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The !Kung are a part of the San people who live in the Kalahari desert and Ovamboland (northern Namibia and southern Angola). The name "!Kung" was given to the tribe by people outside of the !Kung people group. The !Kung people call themselves the Ju/’hoansi. In !Kung society men and women live together in a non-exploitative manner, displaying a striking degree of equality between the sexes. The !Kung have at times been used as an anthropological case study, as some relations between the sexes that prevailed during the majority of human prehistory are comparable to those seen among the !Kung today.
The ǃKung people of southern Africa recognize a Supreme Being (Khu/Xu/Xuba/Huwa) who is the Creator and Upholder of life. Like other African High Gods, he also punishes man by means of the weather, and the Otjimpolo-!Kung know him as Erob, who "knows everything". They also have animistic and animatistic beliefs, which means they believe in both personifications and impersonal forces. For example, they recall a Culture Hero named Prishiboro who had a wife that was an elephant. Prishiboro's older brother tricked him into killing his wife and, later, into eating her flesh. Her herd tried to kill Prishiboro in revenge, but his brother defeated them.
ǃKung people also have many taboos concerning the dead, as they believe that the ghosts (ǁgangwasi) of the deceased would cause them injury or death. It is even against the rules to say the name of someone who has died once the annual ceremony to release the spirits of the dead has been performed.
The ǃKung practice shamanism to communicate with the spirit world, and to cure what they call Star Sickness. The communication with the spirit world is done by a natural healer entering a trance state and running through a fire, thereby chasing away bad spirits. Star Sickness is cured by laying hands on the diseased. Nisa, a ǃKung woman, reported through anthropologist Marjorie Shostak that a healer in training is given a root to help induce trance. Nisa said, "I drank it a number of times and threw up again and again. Finally, I started to tremble. People rubbed my body as I sat there feeling the effect getting stronger and stronger. . . . Trance-medicine really hurts! As you begin to trance, the n/um [power to heal] slowly heats inside you and pulls at you. It rises until it grabs your insides and takes your thoughts away."
The healing rituals are a primary part to the !Kung culture. In the !Kung state of mind having health is equivalent to having social harmony meaning that relationships within the tribe are stable and open between other people in the tribe. Any member of the !Kung tribe can become a healer because it, "is a status accessible to all,” but it is a grand aspiration of many members because it is an important position. Even though there is no restriction of the power, "nearly half the men and one-third of the women are acknowledged of having the power to heal,” but with the responsibility comes great pain and hardship. To become a healer, you have to be an apprentice and go through lessons with older healers. Their training includes the older healer having to, "go into a trance to teach the novices, rubbing their own sweat onto the pupils’ centers- their bellies, backs, foreheads, and spines.” Most of the apprentices have the intentions of becoming a healer but then become frightened or have a lack of ambition and discontinue.”
The !Kung term of this powerful healing force is n/um. This force resides in the bellies of men and women who have gone through the training and has become a healer. Healing can be transmitted through the !kia dance that begins at sundown and continues through the night. The !kia can be translated to “trance” which is can give a physical image of a sleeping enchantment. While they dance, ”in preparation for entering a trance state to effect a cure, the substance [the n/um] heats up and, boiling, travels up the healer’s spine to explode with therapeutic power in the brain.” While the healers are in the trance they propel themselves in a journey to seek out the sickness and argue with the spirits. Women on the other hand have a special medicine called the gwah which starts in the stomachs and kidneys. During the Drum Dance, they enter the !kia state and the gwah travels up the spine and lodges in the neck. In order to obtain the gwah power the women, “chop up the root of a short shrub, boil it into a tea and drink it.” They don’t need to drink the tea every time because the power they obtain lasts a lifetime.
The community of the !Kung fully supports the healers and heavily depends on them. They trust in the healers and have, and the teachers, to psychologically and spiritually guide them through life. The !Kung have a saying: “Healing makes their hearts happy, and a happy heart is one that reflects a sense of community.” Because of their longing to keep the peace between people, their community is tranquil.
