Notes on "N!ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman" by C. Kray
John Marshall and Adrienne Miesmer, dirs.  Distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, 1978. 
Closed captioned.  59 min.  VH 2556
Distributor's website: http://www.der.org/films/nai-kung-woman.html


The film documents the changes in the ways of life of !Kung San people of the Kalahari Desert from the 1950s to 1978.  This band of !Kung San used to carry on a foraging, or hunting and gathering, way of life, but in 1978, eight hundred of them were living on a reservation in what is now Namibia, and at the time was South West Africa, essentially a colony of South Africa.

In 1952, San people occupied an area of about 15,000 square miles throughout the Kalahari Desert.  Now, they live in an area half the size of the original territory.  The South African government established reservations in this area (of present-day Namibia) in the 1970s.

The film, in addition to sketching out general changes, focuses in part on the life of one woman, N!ai.  In reflecting on these changes, N!ai characterizes their former ways as plentiful.  She says that before the reservation system, "We were not poor."  Before, there was plenty of food, but that is not true anymore.  She says, "Even if hunger grabbed you, you could eat....We didn't know money....Now we eat mealie meal, and mealie meal and I hate each other."  She says that in the past, "we left sickness behind us when we moved."  She describes the different kinds of plants they would gather, including fruits, nuts (including gaa, the mangetti nut), and roots.  The !Kung San used more than 90 edible species of plants.  She talks about how they lived near water sources, and in the dry season, they would get water from water-bearing plant sources such as roots, melons, and cucumbers. 

The film illustrates !Kung hunting methods through following hunters over five days as they track and finally take down a giraffe with spears whose heads were dipped in poison.  The giraffe weighed more than half a ton and provided enough food for fifty people to eat for ten days.  Tracking was particularly difficult in the winter months, when the ground is hard and tracks are hard to see. 

The next section of the film focuses on N!ai's engagement and early marriage to /Gunda.  Their families arranged the marriage, and their mothers made a marriage house for them.  They were married in 1953, when she was 8 and he was 13.  They did not live together "for many, main rains."  In 1958, /Gunda began living with her parents and paying bride service to them by hunting.  Still, N!ai refused to sleep with him.  She did not want /Gunda and she didn't want a husband.  She explains that girls don't want husbands because they are afraid of the pain and dangers of childbirth.

The next section of the film focuses on traditional healing practices.  Healing is brought about through trance-dancing, which activates num, an inner curing force.  It is believed that God and bad spirits send disease.  Num is also sent from God.  Entering trance is referred to as entering "half-death."  When /Gunda was living with N!ai's family, he "began to find his medicine.  He began to trance."  N!ai was afraid of him because when he was in trance, he seemed mad.  She cheated on her husband, sleeping with other men.  He suspected, but for years, he didn't know for sure.  Still, they remained married, and in one scene, they laugh together about the difficult times they had early in their marriage.  She explains that "My thoughts came to care for /Gunda."  Older people encouraged her to see the compassion he demonstrated through healing other people.  Their first child died, but their second child, a daughter, lived.

The film then focuses on reservation life in 1978.  On the Tschum!kwi reservation, 800 people live in an area of 25 square miles.  N!ai plays the thumb guitar and sings a song, "Don't look at my face.  Death is dancing with me now."  A white South African complains that the !Kung are lazy on the job.  Scenes depict a !Kung man working as a domestic servant.  On the reservation, there is not enough land to sustain their hunting and gathering, so they are dependent upon money and government rations of mealie meal (corn meal).  In finding money, "Some people do better than others."  N!ai says that people are jealous of her because of her work on the film.  Scenes show !Kung people fighting over food.  One woman says, "Nobody shares anymore, even with their parents."  N!ai says "Today we are not eating.  Hunger is grabbing us all." 

Game is scarce on the reservation.  Some !Kung have taken to hunting with horses because it is faster.  But under the South African government, hunting with a horse is illegal and such hunters may be put in jail.  The game warden explains that hunting with horses endangers the giraffes.  One !Kung man says, "This land is my garden.  I have no other garden.  I harvest our meat to fill our tummies." 

On the reservation, the government has sponsored a school and a clinic.  Tuberculosis has been a problem. 

In August of 1978, the South African army established a base near the reservation.  The army is fighting the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO).  Soldiers have been recruiting !Kung San men to fight in the army against SWAPO.  Soldiers pressure one man to enlist, saying "How come you're scared?" and "You're just chicken."  When he says, "I really have too much work to do....I'm a cook," a soldier replies "Ah! Just a cook."

The film includes footage from the filming of "The Gods Must Be Crazy."  N!ai worked on the film and made 3 rand in a day (1 rand equalled approximately $1.25).  Others were jealous of her for being in the film.  Her father accuses her of hiding things.  With the money, she was able to buy clothes and blankets.  She says that people who are jealous accused her daughter of sleeping with someone for money.  /Gunda became angry with his daughter, believing the accusation, and blamed N!ai for setting a bad example.  A huge argument involving many family members erupts.  One woman says, "You're all just fighting about hiding things.  We never used to hide things."

The film shows the !Kung San at a church that has been built on the reservation.  They sing "Nearer My God to Thee," translated into their language.  The minister is a White man, speaking Afrikaans.  He tells the parable of the woman at the well.  In the parable, Jesus asks the woman for water and he tells her that he knows she has several men but no husband.  He offers her a better "water," the gift of eternal life.  During the ceremony, the parishioners give coin offerings.  After the service, N!ai laughs, not believing the story.  She doesn't believe that a woman would go down into the water hole with a man she doesn't know, especially one who says he is God's son.

The film returns to army recruitment.  One officer explains that the army has recruited many "Bushmen," because they are good at tracking and survival in the bush.  He says that they look to the White man for leadership because, "They believe that the White man is more intelligent....They believe in the White man."  An older !Kung San man says that he is worried that the soldiers will "bring fighting here."  He says that right now, they get along with both the army and SWAPO.  He says that he is afraid of the soldiers because "These soldiers are the owners of fighting."  The army convoy pulls out, including fifty men recruited from the reservation.

N!ai continues singing, "Death mocks me.  Death dances with me.  Don't look at my face."