Saturday, March 19, 2011



I. Introduction and Background

1. Why did an indigenous African psychology not develop?
  • Mainstream psychology is predominantly a Euro-Americocentric science that was exported to Africa and the East.
  • This resulted in a lack of development of a specific personality theory from a purely African perspective.
  • Our knowledge of the functioning and personality of Africans is mainly confined to anthropological studies.
  • The few fragmented psychological investigations involving African or Afro-American subjects were done from a purely Western-oriented framework.
  • The Association of Black Psychologists (ABP) was established in America in 1968 in reaction to the dominance of “Eurocentric Psychology”.
  • The main aim of the ABP was to establish the roots of African psychological thinking and an African cosmology that would serve as a basis for an “African paradigm”.
  • In his pioneering work, Nobles (1972) laid the philosophical foundations for an African perspective in psychology.
  • Many Afro-American psychologists started to publish work based on these foundations, but their work concentrates on the Afro-American psyche seeking its African heritage and cosmological roots. The work lacks an indigenous African flavour and mainly misses the indigenous African spirit, lifestyle and rhythm.
  • Holdstock (2000) provides the most comprehensive overview of an African perspective on psychology up to date.
  • Holdstock accuses mainstream psychologists of neglecting the possibility that Africa may have psychological dimensions that are unique and valid. The indigenous psychologies of Africa can contribute to the attainment of a “universal psychology”, with the emphasis on the idiosyncratic laws that constitute the psychological uniqueness of each culture – ‘different, but equal’.

However, an overarching perspective based on indigenous concepts of the African psyche does not exist.

Why do psychological theory and research from an African perspective lag behind the psychology in Europe and America?
Nsamenang (1995) suggests the following explanation:
  • Scientific psychology arrived in Africa during colonisation in the context of anthropological research.
  • The theories and methods are Eurocentric. The primary focus is on topics that reflect this externalised orientation and neglect or exclude folk knowledge and local issues.
  • Most Africans have neither heard nor know the meaning of the term ‘psychology’.
  • Most African countries offer only rudimentary, fragmented psychological services and studies. Except for South Africa, no university in black Africa had a department of psychology in 1962 and by the mid-1980s not more than 20 universities.

2. What are the main obstacles to developing an African perspective in personology?
  • The question of the applicability and relevance of ‘Western’ psychology in Africa became a topic of debate at the turn of the century.
  • On the one hand were those who were against acknowledging the importance of indigenous psychologies, even accusing the notion as supporting “apartheid”.
  • On the other hand there was a strong call for the Africanisation of psychology which Dawes (1998) ascribed to three factors:
  1. the fact that psychology collaborated in the oppression of American blacks and in the African colonial project through the invidious comparison of the ‘primitive’ (African) with the ‘modern’ (Western) mind;
  2. the fact that psychology in America and South Africa has little relevance to the problems facing the black and the poor, because the models used are unsuited to understanding the local conditions of life and to resolving their problems;
  3. the claim that psychologies imported to the continent do not accurately portray African life and mentality. The appropriateness and applicability of mainstream theoretical and empirical knowledge for Africa is therefore questionable.

When studying African behaviour it is extremely important to note that Africans are currently in the transitionary phase in which a shift is taking place from a traditional to a more modern, Western-oriented way of life.
  • Both Dawes (1998) and Eagle (2004) argue that an African psychology and psychotherapy should draw on both local (indigenous) and external (westernised) knowledge systems, because both these cosmologies exist side by side in contemporary Africa.
  • Viljoen (1998) also cautions that both Euro-American models and traditional indigenous knowledge will have to be considered before conclusions about an African perspective in personology can be drawn.
  • Most Africans find themselves between these two ways of life, making it difficult to situate the functioning of Africans within a single way of life.
  • Sogolo (1993) warns that this process of change and acculturation does not necessarily imply a development from a lower to a higher level or that a modern way of life is more progressive and qualitatively better than a traditional way of life.
  • Personologists would have to take cognisance of traditional African views, and also of the personality theories that are anchored in a Western framework, in order to gain an understanding of how Africans function.
  • Peltzer (2005) warns that there are important distinctions that have not been taken into account in most studies of personality in Africa. Peltzer constructed an African socialisation model based on three different levels of acculturation, namely:
  1. traditional – persons who are little affected by modernisation and who function within an established and constant framework of their traditional culture;
  2. transitional – persons living and shuttling between two cultures in the course of their daily lives;
  3. modern – persons who engage fully in the activities of contemporary society with little or no contact with traditional society.

