Psychology in Black Africa

By Tay, Amewusika Kwadzo | UNESCO Courier, January 1984 | Go to article overview

Psychology in Black Africa


Tay, Amewusika Kwadzo, UNESCO Courier


Psychology in Black Africa

ANY attempt to define the current situation of psychology in Black Africa depends on what is meant by psychology--modern (or Western) psychology, or traditional African psychology.

While the former enjoys full scientific and administrative recognition in many Black African countries, the latter still has to assert its existence as a body of knowledge and practice which can be tested by the scientific method of hypothesis, experimental verification and proof. The mistrust and sometimes mutual rejection which prevail between these two kinds of psychology seriously limit the possibilities of a form of official collaboration between them which could lead to a veritable synthesis.

Modern psychology in Black Africa can be evaluated in two ways. It can be considered as a science with universal validity, in which case its level in Black Africa is the same as that which is found throughout the world. On the other hand, if it is held that modern psychology can only be truly scientific in a specific historical and cultural context, its evaluation entails an assessment of the evolution it has undergone in its new setting by being either receptive or closed to methodological changes and to models previously elaborated and tested elsewhere.

We take it that modern psychology includes the major currents of Western psychology which lay claim to be scientific by virtue of their biological, psysiological and/or psychic foundations. It thus corresponds to the ancient physic of the mind as opposed to the philosophy of the soul, and englobes psychiatry, psychological testing, experimental psychology, which is often associated with educational psychology, social psychology, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Of these major branches, with their many ramifications and theoretical trends, only educational psychology and psychiatry have been trying, in the last four decades, to take root in Africa. Since 1960, the year when many countries achieved political independence, modern psychology has been taught virtually everywhere in Africa, generally in faculties of human sciences.

Psychiatry, however, is usually considered as a medical discipline and is often taught in faculties of medicine. This difference in status, due to the fact that it is taken seriously by the authorities, is certainly one of the reasons why its development has been more remarkable than that of other branches. The Universities of Dakar (Senegal) and Ibadan (Nigeria) are among those which have a world-wide influence in this field. Journals, books, international meetings and a range of documentary information promote the exchange of ideas and experience between specialists and institutions in Africa and those in other continents. According to the University of Dakar periodical Psychopathologie Africaine, 448 articles were devoted to psychiatry in Black Africa between 1965 and 1979, 200 of them appearing in this same journal. During the same period 274 works, the proceedings of 70 meetings, and 68 miscellaneous documents were also published. Although few Africans are involved in these exchanges of information, their participation is remarkable in view of the fact that modern psychology is a recent import to Africa; it did not reach Black Africa until 1940.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that in psychiatry alone, the human and material capacities available are far from meeting the needs of the sub-continent: in some countries there is only one psychiatrist for over 500,000 head of population. This situation is aggravated by certain trends and characteristics which are peculiar to modern psychology in Africa, and which are themselves a result of the cultural and historical context in which psychology began to take shape in Greek Antiquity.

The term psychology, or discourse on the psyche, derives from the Greek notion of the soul. In Homer, the word soul (in Greek anemos, breath) had a twofold significance, englobing on the one hand thumos, mind, will, passion, that which characterizes the individual personality; and on the other psyche, life, the animal inspiration which gives life to all bodies.

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