Sociologists have long strived to define the concepts of family and kinship along with their varied implications in different societal structures. The definition of the family put forth by Murdock dates back to more than half a century ago and it entails family to be a social group that is attributed by shared residence, economic dependability, and procreation. It is the cohabitation of adult male and female involved in a sexual relationship, often having children which may be biological or adopted (1949). However, the definition provided by Murdock is quite limiting especially when applied in the context of various societies especially the remote African tribes. This essay aims to explore the distinguishing features of kinship and family life presented by two books i.e., “Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman” by Marjorie Shostak and “The Joys of Motherhood” by Buchi Emecheta. The essay further sheds light on the life experiences of males and females at different ages as outlined in the books and draws a comparison through a personal reflection of the society of today.
“Nisa: The Life and Words of a Kung Woman” by Marjorie Shostak
The tale begins through the author’s introduction of the social context in which her conversations took place with Nisa, a woman belonging to the !Kung ethnic group native to south-eastern Africa. Marjorie Shostak slowly developed an acquaintance with Nisa through a prolonged period of fieldwork, learning about the kinship ties and women’s roles among the !Kung community along with an exploration of each major life phase in detail. At the beginning of the book, Shostak shared about the need to learn the !Kung language to communicate directly with the subjects of her study however, it was not before ten months of her stay that she was able to conduct her first real communication. Although Shostak conducted interviews with many women and despite her initial dislike, it was Nisa’s colorful language and vivid storytelling that made her an ideal interviewee for the author. The book presents accounts of Nisa’s life which every young woman can relate to, regardless of the wide chasm of culture and geography.
Kinship among the!Kung Community
“Nisa: The Life and Words of a Kung Woman” shed light on the various patterns of kinship common among the !Kung community. With girls marrying at an average age of 16 and boys between the age of 20 – 30, the practice reflects the initiation of adulthood. Even in cases where girls get married at a younger age, the sexual relationship is formed only after the girl reaches puberty. One of the practices common among their community is that of trial marriages and a girl could enter many such kinship ties before deciding to bear children with a life-long partner. These early trial marriages are arranged by adults however, cousin marriages are considered taboo. Forced marriages are common as the parents of the girls seek to secure bride service – a practice where the groom secures meat for the family. There is a great competition between the parents of the groom and the bride to have them live with them to ensure help and closeness to the forthcoming grandchildren. The girls, however, have the right to insist upon concluding a marriage if she feels unaffectionate towards her husband.
The trial kinship practice is often stressful due to a vast age difference and the couple being strangers. In most instances, men are sexually mature and eager to form a sexual relationship and with a dearth of young marriageable females, men often cooperate and patiently spend the courtship period even if the girl displays indifference. Although multiple marriages are common among the !Kung, most people have one long-term life partner. Among the !Kung community divorce is quite common and in the majority of the case, it is initiated by women. The concept of virginity is not attributed much importance or priority. Divorce is also not stigmatized and often both partners remarry within a year. Although monogamy is the common norm however polygamous households of co-wives are also acceptable. Levirate marriages and sororal polygyny are also practiced. Among co-wives, the second wife is considered lower in rank. Co-wives often develop friendships and achieve intimacy over time. Infidelity is quite common as well, however; spouses are always given priority over lovers.
Family Life among the !Kung Community
Family life of the !Kung community is based on close contact among the infants and the mothers through the provision of constant care and nurturing by both parents. Infants, both boys, and girls are nursed by the mothers for three years or more and in some cases, children are nursed until the mother conceives again. Once the mother becomes pregnant again, nursing is ceased and the child is no longer carried in a sling and must walk independently. This is a period of huge adjustment for the young child and support is often provided by grandparents and aunts. Soon children become interested in active play and feel joyful in being the elder sibling. Parenting is lenient among the !Kungs as the parents believe that children are irresponsible and that they ultimately grow up to become contributing members of the tribe. They believe that children learn as they mature and that social pressure and desire of conformance to the values of the tribe result in the process of learning appropriate behavior.