Another obstacle to studying African behaviour is the question: What is meant by an African perspective?
  • Just as there are different views and theories within the Western perspective, there are differences within a traditional African perspective.
  • The term ‘African’ refers to a polymorphous grouping of indigenous peoples and includes geographical diversity as well as the human diversity of different population groups, linguistic and religious diversity, together with the diversity of ways of life that fall somewhere between traditional and modern.
  • However, there is some unity among the diversity of various African cultures and an overarching African perspective that can be distinguished from a Western and an Eastern perspective.
  • According to Sow (1980) this unity is evident in the realm of spirituality and the representation and expression in works of art and behaviours manifested in everyday life. African thought has a distinctive character, deriving its principles from symbols and myths that merge the universe and the society in which the African personality is formed into one, as well as from a collective ritual that permits precise location of the individual in relation to his environment and the course of his development.

3. Why is an African perspective on indigenous psychology necessary?
  • Nobles (1991) accuses personologists of laying down Western formulations and conceptualisations as standards against which the behaviour of all the people of the world should be understood and explained.
  • They do not take the traditional perspective into account of scientific colonialism.
  • Psychologists look at Africa through a Euro-American lens and gather data on the behaviour of Africans using only principles that feature in a Western perspective and without insight into African life and worldviews.
  • Nobles pleads for an indigenous psychology generated from a uniquely African perspective that is uncoupled from a Western perspective.
  • Nsamenang (1995) also pleads for an indigenous understanding of the behaviour of Africans in order to avoid the problem of misunderstanding ‘African reality’ and degradation of the ‘African’.
  • African social thought and folk psychology differ in remarkable ways from Western thought and psychology. When scholars apply Western concepts and categories to African systems, they discover that they do not fit.
  • Nsamenang maintains that progress in psychology in Africa will only be made with the emergence and development of an indigenous body of psychological knowledge.
  • Nsamenang pleads for a contextualist approach to psychological research in African societies that will provide data to fill gaps or complement the universal body of psychological knowledge.
  • Indigenous psychology will not only enhance understanding of local phenomena, but will also expand our vision and call into question models derived primarily from studies of Western populations.
II. The view of the person and the worldview underlying the African perspective

  • The African view of the person and the worldview are founded on a holistic and anthropocentric ontology.
  • Humans form an indivisible whole with the cosmos – a unity with God, other human beings and nature.
  • Humans form the point of departure and the centre of the universe – “a man-centred society”.
  • Everything belongs together and all things are bound together by an invisible thread.
  • This holism is a lived experience and the point from which everything is understood and explained.
  • According to Sow (1980), within this indivisible cosmic whole, three cosmic orders can be distinguished which blend together in practical, everyday life – the macro-cosmos, the meso-cosmos and the micro-cosmos.

What are the meanings and practical implications of the three cosmic orders for African behaviour?

1. The macro-cosmos
  • This is the domain in which God is encountered. Traditional Africans are grounded in religious existence that enfolds their full humanness.
  • According to several African myths, there was originally no distinction between God and humans, and they lived with one another.
  • However, God withdrew from the day-to-day existence and affairs of humans, and as a result people had to become self-reliant.
  • This withdrawal of God does not refer to the Judaeo-Christian conception of the ‘Fall of Man’, but rather a transcendence of God.
  • The ancestors serve as the all-important intervening medium and contact with God.
  • For everyday existence, the ancestors are more important than God and form an inherent part of daily African functioning, which is fundamentally a religious functioning.
  • All levels of life are imbued with religion and there is no distinction between sacred and worldly, or spiritual and physical/material.
  • Traditional religion does not focus primarily on the individual, but on the community the individual belongs to. It is thus interlinked with the African’s collective functioning on a micro-cosmic level.
  • Few Western personality theories recognise the religious basis of human functioning to account for the ‘inherent religiousness’ of Africans.
  • Jung (1938) is an exception. His psychodynamic view of religion recognises that religion is not only a sociological, theological or historical phenomenon, but also a psychological phenomenon located in the psyche of human beings.

