I've spent the past few days reading a I new, little-known book, "Nisa, The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman," that at first seemed light-years removed from our complicated concerns of war and peace, recession and inflation. Nisa is a nomadic woman living in a remote village in southern Africa who breaks through the barriers of language and culture to paint a picture of her life .
It's a wonderful book, written with the help of Harvard University anthropologist Marjorie Shostak. It's timely because it brings home how little most of us know about the day-to-day existence of people in other countries--and how that ignorance cripples us.
The fact is too many of us are arrogant in our dealings with others, particularly those in developing countries, and when we stop thinking about ourselves long enough to consider other people at all, we usually fall into the foolish trap of judging them by our own standards.
But times are changing. Our current turbulence and uncertainty has unleashed a new searching, a frenzy to rediscover America and redefine ourselves. In this climate, the artful blend of intellect, heart and body of the heroine becomes a sensible model for the l980s. In Nisa's culture, human relations are all important. In ours, families and individuals are frustrated and in transition, and human relationships are badly frayed.
Nisa lives on the northern fringe of the semiarid Kalahari Desert in Botswana and exists by means of humanity's oldest survival strategy--gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. Yet the story of her day-to-day life sparked my interest as much as if she lived next door because hers were universal concerns: giving birth to children, laughing at life's absurdities, divorce and marriage, the pain of death.
Listen as Nisa talks: "I lay there and felt the pains as they came, over and over again. Then I felt something wet, the beginning of the childbirth . . . I thought, 'I won't cry out. I'll just sit here.' . . . But it really hurt! I cried out, but only to myself."
On the death of first one and then another of her children: "Month after month I cried, until the tears themselves almost killed me. I cried until I was sick, and I was near death myself."
On marriage and lovers: "When a woman has a lover, her heart goes out to him and also to her husband. Her heart feels strong toward both men. But if her heart is small for the important man and big for the other one, if her heart feels passion only for her lover and is cold toward her husband, that is very bad."
On the realm of the spiritual: "I am a master at trancing to drum-medicine songs. I lay hands on people and they usually get better. I know how to trick God from wanting to kill someone and how to have God give the person back to me. But . . . I am very small when it comes to healing."
Nisa is a reminder that people on the other side of the globe may have different mores, but they are fundamentally no different in range of emotion and intellectual potential from the most complex person in a super-technological society like ours. The lessons of her life are those of determination, adaptability, scaling down of options.
It would be wrong to romanticize the hardship of Nisa's life. There's much illness and a startling death rate--even for young adults. But Nisa kindles the kind of compassion that Americans need in order to understand a turbulent continent such as Africa. She reminds us that we must change, that we must understand that other people want to improve their lives and that they wish the superpowers would take their cold-war battles and go away. If we fail to understand this, we are destined to fight little Vietnams for the next decade and beyond.
Her story takes us beyond the scare headlines about other societies that look only at government policy and leave us curiously cold to the hopes and struggles of people all over the world, cold to the ways they try to make some sense of their existence.
Nisa's is the kind of book that shoves open the window to reveal our common humanity. But a lot of arrogance must be shed to acknowledge that humanity and to build upon it.