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date: 09 July 2020

From Psychological Humanities to African Psychology: A Review of Sources and Traditions

Summary and Keywords

The purpose of the article is to trace the intellectual history of the new postcolonial discipline of African psychology. African psychology as currently conceptualized in universities in the South and other regions of Africa is a proud heir to a vast heritage of sound and extensive intellectual traditions and psychological scholarship on Africa and its peoples found scattered in the multiple disciplines of the humanities (anthropology, archaeology, literature, philosophy, religion, etc.). Even before and after the critical evolution that led to the emergence of African psychology as a new discipline situated in the departments of psychology in some forward-thinking African universities, the different fields of the humanities offered legitimate research and writings on the nature of the life of the mind and culture in pre- and postcolonial Africa. The article reviews the variety and changing psychological themes that occupied the attention of the African and Western humanists and intellectuals within and outside Africa.

However, the great limitation of all psychological research and writings which constitute psychological humanities is that they could not and, indeed, are not meant to replace the legitimate role being played by African psychology as a fledgling postcolonial discipline and center of thought and scholarship. This fledgling discipline came into being to argue against and partner with Western psychology and the black psychology popularized in North America, with a view toward the enrichment of both Western and black psychological knowledge with new perspectives for understanding the psychology of Africans in continental Africa. The purpose of the article is to elaborate on these issues.

Keywords: African psychology, psychological humanities, postcolonial disciplines, intellectual history, sibling teaching, African worldview, black psychology, ontological incompleteness, precolonial Africa, colonial/postcolonial Africa

Introduction: African Psychology

African psychology is one of the latest additions in the register of postcolonial disciplines in African universities. Other related disciplines that preceded it include African literature, African philosophy, African religion, African anthropology, African history, African archaeology, African music, and African art. As indicated elsewhere (Nwoye, 2014), African psychology as a new field of study within the broad academic discipline of psychology in continental Africa can be defined as “the systematic and informed study of the complexities of human mental life, culture, and experience in the pre- and post-colonial African world” (Nwoye, 2014, p. 57). This definition suggests that there are two major components of African psychology: African indigenous psychology and contemporary African psychology. Thus conceived, African psychology is distinguishable from the notion of black psychology as understood in North America. While the study and understanding of the psychology and experience of black Africans (in continental Africa and in the Diaspora) is at once implicated in the notion of African psychology, African psychology as understood in this article entails the study of the psychology of multiracial Africans and their worlds. Unlike in North America, the human subjects in the study of African psychology in continental Africa “encompass not only members of the black African populations, but also those of the Indian and White Africans, respectively, for whom the land of Africa is the original place of birth and upbringing” (Nwoye, 2015a, p. 112; see also Mbeki, 1996). This assertion does not mean to imply that because African psychology acknowledges the existence of supernatural forces, white Africans, who are included among the full human subjects in the study of African psychology, also believe in the existence of invisible beings. The orientation and content of their belief systems and other characteristics of their identity as members of the contemporary African population can only be determined by means of systematic research and scholarship. Seen in this way, African psychology is not a divisive psychology but rather aims to promote the achievement of effective human understanding in a multiracial African society.

The mainstream Euro-American approach to the study of psychology suggests that only quantifiable and observable physical realities can be known and studied in psychology; however, African psychology rejects this Eurocentric perspective as a very limited procedure in its study of psychology. Primarily, scholars of African psychology reject any unqualified adoption of the traditional Western approach to the study of psychology because the subject matter of African psychology is not restricted to that which is visible or quantifiable as in mainstream Western psychology. African psychology also embraces the study of various realms of beings, both visible and invisible, which can influence the life and well-being of humans in the world.

Similarly, because African psychology takes a different approach to the study of psychology, research and scholarship in African psychology are said to be grounded on the principle of epistemic disobedience and selective pluralism (Mignolo, 2009). The principle of epistemic disobedience is the idea that scholars of African psychology disagree with the claim emphasized in mainstream Western psychology that only a positivist methodology is amenable to the systematic or scientific study of psychology. Hence, instead of imitating and aligning itself to the traditional Western emphasis on quantitative approaches as the only reliable method for the pragmatic study of psychology (although this attitude is changing among progressive Western psychologists), African psychology opts for the use of selective pluralism in its approach. Adhering to the principle of selective pluralism in the study of psychology, African psychology uses both quantitative and qualitative approaches as legitimate means for the effective study and understanding of humans in the world (Nwoye, forthcoming).

Again, unlike mainstream Western psychology, African psychology is influenced by the philosophy of extranaturalism and the epistemology of extranatural perception in its study of African mystical experience. Extranatural perception refers to the belief that some human beings are able to understand the world through “eyes” in ways other than those considered ordinary—literally, another way of perceiving the world (Nyamnjoh, 2017a). The term indicates that some exceptional human beings are endowed with the power of the “third eye” through which they view the world, seeing more than meets ordinary physical eyes. This implies that, among other things, scholars of African psychology recognize and acknowledge the existence and impact of supernatural forces and other invisible realities (such as one’s ancestors) in people’s lifeworld (Nyamnjoh, 2017a). Supporting this observation, Morrison (1984, p. 342), the late African American female novelist and Nobel laureate, remarks that “the black reality involves supernatural and a profound rootedness in the real world at the same time with neither taking precedence over the other.” Hence, for the field of African psychology the real is not merely what is observable but also that which can, even if in mysterious ways, influence people’s lives and experience in the world (Baloyi & Ramose, 2016; Berg, 2003; Holdstock, 1979, 1999; Mkhize, 2004; Morrison, 1984; Nobles, Baloyi, & Sodi, 2016; Nwoye, 2015a; Nyamnjoh, 2017a).