2. The meso-cosmos
  • The meso-cosmos is situated in the world of the individual and in the collective imagination.
  • It involves the ancestors, the living reality (animals and humans) and the natural physical reality (forests, bushes, trees, rivers etc).
  • Africans are inclined to explain all conflict and events such as sickness and death, with reference to this level.
  • This is a kind of no man’s land, where coincidence and the forces of the ancestors, malignant spirits, sorcerers and shamans influence and determine human behaviour.
  • Throughout Africa, the most important of these intermediary forces are the ancestors, who mediate between the living and the “living dead” (the remembered dead or ancestors).
  • Contrary to Western belief, the ancestors are not experienced as deities or spirits, but as persons who influence the lives of the living and with whom a speaking relationship can be attained.
  • According to Sow (1980) the meso-cosmos can be called the ‘structured collective imaginary’. It is the place that gives rise to all good and bad fortune, the site of dramatic events and the source of worldly success.
  • This level is of the utmost importance for the personologist, because it is the level from which an African perspective explains human dynamics.
  • In contrast to some Western-oriented theories that explain behaviour as the outcome of intrapsychic dynamics (Freud, Jung, Erikson) or interpersonal dynamics (Adler, Horney, Rogers), the African perspective attributes behaviour wholly to external agents outside the person. (In this regard, the African view corresponds more with behaviourism.)
  • Therefore, individuals cannot hold themselves responsible or accountable for their own behaviour because the causes of all behaviour and events are ascribed to external, supernatural beings or powers.
  • This view has grave implications for people who do not take responsibility for their own actions and behaviour, and are not held accountable for their behaviour.
  • It also implies that personal initiative in searching for solutions is repressed since people are at the mercy of supernatural beings and powers.
  • Behaviours and events can therefore not always be explained on empirical and rational grounds in the traditional context, and one has to look for invisible powers and beings behind the empirical rational reality.
  • One of the problems of modernisation is the destruction of the historical rootedness found in the macro- and meso-cosmic orders that serve as a guideline for the daily lives of traditional Africans.
  • But even among educated and modernised Africans, the influence of the ancestors does not seem to be completely lost. Even among those who are professed Christians, many still firmly believe in the spirits of their ancestors and grope for some link with them when they seek moral guidance, inspiration and hope.

