a large communal area where children play, women cook, and all family life except for sleeping takes place. A fire is burning in front of each hut at all times.
The !Kung are hunter gatherers, adapting to their semi-arid environment by gathering roots, berries, fruits, and nuts that they gather from the desert, and from the meat provided by the hunters. Both women and men possess a remarkable knowledge of the many edible foods available, and of the medicinal and toxic properties of different species. !Kung men are responsible for providing the meat, although women might occasionally kill small mammals. Game is not plentiful and the hunters sometimes must travel great distances. Meat is usually sparse and is shared fairly among the group when a hunter is successful. Every part of the animal is used; hides are tanned for blankets and bones are cracked for the marrow. Typical game sought in the hunt includes wildebeest, gemsbok, and giraffe; they also kill various reptiles and birds, and collect honey when it is available. The men provide household tools and maintain a supply of poison tipped arrows and spears for hunting.
!Kung women provide the majority of the food, spending two to three days a week foraging varying distances from the camp, and are also responsible for child care, gathering wood for fires, carrying water, and cooking. Typical foods they might return with are mongongo nuts, baobab fruits, water roots, bitter melon, or !Gwa berries. Children are left at home to be watched over by those remaining in camp, but nursing children are carried on these foraging trips, adding to the load the !Kung women must carry.
Leisure time in !Kung camps is spent singing, visiting, playing games, and storytelling. They have no formal authority figure or chief, but govern themselves by group consensus. Disputes are resolved through lengthy discussions where all involved have a chance to make their thoughts heard until some agreement is reached. Travel to visit relatives occurs during or following the rainy season, when a source of water and food is assured during the trip. During the dry winter months, a number of bands may settle around one permanent spring. During this time, ritual life increases, including the frequency of trance dances.
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The spiritual world is a part of all aspects of !Kung life, determining health, death, and the abundance of food and water. They believe that misfortune, death, or sickness can be directed at a person via invisible arrows shot by spirits, but that if they can influence the spirits and stop the arrows, they can stop adverse things from happening. The healing dance is an attempt by the healers to stop or remove the invisible arrows causing the problem. The healers dance around a fire until their concentration puts them into a trance state. They believe this activates a powerful force which the !Kung call n/um. When they reach the trance state and achieve n/um, they are able to ritually heal everyone sitting around the fire. Both men and women can become healers by going through an apprenticeship with an experienced healer.
The trance dance is an exciting social event for the !Kung during which people renew
bonds, visit and laugh together, and sing and dance. !Kung women's clapping and singing
influence the power of the n/um the healers are able to activate, and they also protect
the healers from hurting themselves when they are in a trance.
Archaeological records indicate that hunter gatherers have lived in southern Africa for
thousands of years (Shostak, 1981). Around two thousand years ago, the Bantu-speaking
population began to migrate into the !Kung territory, bringing with them a much different
way of life. Over the centuries they have lived together, largely maintaining their
individual traditions. However, years of exposure to the relative ease of village life,
with its cultivated gardens, herds of goats, and permanent housing have made it difficult
for the !Kung to withstand the lure of an apparent easier life. Drought and the impact of
overgrazing on the availability of wildlife have been factors in these changes, along with
exposure to the concept of wages for labor and role models from the outside world.
Although a few !Kung still maintain their traditional lifestyle, most have succumbed to
the pressures of change.