The Gusii people, now numbering over a million, inhabit the southwestern corner of the Kenya highlands, elevated above the hot coast of Lake Victoria farther to the west (Figure 3.1). They have occupied this territory – with its cool climate, rich soil, and abundant rainfall – for perhaps two centuries, maintaining a distinctive Bantu language and ethnic identity amidst the Nilotic speaking peoples who surround them. Geographically isolated in 20th-century Kenya, the Gusii nevertheless have become known throughout the country since World War II, first for their productive agriculture, and more recently for their exceptionally high fertility and population growth.
The Gusii were precipitously introduced to Western culture in the first decade of the 20th century when they came under British rule and the first Christian missionaries arrived. Their lives have never been the same, and the pace of social change has increased with each successive decade up to the present. Yet their contemporary survival strategies, family life, and patterns of child care can only be understood in terms of traditions inherited from their ancestors. Here we present an overview of Gusii culture and institutions in precolonial times and how they changed between 1907 and 1974, of the Gusii life course as experienced by adults and learned by children, and of the community in which we studied Gusii young children and their parents from 1974 to 1976.
For Gusii infants and their parents, high fertility is a pervasive condition of family life and child development. Like parents elsewhere in Africa, the Gusii fervently desire the maximum number of surviving offspring, but they have been exceptionally successful in achieving this goal: Their fertility ranks near the top among human populations. The population of Kisii District, that is, Gusiiland, grew from under 300,000 in 1948 to well over a million in 1979, with the highest population growth rate in Kenya (which has the highest national growth rate in the world) and it also became, as of the 1979 census, the most densely populated district in the country. Thus fertility, though highly valued by the Gusii, had resulted in a serious ecological problem by the last quarter of the 20th century.
This situation was evident in Morongo, where the 1956 population density of 450 per square mile had risen to about 1,000 by 1976. Robert LeVine, who lived at Morongo in the 1950s, was unable to recognize the Nyansongo locality in 1974 because of the number of houses filling up the cow pastures, which had been its most visible internal boundaries. Homesteads, and houses within homesteads, were closer together than they had been – too close for comfort, by Gusii standards.
Ombese, a 60-year-old father in our sample, exemplifies the consequences of population growth for family life. His father, one of the original settlers of Morongo, had owned a large hillside of 75 acres, and Ombese, as one of three sons, had inherited about 20 acres.
The first priority of Gusii parents is to provide an infant with the nurturance and protection to survive in the face of risks presented by physical hazards, infectious diseases, and seasonal food shortages. Gusii customs of infant care, as interpreted in the previous chapter, reflect an adaptive strategy for minimizing the survival risks and promoting physical growth in the first years of life, within a context of high marital fertility. The extent to which they actually achieve these goals is examined in this chapter. In considering whether folk practices of reproduction and infant care operate as an adaptive system, we pose three questions: (1) Do these practices normally result in adaptive outcomes, namely, increased probabilities of infant survival, as indicated by body size, physical growth, and motoric/behavioral maturation? (2) Are they responsive to variations in the age and health status of infants? (3) Are they responsive to environmental changes, for example, in the availability of food or medical care? We also consider the vulnerability of these practices, that is, the conditions under which they permit infant health and survival to be jeopardized.
In the mid-1970s, when the evidence presented here was collected, environmental risks to child survival in Gusiiland had changed from their values of 20 years earlier; this change must be taken into account in any assessment of the adaptiveness of infant care customs. During the 1974–1976 period, in general, food shortages posed more of a risk to infant health and survival than in earlier times.
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