3. The micro-cosmos
  • The micro-cosmos is the domain of the individual person in his or her everyday, collective existence, which is wholly influenced by the macro-cosmos and the meso-cosmos.
  • According to Boon (2007), this collective existence amongst Africans is typified by the philosophy of ubuntu.
  • Ubuntu implies “that every person is only a person because of other people”. It is thus a code of ethics which governs one interaction with others.
  • Boon typifies ubuntu as “morality, humaneness, compassion, care, understanding and empathy. It is one of sharing and hospitality, of honesty and humility”.
  • According to Boon, ubuntu is not a theoretical construction, but manifests itself through “the truly good things that people unthinkingly do for each other and for the community”.
  • According to Holdstock (2000) the concept of ubuntu “refers to that which ultimately distinguishes us from the animals – the quality of being human and ultimately of being humane. Ubuntu conveys the idea of strength based on the qualities of compassion, care, gentleness, respect and empathy”.
  • People with ubuntu do not take advantage of others, but use their strength in a compassionate and gentle way to care for and help others, notably the weak, children and older people.
  • In contrast to the Western way where orphans and problem children are mostly isolated in orphanages and homes under professional guidance, in the traditional society these children are drawn into the local community and absorbed into other families. In this way every member of the community becomes the mother, father, brother or sister of these children.
  • Holdstock (2000) links this concept of ubuntu to certain aspects of Rogers’ person-centred approach. Rogers also emphasises empathy, positive regard and congruence as essential elements to establish sound human relationships, and as necessary and sufficient conditions for psychotherapy.
  • [Enrichment: Is ubuntu too good to be true? Dooms (1989) questions the ultra humaneness embedded in ubuntu as a dominant ethos that guides all human interaction in Africa. He also questions the exclusively positive interpretation of ubuntu, in which there is no place for anti-social behaviour. Dooms claims that such a view does not take reality into account – the present strife and conflict which prevails everywhere in Africa. It begs for recognition of the darker, shadow side of human functioning to account for the human suffering afflicted by one person onto another.]
  • An important difference in ethos and values between the Westerner and the African lies in the domain of collective existence and the relationship between individual and community.
  • The European ethos rests on the principle of individual survival enshrined in the theory of evolution, which is based on survival of the fittest, and on the divine commandment of Judaeo-Christian origin to control and rule nature.
  • These two principles have given rise to values such as competition, individual rights and autonomy, and to the importance of individuality, uniqueness, responsibility for oneself and individual differences as concepts for understanding and explaining the behaviour of Western people.
  • In personality theories, these principles are expressed in concepts such as ego or I-dentity, self-realisation or self-actualisation, which are catered for in almost all psychoanalytical theories (Freud, Jung, Adler, Erikson) as well as person-oriented theories (Maslow and Rogers).
  • The traditional African ethos rests on other, equally important principles, such as the survival of the community and union with nature.
  • [See visiograms on pg 546 & 547.]
  • These principles gave rise to values that centre around co-operation, interdependence and collective responsibility. Concepts of individuality, uniqueness and differences are replaced with commonality, group orientation and agreement.
  • If we were to apply African principles and values to a construct such as the self concept, it would mean defining an ‘us/we’ rather than an ‘I’.
  • According to Nobles (1995) this implies that ”one’s self-identity is always a people identity, or what could be called an extended identity or extended self.
  • Azibo (1996) conceptualises this as a “holistic interconnectedness and interdependence of all entities within the universe”. He maintains that the extended self “has to be understood as an unbroken circle encompassing an infinite past, an infinite future, and all contemporary Africans”.
  • According to Mbiti (1990) the personhood and identity of the traditional African is entirely embedded in his or her collective existence. “Only in terms of other people does the individual become conscious of his being, his duties, his privileges and responsibilities towards himself and towards other people. Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say: ‘I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am’. This is the cardinal point in the understanding of the African view of man.”
  • The African’s negation of a unique identity is partly shared by an Eastern perspective (in which the emphasis is on the transcendence of an ego or unique identity) and by the post-modern views (that eliminate or underplay the ego-identity). It is also affirmed by various African writers and philosophers such as Nkrumah (1964), Senghor (1964), Nyerere (1968) and Kamalu (1990).
  • The implication of such an approach is that the Western injunction to realise or actualise the self does not play the same role in the daily life of the traditional African.
  • For the personologist, this poses the problem that there is no role for an individual personality structure, and that the dynamics of the personality have to be attributed to the activities of the ancestral spirits and other magical powers outside the individual personality.
  • However, this does not mean that there are fewer colourful individual personalities among the more traditionally oriented populations than in the standardised private lives of the West.
  • For all their emphasis on the collective, traditional Africans use individual names unique to the individual, and not collective family names. According to Mbiti (1990), “some names describe the personality of the individual, or his character, or some key events in his life. The name is the person, and many names are often descriptive of the individual”.
  • By contrast, the Christian name of a Westener is almost never used as a reference to a unique individuality, particularly not in formal circles, and it is the collective family name that is used instead.
  • According to Pasteur and Toldson (1982) it is therefore clear that individuality as a reflection of an individual personality is not foregone through the collective domination of the community. But they give no indication of how this individuality is manifested.
  • It would seem that the Western concept of personality and explanation of behaviour are not suitable for understanding and explaining the behaviour and functioning of the traditional African.
  • African behaviour and functioning should be explained from an ecosystemic point of view, with the accent on the individual as a system comprising subsystems, who in turn form part of larger supra-systems.

