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Yoruba Families

Morality, Childrearing, And Food Distribution Among The Yoruba

Anthropological literature on African infant care practices (Babatunde 1992) reiterates that children are being prepared to seek group survival through acquiring a sense of belonging and loyalty to the group. Living in a harsh environment with rudimentary technology, other people constitute ones' technology (Turnbull 1974). So Yoruba parents teach their children obligatory sharing. They also teach them practical lessons by withholding portions of meat, eggs, and other animal foods from children because they believe that when children acquire tastes in these expensive and scarce commodities, the desire to satisfy them will make children steal (Ransome-Kuti 1972). From a more pragmatic economic perspective, it was also considered most uneconomical to eat an egg that could produce a chicken, which would in turn produce more chickens. Thus, in the attempt to teach discipline, self-denial and deferred gratification, this pattern of food distribution within the family leads to unintended nutritional crises. Although claims about these crises were made in qualitative research studies, only in the 1990s were the claims empirically confirmed by quantitative research findings (Setiloane 1995).

In a study conducted as part of UNICEF's Child Development Project in Nigeria from 1986 to 1989 entitled Child Development for the Computer Age, quantitative research using anthropometrics measures was conducted in rural and semirural settlements along Ifo-Otta, in Ogun State, forty-five minutes from Lagos. To be eligible for this family study, the mother had to be Yoruba; the child had to be between twenty-two and twenty-six months old; the child could not be a twin. The researchers also required that the child have a birth certificate to verify its age and that both mother and child lived in the household. A systematic sampling frame specified that every second house was to be selected, with daily starting points. Sample size for the cross-sectional field research totaled 211, including a census sample of 181 mothers and their children and an additional subsample of thirty households screened for the presence of malnourished children.

Survey instruments included a fifty-two item questionnaire that asked how frequently foods were consumed, as well as structured observations of feeding and play; the Bayley Scales of Infant Development (Bayley 1969); a socioeconomic and attitudinal questionnaire containing the Caldwell H.O.M.E Inventory (Cadwell and Bradley 1984); an ethnographic study of ten households, and, finally, anthropometrics measurements of weights and heights of children. The impact of beliefs on withholding meat and nutrient-dense foods for children was surveyed in a section with the question: Is there any reason why you don't think a child of this age should have more meat? The participants answered yes or no to the following choices: (a) more might cause child to have worms; (b) more might cause a child to steal; and (c) more could spoil child so he expects too much when things are scarce. This section also included the question: Do you believe that a child of this age (two years) should have more meat if you can afford it?

Responses to questions on stealing, spoiling, and moral character were combined together using factor analysis to create an index. The score of any respondent could range from a minimum of 0 (0 on all 3 items) to a maximum of 3 (1 on all 3 items). The index was subsequently condensed to a dichotomous variable representing mothers who had abandoned all beliefs about meat and moral training (0) and those who retained one or more (1). Each of these variables was used alternatively as a measure of mother's beliefs.

The data collected show that the distribution pattern gave available meat to fathers and mothers at the expense of their children. Among adults, men were favored over women. The median values of mothers' allocation rules deprive the children relative to their protein requirement needs when they need it most—between age one day to two years—and gives adult males more than their nutritional requirements. Although this outcome was predictable given the Yoruba male-oriented ideology, what was surprising was the result of the data on the impact of modernization on food allocation. A more in-depth examination of the meat allocation rule through cluster analysis showed that the total amount of meat mothers allocate changes with modernization. However, the ratio of meat relative to the total available remains the same, and adult males still get much more than their nutritional needs. But because modernization makes more amount of meat available, the children get more meat to meet their requirements. The data prove the saying that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

See also: NIGERIA


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Setiloane, K. (1995). "Beliefs and Practices Regarding Meat Distribution and the Nutritional Status of Children in Lagos State, Nigeria." Ph.D. dissertation. Boston: Tufts University.

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Other Resources

Pearce, T. O. (2000). "Gender and Governance in Africa: A Conceptual Framework for Research and Policy Analysis and Monitoring." A draft paper presented at The African Knowledge Networks Forum Preparatory Workshop, 17-18 August 2000, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Available from http://www.uneca.org/aknf/pub/gengovern.htm.



Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsYoruba Families - Yoruba Culture And The Meaning Of Marriage, Steps That Lead To Marriage, Oja Ale, Co-wife And Sibling Rivalry