Four critical methods drive the study of African psychology as a postcolonial discipline: the deconstructive, the reconstructive, the constructive, and the methodology of multidirected partiality (Nwoye, forthcoming). The deconstructive methodological approach is called into action when the aim of a particular research in African psychology is to excavate, challenge, and correct the errors and distortions about Africa and Africans embedded in mainstream Western psychology (particularly in the literature of colonial psychiatry). The reconstructive methodological approach is considered relevant when the aim of the research or scholarship in African psychology goes beyond identifying and correcting existing distortions of the image of Africa and its peoples propagated in Western scholarship (Achebe, 1977) but, more important, takes on the task of reversing or replacing such distortions with more corrective data (Achebe, 1958; Nwoye, forthcoming). In that way, African psychology operates not just as a reactive, insurgent, or protest psychology but also as a reconstructive psychology. The third methodology, the constructive perspective, is considered crucial when the aim of research or scholarship is driven by the need to create new theories, concepts, principles, and assumptions required to generate solutions to psychological problems of the contemporary African client, and to inject freshness and originality into the study of African psychology as an academic subject grounded in African cultural and philosophical traditions (Nwoye, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2017a). In other words, this third methodology in particular is geared toward guaranteeing the birth of new dimensions of thought on, and understanding of, the nature of the Africentric (as opposed to the Eurocentric) humanity and experience in the study of psychology in Africa. For many scholars in the Eurocentric tradition, a human being is a self-contained individual devoid of a background (Cushman, 1990; Holdstock, 1999, 2000), while an Africentric human being is an individual who recognizes that “one hand washes the other hand,” and acknowledges the existence and influences of a background (sociocultural and spiritual) in his or her life and thrives not by living in isolation from others but as a serviceable member of a family and community in which he was born and bred (Nyamnjoh, 2017a; Nwoye, forthcoming).

The fourth methodology, multidirected partiality, is the approach that illustrates the lack of fear in African psychology to learn from and draw on all relevant human knowledge traditions and theoretical and conceptual perspectives (local and foreign) found within or outside the field of psychology. This is dependent on studying knowledge traditions that do not contradict or distort African reality and humanity but facilitate the effective understanding of the life of the mind and the meaning and relevance of some cultural practices and experience in continental Africa (Nwoye, forthcoming). Accordingly, African psychology positions itself as a legitimate full-fledged postcolonial discipline with multiple methodological approaches and orienting philosophies in its research and scholarship.

Because of its study of realities located within both the visible and invisible worlds, and due to the importance it gives to the study of culture as a means of achieving effective human understanding, African psychology understands itself as a human discipline rather than one of a natural science. In contrast to the model of explanation developed in natural science, African psychology aligns with the phenomenological and hermeneutic tradition and rejects the eminent emphasis on the positivist approach adopted in mainstream Western psychology. Many of those who work within the Western mainstream tradition proceed from the assumption that a single method for both the natural and the human/social sciences can exist. One major implication of African psychology as a human science rests on the value it attaches to the role of human language and spirituality (Freeman, 2012, 2014b, 2019; Myers, 2012) as a means of understanding what is inside the individual being studied. For this reason, scholars of African psychology consider it important that both the person being studied and the researcher should be able to communicate with each other in a common language. In the past, particularly during the colonial period, the lack of this common language was instrumental in the generation of erroneous conclusions about the nature of the life of the mind in Africa that some colonialist anthropologists propagated.

Similarly, unlike mainstream Western psychology, which sees the human being as an essentially thinking subject, African psychology sees humans as both thinking subjects and cultural beings (Nwoye, forthcoming). When scholars of African psychology (e.g., Baloyi & Ramose, 2016; Berg, 2003; Holdstock, 1979, 1999; Mkhize, 2004; Nobles, Baloyi, & Sodi, 2016; Nwoye, forthcoming; Nyamnjoh, 2017a) say that people are cultural beings, they mean that both Africans and non-Africans are not only subject to biological laws but are also informed and shaped by cultural influences and indigenous traditions and conditions in which they live and work. People are thus understood not merely as natural or spiritual beings but also as beings who live under the influence of a culture. In this regard, a human being is considered to be a cultural being in the sense that at the moment of birth, nature provides only the necessary minimum for survival. As understood in African psychology and other areas of the African indigenous knowledge system, one comes into the world with natural biological equipment that is not enough to guarantee designation as a fully actualized human but requires the imprint of the culture to which he or she belongs (Nyamnjoh, 2002; Nyamnjoh, 2017a; Nwoye, forthcoming). The understanding in African psychology and many other humanistic disciplines is that individuals come into the world with the necessary conditions of possibility for being transformed from a raw biological being to a fully cultivated human being who is influenced by the thoughts, values, and moral visions of his or her culture and community (Nwoye, 2017b). By comparison, an animal is fully equipped and acquires everything in nature for its overall existence, and so does nothing more than merely instinctively and mechanically live out that which was inscribed in its DNA. On the other hand, a human being receives DNA from nature that endows him or her with open possibilities of what he or she can become, including the conditions of dependency, interdependency, elastic potentiality, and ontological incompleteness (Nyamnjoh, 2017a). The basic conditions of dependency, elastic potentiality, and ontological incompleteness at birth go with the opportunity and developmental task of working out, as much as possible, the full realization of potentials assisted by effective cultural mediation.