III. Cognitive functioning and the concept of time

1. Do the thought processes and ways of thinking of the traditional African differ from those of a Westerner?
  • In contrast to Westerners, the cognitive functioning of Africans could be described as intuitive rationality, because they rely more on intuition and emotion than on pure rationality.
  • According to Senghor (1964), there is a clear distinction between the cognitive function of the African and that of the Westerner, but that does not imply that the one is better than the other, or that one provides greater access to knowledge than the other.
  • The rational functioning of Africans is closely interwoven with their collective way of life. In comparison to European thought which is analytical and discursive, African thought can be typified as intuitive reasoning.
  • This difference in cognitive functioning is an offshoot of the different views of the person that underlie the behaviour.
  • The cognitised view of the person in modern Western thinking (Descartes’ maxim ‘I think, therefore I am’) led to the definition of cognitive functioning as ‘rationality’ in which there is no room for intuitive thinking.
  • But there have been those in Western thinking who have stated the case for intuition. Blaise Pascal, a contemporary of Descartes, pleaded in the 17th century that there should be a place for the ‘logic of the heart’ besides the ‘logic of reason’.
  • According to Pascal, the heart is “the personal, spiritual centre of man, his innermost operative centre, the starting point of his dynamic relationships with other people, the precision instrument by which he grasps his reality in its wholeness”.
  • Pascal’s view on the ‘logic of the heart’ is therefore closer to the cognitive functioning of the African than it is to the Western ‘logic of reason’, which makes no allowance for a more intuitive rationality.

2. Is there something unique and different about the way a traditional African conceives time?
  • The African view of time seems to be diametrically opposed to the Western view.
  • According to Boon (2007), this difference impacts on and reflects different approaches and attitudes to life, humanity, to work and business.
  • It also affects the interaction with one another and the difficulty Africans and Westerners sometimes have in understanding each other’s motivation and behaviour.
  • In the traditional African conception, time is a two-dimensional phenomenon with a long history, a present and virtually no future. It is a circular view of time.
  • In the Western conception time is a three-dimensional phenomenon with an infinite past, a present and an infinite future. It is a linear concept with a futuristic view.
  • This futuristic view pervades every aspect of the Western psyche. Planning and future forecasting dominate the daily and business lives of Westerners.
  • The Western view is foreign to the traditional view. The future has no meaning for Africans because it has not yet been lived. Because the future has not been experienced, it does not make sense and cannot, therefore, constitute part of time.
  • By contrast, the present and the past derive meaning from people’s unique experiences, or from the things already lived and experienced by previous generations.
  • Mbiti (1990) distinguishes between actual time and potential time among traditional Africans.
  • Actual time refers to events that are currently happening or that have already happened, while potential time refers to something that will definitely happen in the immediate future, or something that will happen in the natural rhythm of phenomena such as the rising and setting of the sun.
  • Events that have not yet taken place are outside of time and are classified as no-time.
  • Accordingly, in the traditional conception there is no place for long-term forward planning, a future messianic deliverance or a final destruction of the world.
  • Thus time is not a mathematical construct, but is instead associated with the natural rhythm of the universe.
  • The idea of time as successive mathematical units that are imposed upon human activities in order to direct and determine these activities is foreign to Africans. To them the activities or events are central, not the time at which they take place.
  • It is more important for Africans to be ‘in time’ than to be ‘on time’.
  • Mbiti (1990) believes that this view of time influences the entire functioning of the traditional, as well as the modern African. Unfortunately there is no literature on this subject and it calls for further research and discussion.
  • Mbiti also points out that in Western technological society, time is a commodity that can be bought and sold, because ‘time is money’. But to Africans, time is something that has to be created and produced. They are not enslaved by time, because they create time to suit themselves. This aspect is sometimes commented on by Westerners who accuse blacks of being lazy, doing nothing, wasting time or always being late. Such comments are based on ignorance of what time actually means to Africans.
  • According to Boon, the predominance of a futuristic view amongst Westerners is closely linked with an internal locus of control, in that Westerners believe they can, to a large extent, control and determine their own future and destiny. The traditional circular view of time, in which the future plays almost no role at all, is linked with an acceptance of an external locus of control.
  • This external locus of control is located in mystical, animistic and magical forces, and is seen as operating from the past into the present. These forces drive and influence every person’s life over which he or she has absolutely no control.

