Temperament and infant mortality among the Masai of East Africa

Am J Psychiatry. 1984 Oct;141(10):1189-94. doi: 10.1176/ajp.141.10.1189.


On the basis of Western studies suggesting that infants with difficult temperaments are at greater risk for behavioral and physical disorders, the author postulated that Masai infants with difficult temperaments would be at greater risk in the harsh environment created by the sub-Saharan drought in 1974, which disrupted the life of the Masai people of East Africa and resulted in increased infant mortality. Two groups of infants with difficult and easy temperaments were defined and followed. Contrary to expectations, mortality was greater for the infants with easy temperaments. The infant's contribution, child-rearing orientation, and feeding practices were factors influencing survival.

PIP: The hypothesis that Masai infants with temperaments which make them difficult to manage are more likely to experience malnutrition than Masai infants with temperaments which make them easy to manage was tested in a field study conducted among the Masai in Kenya during the severe drought of 1974. Studies in western countries suggested that infants who were difficult to raise, intense, inflexible, and irregular caused family stress; consequently they were more likely to experience abuse, injery, illness, and developmental problems than infants who were more docile. The field study was conducted among a group of Masai in the Kajiado District, who in 1974 still maintained their traditional nomadic way of life. Infants were generally fed on demand and children, especially male children, were highly valued. Child care responsibilities were shared by the relatives in each household and infants received considerable attention. The temperaments of 45 Masai infants aged 4-5 months were evaluated on the basis of their mothers' responses to the standardized Infant Temperament Questionnaire. The instrument was modified slightly to accomodate for cultural differences. The instrument measured 10 temperament dimension, e.g., persistence, distractibility, intensity, adaptability, and activity. On the basis of the scores obtained on the 10 dimensions, 10 of the infants were identified as easy to manage and 10 were identified as difficult to manage. These 20 infants were scheduled for follow up 2-3 months later to assess whether the more difficult to handle infants had a higher rate of malnutrition than the easier to handle infants. During the intervening months, the drought worsened. Many families were forced to migrate to distant areas and family life was severely distrupted. Only 13 of the 20 families scheduled for followup were located. Of the 13 infants followed up, 7 were previously classified as easy infants and 6 as difficult infants. Unfortunately, 7 of these 13 infants died prior to followup. 5 of the easy infants and 2 of the difficult infants were dead. The deaths appeared to be related to the severe ecological conditions which existed during the intervening months. Although the number of cases was too small to permit drawing firm conclusions, the findings suggest that, contrary to the hypothesis, in Masai society infants who are more demanding are more likely to survive during periods of severe ecological stress than infants who are more docile. Perhaps infants who are more aggressive and demanding are more likely to be fed and to have their needs met than infants who are more docile and easier to ignore. Perhaps the Masai pattern of interaction between parents and infants during periods of severe stress constitutes a mechanism for the selection of behavioral traits necessary for the survival of the Masai. Assertiveness is a highly valued trait among the Masai and probably a necessary trait for the nomadic warriors and herders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Africa, Eastern
  • Attitude
  • Child Rearing
  • Disasters
  • Ethnicity*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Care
  • Infant Mortality*
  • Infant Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior
  • Personality*
  • Psychology, Child*
  • Temperament*