People are thereby understood to be born dependent and incomplete with the potential to be more than that. One can only be made whole as much as possible through the nurture and support of social teachers embedded in their culture and community (Nyamnjoh, 2017a; Nwoye, forthcoming). This explains why in many indigenous communities in Africa it is said that “human beings are made human through other humans” (Nyamnjoh, 2002; Nwoye, 2017b, p. 42). From the perspective of African philosophical anthropology that grounds the practice of research and scholarship in African psychology, the primary aim of culture (and its agents, such as parents, elders, social teachers, and professional psychologists) is to cultivate each human born. The need for enculturation is an important basic need in the life of each human being (Nwoye, forthcoming). African psychology is, in part, devoted to the informed study and understanding of the dynamics and positive and negative aspects of the cultural traditions of the people of Africa.

Unlike Western psychological mainstream’s emphasis on psychologism, African psychology emphasizes a bio-psycho-socio-cultural-spiritual perspective in its studies. Although the term “psychologism” was originally introduced to philosophical discussion in the mid-19th century and has since acquired a variety of meanings (Kusch, 1995), the definition of interest in this discussion is the one proposed by Martin and McLellan (2013). They defined it “as the attribution of the primary causes of the perceptions, experiences, knowledge, and actions of individuals to structures, processes, and/or operations internal to their mental lives” (p. 158). Similarly, Sugarman (2019) proposes that “Psychologism as a style of reasoning, rests on the assertion that explanation of the causes of human action and experience are to be sought in inner mental structures and processes further speculated to be the products of neurophysiology” (p. 34). Additionally, Sugarman points out, psychologism propounds that, “psychological phenomena and the mechanisms by which they are produced, are possessed by individuals as private property of their mental and biopsychical interiors” (p. 34). Indeed, for Sugarman psychologism instances the phenomena of possessive subjectivity and individualism. Although other currents in Western psychology exist that do not subscribe to the theory of psychologism defined here, it is crucial to highlight that “with the exception of behaviorism, which renounced it, psychologism has proven robust over the past century and has been the backbone of psychological explanation whether it is depth psychology, Gestalt psychology, humanistic psychology, cognitive psychology or neuroscience” (Sugarman, 2019, p. 34).

In contrast, African psychology encompasses the view that the primary causes of the perceptions, experience, and actions of individuals arise from subjectivity or the internal structures, processes, and operations of individuals, or from their sociocultural or spiritual background. Explanations for behavior, thought, and experience in the African context are sought from within and outside the “perimeter of the natural self” (Freeman, 2018, p. 324).

These observations are, of course, not intended to imply that all Western psychologists in Europe, North America, Australia, or Brazil hold psychologism as their principal explanatory reasoning in psychology. Rather, they draw attention to the inadequacy of an emphasis on interiority as a foundational principle in African psychology and demonstrate the disavowal of the myth of the isolated mind and the Eurocentric notion of possessive individualism (Sugarman, 2019), or the view of an ideal human being as a radically autonomous, self-contained individual. Hence for Sampson (1977, p. 770), and subsequently for Cushman (1990), the psychologically self-contained person “is one who does not require or desire others for his or her completion of life; self-contained persons are or hope to be entire unto themselves. Self-containment is the extreme of independence; needing or wanting no one.” African psychology, while not disregarding the notion of a full-fledged human being as an agentic personality, emphasizes the role of sociocultural-spiritual influences in the making of human subjectivity and psychological experience (Freeman, 2012, 2014a, 2014b).


Having made these preliminary clarifications, the stage is set to highlight the major objectives of this article:

  1. 1. To trace the intellectual history of the new postcolonial discipline of African psychology.

  2. 2. To show that African psychology as currently constituted in universities in Africa is a proud heir to a vast heritage of extensive intellectual traditions and psychological scholarship on Africa and its peoples found scattered in the multiple disciplines of the humanities.

  3. 3. To identify the key proponents and writers in the disciplines of African humanities that serve as precursors and major inspiration to the evolution of scholarship in African psychology.

  4. 4. To highlight the themes, principles, and concepts of interest in the study of African psychology that emanate from a careful review of the scholarship and writings in the multifaceted field of psychological humanities (Teo, 2017).

  5. 5. To develop the view that African psychology as a postcolonial discipline in contrast to the fields of psychological humanities (Teo, 2017) serves as a legitimate common center for the promotion of research and scholarship on the psychology of Africans in continental Africa.

African Psychology as Heir to a Vast Intellectual Heritage

African psychology draws much of its inspiration for research and scholarship from a vast array of intellectual traditions from within and outside Africa. They include anthropology (colonial/African), archaeology (colonial/African), African literature, African philosophy, and African religion, among others. Each of these contributes something meaningful or serves as a precursor in the evolution and development of African psychology as a postcolonial discipline. The next section reviews how African psychology benefits or draws inspiration from each.

Contributions of Psychological Humanities to African Psychology

Several disciplines of the humanities have made important contributions to the growth and development of African psychology.


