This is about an amazing group of people called the Gusii who live in the Western highlands of Kenya where the rain falls abundantly and the soil is rich. You can picture the scene; groups of round huts with thatched roofs surrounded by playing children, men tending their large herds of cattle and women working in the fields.
Less typical, is the impressively large number of children that most Gusii women conceived, gave birth to and raised successfully. The Gusii have one of the highest fertility rates in the world, typically most women give birth to 10 children and lose 2 along the way. This is around one or two more surviving children per mother than in most parts of East Africa.
Researchers who spent some time with the Gusii found that most mothers had been pregnant or breastfeeding (enough to stop them menstruating) for virtually all their reproductive years. One 49 year old woman they talked to could only remember having had two periods at all in her life. It seems that what we euphemistically refer to as a woman’s “childbearing years” literally are a woman’s childbearing years for Gusii women!
Women have relatively long gaps between each child, maybe two to three years (any less is thought reckless). Without birth control this is achieved partly because men usually have more than one wife to “visit” to satisfy their needs. From marrying at 18 until the menopause at 45, a child every three years would result in the desired ten children over a lifetime, and an astonishing 30 years of non-stop looking after young children.
The thought of so many pregnancies and labours to endure, as well as uninterrupted sleep and never-ending breastfeeding for so many years sounds torturous! Then there are the actual children to bathe, clothe, clean and feed as well as the planting, ploughing and harvesting of the crops and collecting the water. And there’s me complaining about putting on the dishwasher and unpacking the shopping.
I suppose the mothers will at least have plentiful older children to pitch in. In fact, from the age of 5 years, older siblings are expected to look after the smaller ones during the day while the mother works in the fields. But probably the key difference is that life aims and expectations are so different – this is actually what the women want, rather than it being an issue of no access to birth control.
Bearing many children is their goal, being fertile and having a large family is valued over all else. As the author says “women fervently desire the maximum number of surviving children”. Giving birth to their tenth child is possibly the equivalent in our society of a lawyer becoming partner of their firm or a doctor being made consultant. It is the pinnacle. In fact, women proactively take steps to keep getting pregnant on a regular basis. If their husband stops visiting them or he becomes impotent, they are entitled to go to his brother to get ‘impregnated’ for the rest of her childbearing years.
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LeVine, R., Dixon, S (1996) Childcare and Culture; Lessons from Africa New York: Cambridge University Press