“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Richard Feynman


Marjorie Shostak, a feminist among the bush people, died on October 6th, aged 51

ONE day Marjorie Shostak was sitting with a group of tribal women who were making jokes about sex. “Feeling brave,” as she later recounted, she joined in, trying to match their banter. “I must have succeeded because the women soon started to exclaim that I had truly become a Kung woman.

“The Kung San (literally, bush people) live in the Kalahari desert in south-westem Africa. Miss Shostak was from Brooklyn. On arriving in the Kalahari she set out to learn how to survive in an environment even more hostile than New York’s. She hunted and foraged with the tribe, learning to decipher animal tracks and to spot waterstoring vegetables beneath the desert surface. She ate only bush foods and slept in grass huts.

Importantly, she taught herself the bush language, known as !Kungby linguists. The exclamation mark indicates that the language employs clicks in pronunciation. As there were no !Kung phrase books Miss Shostak learnt by pointing to things and asking what they were called. Her mastery of the clicks gained her admission into the personal lives of bush people. Miss Shostak’s monument is “Nisa: The Life and Words of a Kung Woman”, first published (Harvard University Press) in 1981, now a standard work in anthropology, and, because Nisa has forthright views on sexual rights, highly regarded by feminist groups. “Having affairs,” Nisa told Miss Shostak, “is one of the things God gave us.”

The Woman Hunter

When Marjorie Shostak first went to the Kalahari in 1971 she was in her twenties and newly married. The women’s movement was a growing force in America, and Miss Shostak was a sympathizer. She noted that the Kung women were providers of most of the food, looked after their children and were a comfort to their husbands. The double duty–having a job and running the home–seemed close to the life of a western wife.

Miss Shostak was not the first westerner to study the bush people. She did not call herself an anthropologist. She had a degree in literature. Her method of getting involved in an ethnic group had something of the dedicated amateur about it. She presented herself to the Kung women as someone like themselves, struggling with the issues of love, marriage, work and identity. It sounds like the approach of an innocent, and perhaps it was, but it produced results. She was a pioneer, inspired by the example of Margaret Mead, an American who lived with and wrote about the women of Samoa (1928) and New Guinea (1930). Miss Mead came to the conclusion, a melancholy one for feminists, that, in every known society, men came off best. If men cooked or made dresses, everyone said that these were important activities. “When the same occupations are performed by women, they are regarded as less important.” Miss Shostak accepted that Miss Mead’s generalization applied to Kung men. A Kung woman who happened to be proficient as a hunter was thought of as eccentric. All the same, Miss Shostak insisted that Kung women had a high degree of autonomy and a status “higher than that in many agricultural and industrial societies”. An important way they made themselves, in Nisa’s words, “the chiefs, the rich ones”, was sex. It was sex, Nisa said, that enabled men to live.

In 1993, Miss Shostak, then battling with cancer, returned to the Kalahari and found Nisa now an old woman, after weeks of searching in the desert. She was writing a second book about Nisa and the bush people at the time of her death.

Miss Shostak found that the life of the Kung had changed enormously. Back in the 1980’s it had been apparent that change was on the way: the Kung’s nomadic ways were ending, excursions to the bush were less frequent, huts were being built to last Today, almost no bush people live solely by hunting and foraging. They raise some livestock, mainly goats, and grow a few crops. “For good or ill they are in touch with our world,” says Virginia Luling, of Survival International, which works for tribal people wherever they are found: in Papua New Guinea, in Australia, in Brazil and a remarkable number of other places. She tells the story of an elderly Kalahari bushman who, while putting poison on an arrow, inquired from a westerner whether he believed O.J. Simpson was guilty.

Miss Shostak accepted that such people could not be kept in isolation, but they needed protection. Most of the 90,000 or so bush people live in Botswana, Namibia and Angola, with a few in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. For some governments they are a nuisance. Once they would have been killed: farmers used to hunt them down. Now they are simply displaced and many live as herders or servants for little pay. Their old hunting grounds are now ranches or nature reserves. In Botswana the bush people fear that they face eviction from at least one settlement where they have a school and a clinic, to make way for tourism and ranching. The government says no one will be evicted, but for the bush people the anxiety of it all is one more problem handed to them by the modern world. [p. 93]

THE ECONOMIST, Oct. 19, 1996