Two levels of influential relationships come to mind in accounting for how scholars of African psychology draw inspiration from anthropology as a field of psychological humanities. The first is at the level of negative inspiration, which promotes the scholarship of protest and resistance among many scholars of African psychology. For the African psychology scholar, “the battle here took the form of seeking a definition of self and society that would contradict the prevailing British and French anthropologists’ notions about the backwardness of African peoples” (Lindfors, 1997, p. 154). A core premise of African psychology is that it entails the systematic study of the nature of human subjectivity, culture, and experience in the precolonial African world. Consequently, scholars seek concrete evidence from in-depth research of the precolonial period to respond to and reverse the negative colonialist images of Africans found scattered in discourses of tribe, primitive, savage, inferior, lack of culture, lack of civilization, and lack of religion by colonial anthropologists such as Levi-Strauss with his theory of primitive mentality and the idea of prelogism of the African (Mafeje, 1997).

On the positive side, some postcolonial anthropologists such as Victor Turner, Robin Horton, and Susan Reynolds Whyte have conducted useful research for the effective study and understanding of the psychology and culture of the African peoples. Some of the concepts I have used in developing my theory of the Africentric approach to clinical diagnosis and treatment (Nwoye, 2015b) emanate from the works of Turner (1968, 1980) as well as the important notion of questioning misfortune articulated by Whyte (1997) on her work among the Bunyole people of Uganda. Indeed, the use of ethnographic methodology in the practice of research in African psychology is a legacy derived from the field of anthropology.

One of the most decorated contemporary African anthropologists with important publications in the area of psychological humanities is Mafeje. Drawing on the wealth of his anthropological contributions, African psychology has been significantly inspired by the writings of Mafeje (1981) and is summed up in his argument that “ideographic enquiry yields deeper insights than nomothetic enquiry” (p. 123). This illustrates that human knowledge is first and foremost local before it can be said to be universal (Okere, Njoku, & Devisch (2005). Hence the central theme drawn from Mafeje’s writings is the importance of rootedness in the local environment, which is central to finding African solutions to Africa’s problems.

Similarly, the work by Jahn and Wilhelm-Solomon (2015) is significant as well. The authors argued that Indigenous Africans strive to organize a reburial ritual for their family relatives who died and were buried away from their ancestral or marital land due to the impact of war because they believe that “displaced” burials greatly aggrieve the spirits of the dead” (p. 183). To avoid such an anomaly, those buried in the “wrong soil” must be brought home and reburied. Jahn and Wilhelm-Solomon showed the ritual of reburial to be important to Africans who believe that in order for a deceased individual to “become” a settled ancestor and protect the family, his or her remains need to be buried in the correct place. Hence, we can learn much about the mentality of continental Africans from a careful study of relevant research and writings in the field of anthropology.


Provoked by the pervasive distortion of the African image by the colonial anthropologists, Bitek (1971) urged that “the African scholar (and in the context of this article, the African psychologist) is called upon to participate fully in nation building, and he can best do this by presenting the Truth about Africa” (Bitek, 1971, p. 7). Colonial psychiatry is one area of Western scholarship where this distortion of the African image was prominent. As highlighted in his work, McCulloch (1995) avers that John Carothers disseminated a disparaging impression of African psychological development (Carothers, 1940, 1947, 1951, 1953). Carothers argued that until the age of seven or eight years, the African developed in the same way as the European, but then the process of development suddenly halted. For this reason, Carothers concluded that the adult African mind only attained up to the level of Piaget’s second stage, the preoperational stage. McCulloch (1995), commenting on Carothers’s report, asserts that his damning conclusion gave the sanction of a scientific truth to the view already held by many white settlers in Kenya and South Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to the effect that “the adult African was simply a child” (p. 60).

One of the deconstructive objectives of African psychology is to challenge and correct this myth of African inferiority. Doing so would require that scholars of African psychology not draw attention to any documented data that gesture to works of typical African adults before the European’s encounter with Africa, as no such written data is available given that much of precolonial Africa was essentially dominated by oral culture. It is with this limitation that the works and results of the archaeological finds of colonial and contemporary African archaeologists hold a place for scholars of African psychology.

The results of the archaeological work of the late Professor Thurstan Shaw of the University of Cambridge, namely, his famous finds at Igbo-Ukwu, Nigeria, currently preserved in the Museum of the University College in London, provide enormous evidence in favor of the normality and the cognitive complexity of the adult African. Shaw’s finds dated around 8th century ad, which means they predated by many years any European contact. The finds at Igbo-Ukwu included fantastic bronze works that portrayed high artistic dexterity of precontact Africans. The finds included a complicated bronze pendant decorated with fish and frog motifs; a decorated vessel of leaded tin bronze in the form of a waterpot; two crescentic bronze bowls, also imitating the form of calabashes; a bronze “altar stand,” on one side of which is a male figure and, on the other side, a female figure; and a large pot excavated from a disposal pit (Nwoye, forthcoming; Shaw, 1978).

Such finds and others like them, all products of meaningful and symbolic human actions of Africans of many years gone by, contradict the view that the typical African mind is simple or equivalent to that of a child as Carothers suggested. The trend from Shaw’s finds rather suggests that the African imagination is indeed complicated and oriented to outstanding qualities of cognitive complexity. In particular, the presence of assorted ornaments in finds by Shaw (1978) demonstrates that Africans, right from antiquity, engaged in complicated human activity and produced intricate artefacts and other works that prove that each is endowed with subjectivity and therefore the ability to imagine goals different from those imposed by custom or instinct (Nwoye, forthcoming). Indeed, the works of art and other evidence from Thurstan Shaw’s finds at Igbo-Ukwu clearly demonstrate that highly sophisticated indigenous craft traditions had developed in the tropical forests during the first millennium ad, long before any Arab or European influence.