IV. Optimal development and mental health

How do traditional Africans attain optimal development and how does this differ from the development of Westerners?
·       Because of their connectedness with their physical and spiritual environments and the balanced use of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, Pasteur and Toldson (1982) believe that traditional Africans are better equipped to reach and sustain optimal development and psychological health than modern Westerners.
·       The Westerner’s functioning is dominated by the left hemisphere of the brain in an attempt to investigate, analyse and take things apart in order to understand and explain them logically.
·       This functioning is subject to an imbalance of the right and left hemispheres and causes tension and stress, which induces Westerners to seek help to relieve the tension.
·       The holistic view of the person and the worldview of Africans, on the other hand, give rise to the balanced use of both hemispheres.
·       According to Pasteur and Toldson (1982), “Instead of one-sided dominance of the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere is not repressed in the African mind and is therefore allowed to freely interact with the left, infusing it with creative imperatives. This is how the wonderful blend known as harmony comes to reside in the personality”.
·       A further factor that Pasteur and Toldson (1982) identify as promoting optimal development and functioning among Africans is their collective existence.
·       The Westerner’s stress and tension can, to a large extent, be ascribed to the emphasis on individuals’ responsibility for themselves, which places them predominantly in competitive relationships with their fellows. By contrast, the selflessness of Africans, who are wholly rooted in their collective existence, offers the essential security that can counteract anxiety and tension.
·       The advantage of group life lies in the kind of super power invested in the group that, being stronger than the individual members, helps them control their weaknesses as individuals.
·       Biko (1998) also emphasised the role of music, dancing and rhythm in the daily lives of Africans, not only as a means of communication but also to attain emotional equilibrium.
·       Active participation in music by all members of the community  through dancing and singing becomes the expression of real feelings.
·       Holdstock (2000) also underlines the importance of rhythm. “Rhythm brings purpose and meaning, enhances the understanding and the sense of being. It unites the individual with the great cosmic force. It lifts the spirits and in so doing, heals.”
·       Music, dance and rhythm are all mechanisms that form an intricate part in the attainment of a fulfilled life amongst Africans, and play an important role as psychological healing devices.
·       Pasteur and Toldson (1982) also point out that the unconscious, in the Freudian sense of repression and the accompanying defense mechanisms such as denial, sublimation, rationalisation and intellectualisation, are not present among traditional Africans to the same extent as among Westerners.
·       The reason for this is that Africans give more immediate and direct expression to all contents of the consciousness through cultural activities such as dance, song, oratory, painting and sculpture.
·       According to Pasteur and Toldson (1982), Westerners would do well to adopt features of the traditional African way of life in order to attain optimal development and mental health.