The author highlights the family ties among siblings who often feel resentment towards the younger ones for taking their position as a center of affection. Children are usually born approximately four years apart as prolonged periods of nursing act as natural birth control. The family life of !Kung community is depicted through Nisa’s experiences who learn to be affectionate to her younger brother, Kumsa when he was a baby however, as he grows up their physical fights increase and she resents him. She narrates incidents of her relatives’ visits and cousins playing and fighting together, although children are supervised for safe play. She recalls the incidents of her father kicking her pregnant mother in the stomach, attributing violence as a learned behavior. The casual attitude with which Nisa narrates the incident of her infant sister dying depicts the commonality of infant mortality in !Kung community. Overall the families are closely knit and the death of a family member requires major adjustment by the remaining members.
Life Experiences of Males and Females – Infancy to Old Age
In every community, various roles are expected of the males and females which they learn through socialization and gaining life experiences. During childhood and up till teenage, the !Kungs have a lot of leisure time which is spent in play. The !Kung community does not strictly segregate among boys and girls and children mostly play together and playgroups include children of all ages. Girls are as boisterous as boys and play does not promote competition, rather the focus is upon the improvement of personal skills. Since the children do not attend schools, it is through play and imitation that they learn the adult activities. Playing house and pretend playing marriage and parenthood, children internalize the community roles of hunting and gathering along with other activities such as singing and dancing. As these young children discover sex by watching their parents in the huts during nighttime, sexual games become a part of their play, and experimentation among siblings is common.
Upon reaching maturity, the boys and girls are entered into trial marriages and ultimately marry a lifelong partner. Women are involved in child-rearing and food preparation. They also collect plant-based foods and water while men are often involved in hunting. There are no strict gender roles and work is accomplished collaboratively without any shame. The concept of collective mothering is also common among women in which they gather and rest under baobab trees while nursing their babies. Women are autonomous in making their own rules rather than complying with their husbands’ orders. They gather food three days a week, balancing their time in work and leisure. At a later age, women gain more influence and help the children in choosing spouses to build community ties.
The !Kung boys, at a very young age, are involved in the practice of hunting and during that time they observe the process and learn about hundreds of plants and animal species. The community normalizes the fear of young boys on their initial hunts and does not associate shame with such feelings. Hunters are deemed eligible to marry once they have their first large kill and this is mostly around the age of 15 to 18. Sharing and modesty are common virtues and after a hunt, meat is shared as per the pre-established rules. By the age of 60 years, when the hunting career is considered to be over, most hunters have killed hundreds of big and small animals. In the older age men contribute to the community by catching small animals by setting up traps and foraging for food. Men also equip women with clothing and tools (Shostak, 1981).
“The Joys of Motherhood” by Buchi Emecheta
“The Joys of Motherhood” narrate a tale of a traditional woman named Nnu Ego whose experiences helped her realize motherhood as her greatest joy and her utmost defeat. She gained insight into her identity development and completion through motherhood – giving birth to many children especially her sons. Despite living an impoverished life, Ego regarded herself rich as she was a mother of three sons who would ensure that she is comfortable in old age – a notion quite common among the Nigerian community. The rise of colonialism and the new ideas about the role of a woman, brought many challenges for Ego, resulting in a lonely death. The story highlights the tragedy of the main character whose sole life purpose of creating the joy of motherhood left her friendless and alone.
Kinship among Nigerian Culture
“The Joys of Motherhood” highlights the pattern of kinship most prevalent in the Nigerian community. Polygamous kinship relations and child-bearing are the central themes of the book. Patriarchal domination and the portrayal of masculine ideology are eminent throughout the story. Girls are considered eligible for marriage at sixteen years of age and the primary function of women is childbearing. Co-wives share the burden of household duties and tend to the needs of their shared husband. They also assist each other in child-rearing. However, in the case of Nnu Ego, there is potential jealousy observed towards the second wife. Another example of kinship prominent in the book relates to the inheritance of wives of a deceased brother. This results in the wives of the dead brother moving into the compound with her children. The author presents multiple marriages as a need of that society however not every man opts for it, especially the ones unable to support additional members of the family.