Appreciating the strategic importance of archaeological research and findings in Africa in furthering their research objectives, scholars of African psychology see publications in the field of interpretative archaeology as a great window through which the cognitive endowments and the quality of the civilizations of precolonial Africans can be discerned.

African Literature

The contributions of African literature to the vision, development and evolution of research and scholarship in African psychology come in different dimensions as highlighted in what follows.


At the core of the philosophical foundations of African psychology is the philosophy of negritude originated by Leopold Sedar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and Léon Damas. Negritude, as a form of black self-affirmation and Africa-centered ideology, championed by French-speaking black intellectuals, is understood in African psychology as a literary and ideological movement (Irele, 1990) that places all of Africa (not just ancient Egypt) and its ancestral civilization and culture at the center of its research and scholarship.

Scholars of African psychology draw special inspiration from Césaire’s notion of negritude as an ideology for rooting ourselves in ourselves. And this in practical terms entails “the simple recognition of the fact that one is black, the acceptance of this fact and of our destiny as blacks, of our history and culture” (cited in Thompson, 2002, p. 144). This is a sublime formulation as one of the greatest psychological challenges of some upcoming Africans is self-acceptance and self-affirmation, reflected in their persistent threatened ability to accept without shame or discomfort the fact of their being black and the destiny that goes with it. Indeed, a great number of modern African youth yearn for whiteness and engage in skin-bleaching practices to turn their black skin white (Tlhapane, 2018). They are caught up in this crisis of the refusal to recognize and accept being black, as highlighted by Aimé Césaire. Consequently, one of the clinical aims of African psychology (Nwoye, 2015a) is to help upcoming Africans to regain belief in themselves and in their identity as black Africans (Echeruo, 1999; Emecheta, 1986; Gilmore, 2017; Nnoromele, 2002). It is in that very context that Césaire’s strategic principle of appropriation without assimilation as a philosophy of action in the furtherance of Africans’ relationship with the modern West would seem to find enormous relevance. Hence, negritude, understood as “the formulation of an African conception of the universe, and of a mode of existence founded upon this fundamental conception” (Irele, 2001, p. 73), is an ideology that holds significance and respect in the field of African psychology. Consequently, one of the latent goals of African psychology is to carry forward the sublime banner of the negritude ideology.

Great African Novelists

Among other sources in psychological humanities that are immensely relevant in the field of African psychology are those authored by illustrious novelists and decolonial writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, George Lamming, Camara Laye, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Alex La Guma, Daniel Kunene, Naguib Mahfouz, Okot p’Bítek, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Amos Tutuola, Raja Rao, Gabriel García Márquez, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nawal El Saadawi, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Isidore Okpewho, David Diop, Nadine Gordimer, Mariama Ba, Chimamanda Adichie, Toni Morrison, Michere Mugo, Grace Ogot, Nurudin Farah, Lauretta Ngcobo, Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, and Veronique Tadjo. Important concerns and themes embedded in their writings, especially from those of Africa or African descent, are identity, memory, belonging, consciousness, cultural affirmation, and spirituality. Most of these themes are made critical by the impact of missionary Christianity on the African psyche, and the negative impact of colonialism on African self-concept. Chinua Achebe defines his writings as part of a “process of re-storying peoples who had been knocked silent by the trauma of all kinds of dispossession” (Achebe, 2000, p. 79).

A more specific clarification of the aspects of the works of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o that offer some key inspiration and principles in the study of African psychology follows.

Chinua Achebe

The late Professor Chinua Achebe was one of the pivotal figures in the field of African literature from whom scholars of African psychology have drawn their fundamental vision and purpose. Achebe’s fiction sets out not merely to explore the African experience as shaped by the European encounter “but also to re-create in imaginative terms the complex dimensions of the African world, and thus to restore to the continent its character as a theatre of human endeavor and cultural accomplishment” (Achebe, 1993; Irele, 2009, p. xxi). Seen in this light, Achebe’s work is said to enact a double movement of consciousness and sensibility which he describes as equivalent to the act of “travelling away from an old self towards a cosmopolitan modern identity at the same time as journeying back to regain a threatened past and selfhood” (Irele, 2009, p. 110). Little wonder why many scholars of African psychology derive some great feeling of self-affirmation and conviction from his first two novels (Achebe, 1958, 1964). These two novels provided resources for helping contemporary African youth put away the alienation produced by their colonial education and the complexes of years of denigration and self-abasement inflicted on the generality of Africans by colonialism and the imperialist foreign media.