V. Views on psychopathology

1. How do traditional Africans view illness and pathological behaviour?
  • The African view of psychopathology cannot be separated from their holistic ontology and the role that the ancestors, malignant spirits and sorcerers play in determining their behaviour.
  • Holistic ontology implies that physical, mental and societal health refers to a state of wholeness and integration. Ill-health refers to a state of fragmentation and disintegration.
  • The Zulu healer Mutwa (1996) underlines the view that illness is seen as disharmony. “Where illness or madness have come, the sangoma knows that some power of the universe is disrupted and must be balanced or restored to harmony again.”
  • According to Maiello (1999), “in African culture illness is not split into either physical or mental suffering. Body and mind are a unit, and the mind is never experienced as separate from the body”.
  • From an African perspective, mental illness is not devoid of physical symptoms and all mental disorders should be seen as psychosomatic disorders.
  • Gumede (1990) points out that this psychosomatic interrelation is based on the concept of a primary and indivisible unity between body and mind.
  • In the African conception of health and illness, it is the whole human body that is considered to be either well or ill, not merely some part of the body.
  • According to Sogolo (1993), the traditional African is generally non-specific as to the part of the body afflicted by disease. Even the healer whom he consults does not press for specific information.
  • Sogolo also maintains that in the Western context, stress can be work- or object-related, while in the African context stress is mainly community-related and due to strained relationships either with one’s spiritual agents or within one’s community.
  • Linked to the meso-cosmic order, the African view of psychopathology cannot be separated from the role the ancestors, malignant spirits and sorcerers play in their lives.
  • Pathological behaviour and illness are seen as the result of disharmony between a person and his or her ancestors, or caused by the evil spells or deeds of the malignant spirits or sorcerers.
  • Many Africans believe that various ills, misfortune, sickness, injuries and accidents are the result of witchcraft, ancestral anger or thwana.
  • [Enrichment: Thwana is the process of becoming a traditional healer. If a person is called to become a healer and does not carry out the directive he or she received from an ancestor, punishment is believed to be meted out in the form of emotional disturbance, epilepsy, injuries or ailments.]
  • In African culture the question is not what caused the illness, but who brought it about.
  • In a Western context the patient presents the doctor with the reason for his or her consultation, usually in the form of physical symptoms. But in the African context it is the healer who tells the patient why he or she has come.
  • Traditional healers do not start their diagnoses of illness with a physical examination of the body. Their primary concern is with the patient’s background in socio-cultural and in divine/supernatural relations. The healer consults the ancestors in regard to the patient’s problems.

2. What is the significance of ancestors in the lives of traditional Africans?
  • Holdstock (2000) maintains that the ancestors are not experienced as abstract projections, but as real persons who manifest themselves during waking in the form of visions and voices or through the medium or diviner, and in sleep through dreams.
  • The custom of the ancestors is imbued with the greatest importance and places a heavy demand on a person.
  • Unless the customs are upheld and the proper rituals performed to honour and prepare the induction of the deceased’s spirit into the ancestral realm, the ancestors pass into the unknown as dangerous spirits.
  • Misery in this life is invariably considered to be due to ceremonial negligence in honour of the ancestors.
  • When proper respect has been paid to the memory of the deceased by the performance of the appropriate ceremonies, the ancestors are on the whole experienced as benevolent guardians, capable of interceding on behalf of the living.
  • The ancestors preserve the honour, traditions and good name of the tribe, and they play a vital role in the maintenance of mental health, because they provide protection against evil and destructive forces.
  • However, if the demands of the ancestors are ignored, they send disorder and misfortune – physical and mental illness – as punishment or warnings to amend one’s behaviour.
  • Dreams play an important role in the daily lives of African people. They are not interpreted on a symbolic level as in Western culture. Messages received from an ancestor through a dream are taken on face value and are acted upon concretely in waking life.
  • The ancestors not only play a pivotal role in the causation of mental illness, but also play an important role in the healing and therapeutic process.
  • As the illness was caused by breaking the connections with the ancestors, recovery is only possible if wholeness is attained by re-establishing the broken communication.

3. What is the significance of malignant spirits and sorcerers in the lives of traditional Africans?
  • Malignant spirits and sorcerers are also seen as the cause of mental disorder amongst traditional African people.
  • They employ supernatural creatures such as the thikoloshe and the izithunzela to inflict misfortune and cause mental disorder in their victims.
  • Malignant spirits and sorcery are mostly accused when harmony of the group is threatened and a scapegoat is required to protect the well-being of the group.
  • Western-oriented psychologists and psychiatrists have harmed many African patients by way of misdiagnosis and the application of anti-therapeutic techniques.
  • Because of insufficient knowledge of the cultural background, a great percentage of African patients were misdiagnosed as schizophrenic.
  • If patients believed that they were bewitched or that ancestors had spoken to them, ill-informed psychologists and psychiatrists diagnosed delusions and auditory hallucinations.