ǃKung women give birth with the earth as primary midwife (a form of unassisted childbirth), walking away from the village camp as far as a mile during labour and bearing the child alone, delivering it into a small leaf-lined hole dug into the warm sand. The child's cord is not clamped or cut (a form of Lotus birth or umbilical nonseverance), and the placenta is delivered and put next to the child, as guardian. Shortly thereafter, the baby-placenta is lightly covered with another large leaf, and the new mother walks a short way to verbally alert the older women of the completed birth, at which time they join the mother and child in a ritual welcoming. If a laboring woman is delayed in returning to the village once she has left to give birth, the older women will come looking for her to assist; however, it is said to be a rare occurrence.
Time between the births of children is traditionally about 3–5 years. Children are nursed for 3–5 years, ending when the mother is pregnant with another child. This long period of time between children makes traveling long distances on foot - like to a gathering site or new settlement - easier, since fewer children require carrying and population numbers remained controlled.
Traditionally, especially among Juǀʼhoansi ǃKung, women generally collect plant foods and water, providing 60–80% of the group's sustenance, while men hunt. However, these gender roles are not strict and people do all jobs as needed with little or no shame.
Women generally take care of children and prepare food. However, this doesn't restrict them to their homes, since these activities are generally done with, or close to, others, so women can socialise and help each other. Men also engaged in these activities.
Children are raised in village groups of other children of a wide age range. Sexual activities amongst children are seen as natural play for both sexes.
ǃKung women often share an intimate sociability and spend many hours together discussing their lives, enjoying each other's company and children. In the short documentary film "A Group of Women," ǃKung women rest, talk and nurse their babies while lying in the shade of a baobab tree. This illustrates "collective mothering," in which several women support each other and share the nurturing role.
In the !Kung tribe, marriage is the major focus of alliance formation between groups of !Kung. When a woman starts to develop, she is considered ready for marriage. Every first marriage is arranged. The culture of the !Kung is “being directed at marriage itself, rather than at a specific man.” Even though it doesn’t matter who the man is, the woman’s family is looking for a specific type of man. The man should not be too much older than the daughter, should preferably be unmarried rather than divorced, should be able to hunt, and should be willing to take on the responsibilities of the wife’s family. The latter is because a woman's family depends heavily on her husband’s family when there are times of scarcity, particularly through trade.
On the marriage day, the tradition is the “marriage-by-capture” ceremony in which the bride is forcibly removed from her hut and presented to her groom. During the ceremony, the bride has her head covered and is carried and then laid down in the hut while the groom is led to the hut and sits beside the door. The couple stay respectfully apart from each other and don’t join the wedding festivities. After the party is over, they spend the night together and the next morning they are ceremonially rubbed with oil by the husband's mother.
Marriage is generally between a man in his twenties and a girl in her teens (14–18 years old). Newlyweds live in the same village as the wife's family so she has family support during her new life. Often, young wives return to their parents' houses to sleep until they become comfortable with their husbands. During this time, the husband will hunt for his wife's family (a form of bridewealth). If the couple never become comfortable, separation is acceptable, prompted by either partner. If they do become a stable couple, they can reside with either partner's family, settling with whichever is beneficial at a time. Divorce remains possible throughout marriage. Extramarital sex isn't condoned, but is equally acceptable for each spouse. Domestic violence is prevented because villages are small and close and houses are open so that neighbors and relatives can intervene as needed.
Girls who are displeased with their parents’ selection may violently protest against the marriage by kicking and screaming and running away at the end of the ceremony. After she has run away, it may result in the dissolution of the arrangement.
Half of all first-time marriages end in divorce, but because it is a common thing, the divorce process is not long. Anthropologist Marjorie Shostak generalizes that, “Everyone in the village expresses a point of view” on the marriage and if the couple should be divorced or not. After the village weighs in, they are divorced and can live in their separate huts with their family. Relations between divorced individuals are usually quite amicable, with former partners living near one another and maintaining a cordial relationship. After a woman’s first divorce, she is free to marry a man of her choosing or stay single and live on her own.
