Gusii Survival Skills
LeVine, Robert A., Natural History
Farming peoples of subSaharan Africa have long faced the grim reality that many babies fail to survive, often succumbing to gastrointestinal diseases, malaria, or other infections. In the 1970s, when I lived among the Gus in a small town in southwestern Kenya, infant mortality in that nation was on the decline but was still high-about eighty deaths per thousand live births during the first year, compared with about ten in the United States at that time and six to eight in Western Europe.
The Gus grew corn, millet, and cash crops such as coffee and tea. Women handled the more routine tasks of cultivation, food processing, and trading, while men were supervisors or entrepreneurs. Many men worked at jobs outside the village, in urban centers or on plantations. The society was polygamous, with perhaps 10 percent of the men having two or more wives. A woman was expected to give birth every two years, from marriage to menopause, and the average married woman bore about ten live children-one of the highest fertility rates in the world.
Nursing mothers slept alone with a new infant for fifteen months to insure its health. For the first three to six months, the Gus mothers were especially vigilant for signs of ill health or slow growth, and they were quick to nurture unusually small or sick infants by feeding and holding them more often. …