VI. Psychotherapy

How does Western psychotherapy differ from African healing practices?
  • Western culture attributes high priority to verbal language as a means of communication.
  • In Western-style psychotherapy, verbal communication seems to be the most important feature of the process, typified as a ‘talking cure’.
  • According to Maiello (1999), words do not seem to have the same value in African culture. Music and rhythm are more important ways of communication than words.
  • What Western people think and talk about, African people tend to act and represent in dancing, singing, rituals and ceremonies.
  • This implies that psychotherapy, which is mainly based on verbal communication, might not have the same effect in an African context.
  • Maiello maintains that prolonged ritual dancing brings about certain neurophysiological changes that impact as a healing procedure, and may therefore have a greater therapeutic value within the African context than psychotherapy.
  • Bührmann also stresses the fact that dream interpretation and analysis are not verbalised as they are in a Western context, but are dealt with in a group situation where the dream is told bit by bit, accompanied by singing and dancing to the beat of a special drum to invoke the help of the ancestors.
  • Within the Western context, psychotherapy is predominantly focused on the individual, with group and family therapy playing a secondary role.
  • Within the African context, therapy or healing is grounded in the collective existence of the microcosmic order, whereby the individual is always seen as an integral part of the community.
  • According to Bührmann, treatment is not individual (especially for any mental dysfunction), but requires the cooperation of the family and at times the active treatment of others in the family.
  • Parle (2007) also endorses the fact that African therapeutic systems emphasise “collective social responses to afflictions” rather than individualistic diagnosis and treatment.
  • Because of this ethos of collectivism, the Western-trained therapist must be aware of the influence of these social structures on behaviour.
  • [Enrichment: Rudnick (2002) draws a comparison between the dynamics of Western psychotherapy and traditional healing and concludes that the same psychological factors play a role in both psychotherapy and shamanic healing. Both Western therapists and African shamans are socially sanctioned healers of their respective cultures and both use rituals to help relieve clients of their distress. See Rudnick’s table of comparison on pg 560 – 561.]
  • It remains, however, an open question whether Western-trained psychotherapists can be made fully aware of cultural differences. Maiello notes that the knowledge a Western psychotherapist can acquire will inevitably remain superficial.
  • But knowing about the inevitable limits of cross-cultural therapeutic work will promote the necessary caution and respect in approaching patients from other cultures.

VII. Evaluation of the African perspective

  • In the light of the absence of a comprehensive theory of personality, it is difficult to evaluate the contribution of this perspective to personology as such.
  • But there are valuable lessons that Westerners can learn from Africa.
  • According to Laurens van der Post, it is not Westerners “who are filled with spirit and soul, but rather the dark people around us. They have so much of it that it overflows into the trees, rocks, rivers, lakes, birds, snakes and animals that surround them… Whatever happens to them, their lives are never lonely for lack of spirit nor do they find life wanting in meaning – they are less lonely because of their community embeddedness”.
  • This view is reflected to a certain degree by Holdstock (2000) who maintains that an Africentric psychology “endeavours to imbue life with meaning, sacrilising the animate as well as the inanimate world around us… It dreams of redeeming, not only the discipline and profession of psychology, but of the entire human condition. It dreams of initiating a science that will enable us to understand the universal nature of our being, of establishing a relationship with the world around us. What Coleridge has said of poetry can be applied to Africentric psychology – ‘in ideal perfection’ – it ‘brings the whole soul of man into activity’.”

Hedda Mittner
March 2011


  1. Thank You so much for this! My textbook complicated it so i couldn't really understand this perspective very well, now I do! will be using this as a study guide for an upcoming psychology exam :)

    1. Hope you do well Laetitia. Remember there are a number of forums you can join, like and some facebook pages relevant to different modules. Enjoy your studies!