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.
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.
Gusii parents share a cultural model of child care, but their central tendencies in implementing it, as described and examined comparatively in the previous chapters, do not convey adequately the diversity of environmental conditions in which Gusii infants are raised. We found as much variation in personality, family background, and current situation among the 28 sets of parents in our longitudinal sample as one would find in any population, and more socioeconomic differentials than one would find in rural African communities less affected by recent change. All of this translated into varying environments for their babies, who also varied in their temperamental responsiveness and in their birth order among the children of one mother. Although we could not investigate these individual variations systematically in our small sample, we can illustrate them with cases of particular conditions that run counter to the statistical norm or represent extremes within it, thus showing the imperfect realization of a cultural model in actual practice.
To exemplify this diversity, we chose parents differing in age and infants differing in birth order. Older parents tended to be wealthier, less educated, and more experienced in child care – wealthier because men in their 40s and 50s during the mid-1970s had inherited land at a time when it was more abundant and had had more time to accumulate possessions, but less educated because they belonged to a cohort in which school attendance was relatively rare.
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