Indeed, some of Achebe’s critical essays that speak directly to the key concerns and goals of African psychology as a postcolonial discipline include The Novelist as Teacher (1976), “The Role of the Writer in a New Nation” (1973), “Africa’s Tarnished Image” (1998), “Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays” (1989), and “Image of Africa: Racism in ‘Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’” (1977). Here, the basis for the strong synergy that exists between Achebe’s work and the philosophy and theme of African psychology can be seen reflected in Achebe’s own response to an interview granted to Lindfors, Munro, Priebe, and Sander (1972), in which he powerfully remarked:

One big message, of the many that I (sic) try to put across, is that Africa was not a vacuum before the coming of Europe, that culture was not unknown in Africa, that culture was not brought to Africa by the white world. You would have thought it was obvious that everybody had a past, but there were people who came to Africa and said, “You have no history, you have no civilization, you have no culture, you have no religion. You are lucky we are here. Now you are hearing about these things from us for the first time.” Well, you know, we didn’t just drop from the sky. We too had our own history, traditions, cultures, civilizations. It is not possible for one culture to come to another and say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; there is nothing else but me.” If you say this, you are guilty of irreverence or arrogance. You are also stupid. And this is really my concern.

(Lindfors et al., 1972, p. 7)

This clearly suggests that a lot of scholarship on what is expected to be done to rehabilitate the African psyche and quicken its decolonization has for many years been taken up in the writings of people like Chinua Achebe before the formal emergence of the fledgling field of African psychology.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Another prolific African writer whose work contains the germ of ideas on the complexities of the life of the mind and culture in postcolonial Africa is Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the recipient of the German Peace Prize of 2019. One of his novels that provides a ready metaphor for African psychology is his River Between. In that book’s title we find enshrined the idea of postcolonial Africans as citizens of the valley between (Lijembe, 1967), sandwiched as it were in between two competing (cultural) norms (African and Western). The title of that novel appears to foreground some powerful images of the burden and the challenge of the typical modern African child confronted with two contending cultural forces (African and Western) fighting within him or her, for undiluted loyalty. It also suggests that due to Africa’s contact with Europe, and its citizens’ absorption of the values of the two conflicting traditions (African and European), the contemporary African identity can only be truly represented as a hyphenated identity.

These observations notwithstanding, the full power and impact of wa Thiong’o’s writings on the mentality and perspective of scholars of African psychology goes much beyond the lessons to be learned in studying the poetic power of his titles. Much inspiration and insight for the job done in African psychology emerges from his books of critical essays, such as Decolonizing the Mind (1986); Moving the Centre (1993); Something Torn and New (2009); In the House of the Interpreter (2012); Globalectics (2012); and In the Name of the Mother (2013), among others.

The central messages of wa Thiong’o’s works to African psychology are the vital need for achievement of cultural freedoms among the various cultural groups of the world; the idea that Africentricity or the African perspective is a legitimate way of viewing the world; the notion that in Africa, “the mother is supreme,” so that at times it is legitimate to say in the name of the mother as a way of giving tribute to the big role played in African children’s lives by their mothers and other-mothers; that African culture must be given its due space to bloom like other cultures of the world; the need to remember that Eurocentrism is only but one way of looking at the world, and that other ways and therefore other epistemologies for understanding the world exist and should be given the opportunity to complement the limited perspective of the Eurocentric tradition that dominates the world; and, finally, that the question of memory as highlighted in Something Torn and New (wa Thiong’o, 2009) may not only explain what ails contemporary Africa but may also contain the seeds of its communal renewal and self-confidence. These critical views and perspectives, taken singly or in combinations, constitute some of the epistemological backdrop on which the main creed of African psychology as a postcolonial discipline is built.

African Literary Criticism

Important works within the interdisciplinary fields of the psychological humanities that also inspire research and scholarship in African psychology come from illustrious African literary critics and public intellectuals. Among these, the following luminaries come to mind: Emmanuel Obiechina, Abiola Irele, Carole Boyce Davies, Michael Echeruo, Simon Gikandi, Biodun Jeyifo, Charles E. Nnolim, Paulin Houtondji, Eldred Jones, Franz Fanon, Steve Biko, Thabo Mbeki, Chinweizu (born Chinweizu Ibekwe), Njabulo Ndebele, Obioma Nnaemeka, Mary E. Modupe Kolawole, V. Y. Mudimbe, Bernth Lindfors, Jack Mapange, Daniel Kunene, Olakunle George, Tejumola Olaniyan, Anissa Tahahete, Alan Ricard, Jonathan Ngate, Russell G. Hamilton, Ernest Emenyeonu, Chimamanda Adichie, and Francis B. Nyamnjoh.

A close study of the relevant publications of each of these authors reveals that inspiration and vision, as well as some technical vocabularies for furthering research and scholarship, can come from scholars of African literary criticism, some of whom (e.g., Chimamanda Adichie, Njabulo Ndebele, Chinweizu, and Daniel Kunene) comfortably wear two caps: novelist and critic. The late Professor Emmanuel Obiechina (1975, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994) provided great inspiration for the study of African psychology. In each of his works, Obiechina shows that African orature or oral tradition promises to be a great source of indigenous epistemologies from which the African scholar and, in the context of this article, the African psychologist can learn a lot about the habits and perceptions of the pre-European contact Africans. And since achieving a scientific understanding of the complexities of the human subjectivity, culture, and experience of the precolonial Africans constitutes a significant part of the subject matter of African psychology, it is obvious that Obiechina’s scholarship will continue to make interesting reading.

In addition to the important contributions by Obiechina are the highly inspiring contributions by the late Professor Abiola Irele. Irele’s works, which will always occupy a position of great respect and influence in the minds of African psychology scholars, are Things Fall Apart (2009), The African Imagination (2001), The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (2000), The African Experience in Literature and Ideology (1981), and his Inaugural Lecture at the University of Ibadan in 1982 (published in 1987). It is crucial to mention that it was in African Experience in Literature and Ideology (Irele, 1981) that one could find the best commentary in English expression of the importance of negritude as a great philosophy of culture of the precolonial Africans.