Unlike other complex food-foraging groups, it is unusual for the !Kung to have a chieftain or headman in a position of power over the other members. These San are not devoid of leadership, but neither are they dependent on it. San groups of the Southern Kalahari have had chieftains in the past, however, there is a somewhat complicated process to gain that position. Chieftainship within these San groups is not a position is greater power, as they have the same social status as those members of "aged years". Being chieftain is mostly nominal, though there are some responsibilities that the chieftain assumes, such as becoming the tribe's "logical head." This duty entails such roles as dividing up the meat from hunters' kills, and these leaders do not get a larger portion than any other member of the village.
The ǃKung classify everyone who bears the same name as close kinsmen, as if they were relatives proper. If a ǃKung man's sister is called Kxaru, then all women named Kxaru are his "sisters." A ǃKung man may not sit too close to his sisters or tell sexual jokes in their presence, and he cannot marry them. The same rules apply to his sisters' namesakes. To the ǃKung, such customs identify "true" and not merely metaphorical kinship. The ǃKung believe that all namesakes are descended from the same original namesake ancestor, and in effect, they treat the status of namesake as a genealogical position, like father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter.
The !Kung also differentiate their relationships based on generation. Individuals in someone's immediate generation or two generations away are called "joking" kin, and these relationships are usually much friendlier. Individuals in generations immediately above or below someone will be treated with much more respect and distance. In this manner, parents are treated respectfully, but grandparents often have much for affectionate relationships with their grandchildren.
Hunting can take days of tracking, attacking, and following a wounded animal. The Juǀʼhoansi have rituals to prevent arrogance amongst male hunters. When a man kills an animal, he does not take it directly into the settlement, but leaves the body and returns as if he was unsuccessful. An older man will inquire about his hunt and remark upon his failure, to which the hunter must avoid cr and accept humility. The next day, a group will go "see if some small animal was nicked by an arrow." Upon finding the animal, the hunter will be reassured of the little value of the kill which is finally returned. Additionally, the kill may belong not to him, but to the person who gave him arrows (man or woman), who then follows rules on how to distribute the meat to everyone in the group. Upon returning from a successful hunt, if the kill is transportable, it will be brought back to the village. The ǃKung promote the belief of community well-being, and so the village elders or "those of mature years" will allot meat to the members of the group. The !Kung also believe in the betterment of other tribes, so if the kill is too large to move or there is a surplus of meat, word will be spread to villages that are close by to come collect meat for themselves.
Since the 1950s, the Juǀʼhoansi population has increased. Cattle ranches have brought cows to their traditional lands. Cows eat the sparse vegetation which the Juǀʼhoansi and their game animals need, as well as dirty the Juǀʼhoansi's water holes. This water pollution, along with the disappearance of native vegetation, has increased disease.
In addition to the problems involved in sharing water with cows, the Juǀʼhoansi are less mobile than in the past. The current governments of Namibia and Botswana, where the Juǀʼhoansi live, encourage permanent settlements with European style houses. With urban employment and industrialization, indigenous people are changing their nomadic lifestyle.
European-descended settlers have encouraged wage-paid agricultural labour, especially for men. Due to increased dependence on them and their access to wealth, men are valued more. Women, who traditionally prepared food, have taken up the preparing of millet. Millet is more difficult to process than traditional Joǀʼhoansi foods, and therefore women must spend more time preparing food for their household, leaving less time for employment outside the home.
The changing gender roles, growing inequality between the sexes, and transformation from a wandering hunter-gatherer lifestyle to life in a village have contributed to more domestic violence, as women are more dependent on men and increasingly restricted from outside intervention through changing housing styles and arrangements. Houses that are less open and the collection of wealth also challenge traditional sharing ideology.
The !Kung also face problems since their traditional lands are sought after by cattle ranchers, people of European descent, wildlife reserves, and state governments.