Family Life among the Nigerian Community
Set in a society influenced by colonialism, the family life structure evolves as the native population adopts the new systems of belief. The traditional views about family are depicted through the beliefs of Nnu Ego, who considers individual needs to be of secondary importance in contrast to the livelihood of the family as a group. Each family member is considered to be a part of the whole; ensuring contribution towards the betterment of the household. The contrasting views of the younger generation are evidenced through prioritizing individual desires over that of the family. Oshia’s desire to gain education influences his decision to accept a scholarship and move to the United States. This shift is observed in Nnu Ego’s daughter as well who breaks tradition to exercise her right to choose a life partner of her liking. These new patterns of familial ties clash with Nnu Ego’s beliefs who prioritized her role as a mother throughout her life. Her upbringing influences her ideals to be a perfect mother and to achieve that ideal she remained friendless throughout her life, dying a lonely death.
The Ibo, or the Igbo as often referred to, is a group of people native to south-eastern Nigeria. Their traditional culture strictly regulates women’s roles and promotes their subordination to men. Oppression of females i.e., the wives and daughters are exercised under the male privilege that men enjoy. In such a male-dominated society, the life experiences of women vary from that of men as presented by Emecheta. Females are portrayed as a marginalized group oppressed through gender, race, and class and their methodical silencing often bar them from reaching their optimal potential. The prevalence of patriarchy is evident in that women feel pride in giving birth to boys, and despite impoverished living conditions, a mother of sons is deemed at a high prestige. Gender roles are taught since childhood and women learn marriage and motherhood to be their primary goals. To cope up with the economic pressure, women may assist men in earning by setting up stalls to sell goods. Men often leave for long periods to earn money.
Nnaife and Nnu Ego depict the stereotypical roles of men and women of the Ibo culture that is based in a time of change. Erosion of the old tradition of boys serving as the main support of the family is observed in the story. A girl’s skill and education earn her respect rather than an increased bride price. While the !Kung community did not feel shame in any task, the story of Nnu Ego describes her unease that her husband does laundry and washed personal garments belonging to women – she attributed this subservience as a compromise of his manhood. Due to changing times, the gender roles are quite blurred and even though most women identified themselves as a mother, they occasionally took up the role of being the breadwinner for the family as well (Emecheta, 1979).
Reflection and Insight
The books “Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman” by Marjorie Shostak and “The Joys of Motherhood” by Buchi Emecheta present kinship relations, family life, and gender role experiences in societies much different than ours. While reading both books certain similarities common to both cultures are observed which includes a trend of early marriage of girls with 16 years being the average age. In regards to kinship, polygamy is common to both cultures and is attributed importance in terms of distribution of the burden of household tasks and child-rearing. Although co-wives are common, in both stories the protagonist women display feelings of animosity and jealousy towards the other wives. While sexual exploration is an eminent theme of Shostak’s book, and its prevalence is observed even in games and play of children, Emecheta’s book highlights the theme of motherhood. Women in both societies perform the duties of child-rearing, household chores, and also helping the men in providing for the family.
All over the world, various types of kinship practices are in place with most cultures of the West promoting monogamy as the only form of marriage while others practicing polygamy in the form of polygyny and polyandry. Fraternal polyandry and sororal polygyny along with levirate and sororate are forms of marriages prevalent in cultures around the world. A newer form of marriage structure introduced in Shostak’s book is that of a trial marriage of girls who have not yet reached puberty. This not only promotes the young couple to learn about married life roles but an allowance of multiple trial marriages and women’s right to divorce depict the openness of this society towards practices that are most suited to their need. As compared to the !Kung’s concept of trial marriages, matrimony in our society is more structured and is a legal affair. Also, there are laws in place to prevent child marriages. The practice of an arranged marriage is not limited to the !Kungs or the Nigerian community, rather it is practiced in many other cultures around the world and adults choose the spouse based on practical reasons.
The books by both authors explore the gender attributed roles and much similar to the practice in the modern world, the !Kungs are not bounded by gender constraints. Even when young, the !Kung girls are as rowdy as boys. They do not feel shame in performing any task and the ultimate goal is to benefit the family however, a shift from this is observed in Emecheta’s book, and with changing times the individual interests and desires took precedence over that of the group. Conclusively, there is no single form of kinship and family structure that can be applied across the globe; therefore, it is the culture that shapes the most suitable practice for survival.
Emecheta, B. (1979). The joys of motherhood. London, UK: Allison & Busby.
Murdock, G. P. (1949). Social structure.
Shostak, M. (1981). Nisa: The life and words of a !Kung woman. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.