Professor Obioma Nnaemeka (1995, 2004) wrote several landmark articles. It was in the latter article (Nnaemeka, 2004) that she brought to the fore the notion that African feminism is one of negotiation and accommodation. This ideology of African feminism as a no-ego feminism is reflected in the construct, nego-feminism, which she assigned to her formulation perhaps to spell out her own image of how feminism is practiced in rural Africa. And hers, among others, is the kind of feminist ideology that is championed in the theory and scholarship of African psychology.

Similarly, an important principle for the promotion of research and scholarship in African psychology is one that emerges in 1995. Nnaemeka (1995) proposed the strategic construct of the “inoutsider” to stand as a name for a scholar with the critical competence that defies race and gender in the discourse of African literature (and, in our discussion, African psychology). Commenting specifically in this regard, Nnaemeka (1995) expounds:

While rejecting the spurious dichotomy of the insider that brings cultural understanding and the outsider that brings the theoretical expertise to critical analysis, I argue that a serious feminist critic, or any critic for that matter, of African literature must be an “inoutsider” who pays equal attention to cultural contexts and critical theory. (p. 81)

Drawing inspiration from this perspective, the new field of African psychology is open or welcome to scholars from various races and genders as long as they have cultivated an “inoutsider” identity that enables them to pay equal attention to cultural contexts and critical theory in the course of their practice.

Chimamanda Adichie needs to be mentioned essentially due to her 2009 TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story. That speech corroborates the view of scholars of African psychology in their challenge against the continued hegemonic presence of Western psychology in the psychology curriculum in African universities. The problem with mainstream Eurocentric psychology drawing from Adichie’s formulation is the danger of its tendency to parade Western psychology (which is but a single story of what psychology is about; see Danziger, 2006) as a universal psychology applicable to all persons (Nwoye, forthcoming).

The many inspirational works of Professor Nyamnjoh (2002, 2015a, 2015b, 2017a, 2017b) and Nyamnjoh and Fuh (2014) have been of great importance to the advancement of research and scholarship in African psychology. One principal lesson to be learned from his scholarship is in the area of epistemology. Nyamnjoh’s theory of ontological incompleteness as characteristic of all things human and non-human is the source of conviction in the field of African psychology for the need for the entrenchment of the spirit of inclusiveness in the study of psychology in African universities, and therefore for the dethronement of the hegemonic position occupied by the Eurocentric tradition in psychology degree curriculum in African universities (Nwoye, 2018).

African Philosophy

Scholars of African psychology strongly believe in the existence of many ways of knowing, or multiple epistemologies (Nwoye, 2015a). Among such multiple epistemologies is the one derived from Odera Oruka’s sage philosophy (Oruka, 1990; G. Presbey, 1999a, 1999b; 2002). This project started in the 1970s in an effort to preserve the knowledge of the indigenous thinkers in traditional African communities. Arising from Oruka’s theory of philosophical sagacity, the term “sage epistemology” refers to the useful rational and practical knowledge acquired by some traditional elder intellectuals through their personal experience (Nwoye, 2015a). The notion of sage epistemology can be understood as a type of personal epistemology, the truth value of which is anchored on the claims of experience (Freeman, 2012, 2014b), and it is an important contribution to the promotion of the use of multiple epistemological frameworks in the study of African psychology.

Similarly, many of the works of Paulin Hountondji inspire scholars of African psychology to formulate homegrown theories in the development of scholarship. Hountondji (1995) is indeed well known in the literature for suggesting that African scholars in the humanities and the social sciences should refrain from the error of extraversion or over-“externalization” (which entails the tendency to always look toward the North) in search of theories and frameworks to improve their practice. Hence, the urge for the promotion of the spirit of endogeneity in the practice of research and scholarship in African psychology is a legacy owed to Hountondjian scholarship in African philosophy.

Scholars of African psychology also draw a lot of inspiration from the works of illustrious African philosophers such as Wiredu (1998); Mudimbe (1994); Okere (2005); Okere, Njoku, and Devisch (2005); Karenga (1996, 1997); and Johnson (2001), among others. Their contributions are particularly noticeable in the area of furthering the task of decolonialization that forms part of the deconstructive task of African psychological research and scholarship.

African Religion

Two important works on African religion have been exceptionally relevant in the study of African psychology. The first is by Mbiti (1969). It is an original and eloquent treatise on the content and intent of the indigenous religions of Africa. Mbiti’s seminal book showed that Africans are notoriously religious and tend to carry their religion wherever they go and in everything they do. Most scholars of African psychology reference it when trying to provide evidence that illustrates how African religion and spirituality permeate people’s subjectivity, family life, and world, including their relationships with themselves, other people, and their ancestors, and how it follows people even when they die. For instance, in one of the book’s chapters, “Ethnic Groups, Kinship and the Individual,” Mbiti (1969) powerfully remarked that:

In the traditional life, the individual does not and cannot exist alone except corporately. He owes his existence to other people, including those of past generations and his contemporaries. He is simply part of the whole. . . . When he (the individual) suffers, he does not suffer alone but with the corporate group; when he rejoices, he rejoices not alone but with is kinsmen, his neighbours and his relations whether dead or living. (p. 106)

