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Return to Nisa by Marjorie Shostak

Return to Nisa

by Marjorie Shostak

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There is no reason why anybody who hasn’t read Nisa by Majorie Shostak should read Return to Nisa, Shostak’s later work. And yet, I think anyone who has read Nisa should indeed read the “sequel.”
Of course, it isn’t really a sequel at all.
Nisa was a groundbreaking work of pioneering anthropology from the 1970’s that centered upon Shostak’s unique study of the fading traditional ways of the !Kung bushmen hunter-gatherers of Botswana that focused upon an unusually close relationship she formed with an especially forthcoming !Kung woman who is known by the eponymous pseudonym Nisa. Shostak’s book was a surprising success that turned into a classic text for anthropology class. It is, in my view, an outstanding work on multiple levels and I would highly recommend it to all, even if you are not especially interested in cultural anthropology studies.
Return to Nisa lacks almost everything that distinguishes Nisa. It is, finally, not even an anthropology book at all, but rather a memoir and a brilliant work of literature that is about a dying Marjorie Shostak who returns to Africa both because it represents a time of triumph and health for her as well as an opportunity for a chance she does not want to admit she hopes for: a cure for her cancer brought about by the primitive religion and superstition of the !Kung people she once dwelt among in the studies that spawned Nisa.
Only fourteen years have passed since she left, but what once appeared to be the twilight of the !Kung traditional lifestyle has swiftly been extinguished. Reading her re-entry in the !Kung world, you are to some degree reminded of Sitting Bull’s Sioux banished to a reservation, dependant upon others for their sustenance. Shostak is less surprised by this than by the mercenary approach her former “friends” among the !Kung – including the Nisa she once bonded so deeply with – take with her, demanding not only hand-outs but actual payments for even basic conversation with Shostak in some cases.
In Return to Nisa, Shostak attempts to reconnect as an anthropologist with Nisa and the !Kung she separated from a generation before, when she was a young, pretty, healthy girl in her twenties, at the very edge of academic success, rather than the older mother of three burdened with cancer and mortality. As such, the book is much more a journal about Marjorie Shostak than about Nisa and the others. There are indeed fascinating anecdotes and a well-written narrative of the !Kung and how their new lives impact them, but Marjorie has lost her perspective. She is no longer an anthropologist this time around. The reader, knowing the outcome – Shostak died several years later at a still young age from the cancer she carried – can’t help but be struck by the terrible sadness of her desperation to be cured by traditional !Kung medicine, even as she ferries others among them to a clinic in her truck lest they die from ailments far less serious than cancer that traditional !Kung medicine seems to fail every time.
Although this review sounds as if I am attempting to persuade the reader against reading it, I cannot help but urge the opposite. It is, for sure, not an anthropology book in the sense that Nisa was, yet for those who read Nisa it is no less than required reading. It will make you want to re-read the first book once more, and make you wonder whether what you thought you read the first time is true, or was it simply true for Marjorie. You should also read it for another reason: we should honor the memory of Marjorie Shostak. She was a great woman and the world is surely a poorer place without her. ( )
1 vote Garp83 | May 29, 2011 |
In the 1970’s, anthropologist Marjorie Shostak spent time living with the !Kung or Bushmen people of Botswana. This resulted in her first book, Nisa, published in 1981 telling the life story of a remarkable woman of these people.

Shostak returned to Botswana in 1989. In the preceding year, while still nursing her youngest child, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. After a year of treatment and hospitals, not knowing if she had been cured or not, she returned to the !Kung for thirty days. She hoped to find both spiritual and physical healing among these people.

She found the !Kung had also been through many changes in the years she had been gone. The sudden closing of the border between Botswana and Namibia split the Bushmen people between the two countries and divided families as devastatingly and as permanently as the Berlin Wall had done with the Germans. This border closing also contributed to the Bushmen leaving their traditional hunting/gathering lifestyle and becoming herders, mostly of animals belonging to other tribes who felt themselves superior to the !Kung. In addition, the constant flow of anthropologists studying the !Kung people had changed the people’s attitudes and souls in much the same way that in quantum physics one cannot observe a phenomena without affecting the outcome.

In spite of the cultural changes of the people, Shostak was able to reconnect with old acquaintances and find a measure of spiritual peace. She passed away from her breast cancer before this book was published.

I found this book interesting, well written, and very enlightening about the fate and humanity of this remarkable people. 4 stars. ( )
2 vote streamsong | Jan 2, 2011 |
This is currently my favorite book to assign an introductory-level undergraduate anthropology class, along with a text book. Shostak is an anthropologist who originally studied women in sub-Saharan Africa, though she she did not return to Africa for over a decade. After she discovers she has cancer, however, she finds herself drawn back to the place and the people who meant so much to her during her research, and with whom she feels she has a bond she needs to acknowledge before her death. This is a frank and descriptive account of the dynamics of anthropological research, discussing the ethics of studying people and how one researcher attempts to do so. Shostak's story progresses through her own point of view, intimately sharing her inmost thoughts and fears, and therefore serves to do more than study her subjects. The impression that people elsewhere in the world are primitive and stagnant and alien is minimized by the presence of the anthropologist and her interactions. ( )
  Larkken | May 15, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674008294, Paperback)

The story of two women—one a hunter-gatherer in Botswana, the other an ailing American anthropologist—this powerful book returns the reader to territory that Marjorie Shostak wrote of so poignantly in the now classic Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. Here, however, the ground has perceptibly shifted. First published in 1981, Nisa served as a stirring introduction to anthropology’s most basic question: Can there be true understanding between people of profoundly different cultures?

Diagnosed with breast cancer, and troubled by a sense of work yet unfinished, Shostak returned to Botswana in 1989. This book tells simply and directly of her rediscovery of the !Kung people she had come to know years before—the aging, blunt, demanding Nisa, her stalwart husband Bo, understanding Kxoma, fragile Hwantla, and Royal, translator and guide. In Shostak’s words, we clearly see !Kung life, the dry grasslands, the healing dances, the threatening military presence. And we see Shostak herself, passionately curious, reporting the discomforts and confusion of fieldwork along with its fascination. By turns amused and frustrated, she describes the disappointments—and chastening lessons—that inevitably follow when anthropologists (like her younger self) romanticize the !Kung.

Throughout, we observe a woman of threatened health but enormous vitality as she pursues the promise she once discovered in the !Kung people and, above all, in Nisa. At the core of the book is the remarkable relationship between these two women from different worlds. They are often caught off guard by the limits of their mutual understanding. Still, their determination to reach out to each other lingers in the reader’s mind long after the story ends—providing an eloquent response to questions that Nisa so memorably posed.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:48 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"The story of two women - one a hunter-gatherer in Botswana, the other an ailing American anthropologist - this book returns the reader to territory that Marjorie Shostak wrote of so poignantly in the now classic Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. Here, however, the ground has perceptibly shifted. First published in 1981, Nisa served as a introduction to anthropology's most basic question: Can there be true understanding between people of profoundly different cultures?"--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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