Corroborating Mbiti’s thesis regarding the interconnectedness between the individual and the community in traditional Africa and the influence of the communal perspective in the life of the individual, Armah (1973) has one of the narrators say:

How infinitely stupefying the prison of the single, unconnected viewpoint, station of the cut-off vision? How deathly the separation of faculties, the separation of people. The singe agent’s action is wasted motion, the single agent’s freedom useless liberty. Such individual action can find no sense until there is again that higher connectedness that links each agent to the group. Then the single is no cut-off thing but an extension of the living group, the single will but a piece of the group’s active will, each mind a part of a larger common mind. (p. 134)

Another critical work on African religion, which is again of international stature, is authored by the Ugandan poet and social anthropologist Okot p’Bitek (1971). His rationale for the book is relevant here as it relates very closely to the deconstructive aim of African psychology as a postcolonial discipline.

According to p’Bitek (1971), because of the negative attitudes of Western peoples to Africans, his intention in the book was to urge African scholars

to expose and destroy all false ideas about African peoples and culture that have been perpetuated by Western scholarship. Vague terms such as Tribe, Folk, Non-literate or even innocent looking ones such as Developing, etc. must be subjected to critical analysis and thrown out or redefined to suit African interests. Second, the African scholar must endeavour to present the institutions of African peoples as they really are. (p. vii)

This demonstrates that p’Bitek’s aim and the deconstructive mission in the study of African psychology meet, as part of the deconstructive objective of African psychology is to challenge and correct the negative depictions of Africa and its peoples found in Western scholarship.

Sources on Psychological Humanities in Western Scholarship

The review of sources in the section “Contributions of Psychological Humanities to African Psychology: African Literary Criticism” is not exhaustive. For instance, although prominence has been given to Africentric sources in this regard, it should be emphasized that scholars of African psychology do not draw inspiration only from contributions in the area of psychological humanities emanating from Africa. Operating from the methodology of multidirected partiality, scholars of African psychology also draw on articles and other works on psychological humanities found in Western scholarship. Specifically, many important Western contributors to the field of psychological humanities inspire and generate concepts that relate to important ideas that populate the field of African psychology. The Western scholars who come to mind in this regard include Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul-Sartre, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Mikhail Bakhtin, Isaiah Berlin, Jerome Bruner, Clifford Geertz, Charles Taylor, Mark Freeman, and Thomas Teo.

Major Academic Journals that Publish Articles on Psychological Humanities

Among some important academic journals that publish articles and reviews on psychological humanities that influence some of the work undertaken in African psychology include the following (their founding dates in parentheses): Presence Africaine (1947), African Literature Today (1968), Research in African Literatures (1970), Journal of African History (1960), Alternation (1996), Journal of Black Studies (1970), Journal of Pan African Studies (1987), Journal of Asian and African Studies (1965); Meanjin (1940, Australia and New Zealand); South Asian Review (1976, South Asia); Kunapipi (1979), The Journal of Commonwealth Literature (1965), the Journal of Postcolonial Writing (formerly World Literature Written in English, 1970), ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature (1970), Callaloo (1976, the Black Diaspora), Interventions (1998), Postcolonial Studies (1998), Journal of Contemporary African Studies (1974), Journal of African Cultural Studies (1988), Africa Spectrum (1966), Africa Today (1954), Journal of Southern African Studies (1975), African Sociological Review (1973), CODESRIA Bulletin (2007), and Critical African Studies (2009).


This article attempted to argue that the new field of African psychology has its roots in the multiple disciplines of the psychological humanities. The aim was to highlight the contents and contours of this evolution. The trend of the discussion shows that scholarly outputs from the various disciplines of the psychological humanities inspire scholars of African psychology to borrow a leaf from the kind of tasks they do in facilitating the decolonization processes in their various disciplines. Yet it needs to be emphasized that the great limitation of all the contributions from the psychological humanities referred to here is that due to their separate and disparate visions and worlds of thought and contexts of enunciation they could not, and are, indeed, not meant to, replace the legitimate role being played by African psychology as a full-fledged academic center within the general field of psychology in African universities (Nwoye, 2015a). African psychology came into being to argue against and partner with Western psychology and the black psychology popularized in North America. This is with a view toward enriching both Western and black psychological knowledge with new perspectives for understanding the psychology of the Africans in continental Africa. Thus, while African psychology draws insights and inspiration from the ever-expanding literatures of the psychological humanities, African psychology as a postcolonial discipline is a legitimate center within the general discipline of psychology with the aim to do for psychology what the various disciplines that make up the psychological humanities are doing for their respective fields.

If any lessons have been learned from this review, it is that African psychology is not an isolated discipline. For, like any African human being, it benefits from its participation in the lives of other postcolonial disciplines in African universities of which it is a part. In particular, so to speak, being the last born among these other postcolonial disciplines, African psychology can legitimately be referred to as an “evening child” among its older siblings of the postcolonial disciplinary formations in African universities. And by its privileged position as an evening child (or Nwando, as the Igbo people of Nigeria refer to it), it benefits immensely from the resources of sibling teaching (Mweru, 2011; see also Nsamenang & Tchombe, 2011) and epistemology of these older postcolonial disciplines that came before it and appropriates, without being assimilated or losing its own voice and identity, the relevant knowledges of the eagle minds and writings of these older disciplines.

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