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Black History Month

Bame Augustine Nsamenang: an extraordinary thinker in global psychology

30 October 2020 | by Black History Month

Last week we featured Kwame Owusu-Bempah (1945-2017) who emigrated to the UK from Ghana and fought to both improve the life chances of children and campaign against racial inequality in this country. This week, for the last in our series of Black History Month blogs, we feature the author of 'Human Development in Cultural Context: A Third World Perspective', Bame Augustine Nsamenang (1951-2018).

Bame was contemporaneous to Owusu-Bempah but, unlike him, built his life and career as a psychologist in Africa.

Bame promoted an Afro-centric understanding of developmental psychology and advocated practical pathways to empower its citizens, including coping in the midst of the AIDS pandemic.

Born on 23 August, 1951 in Kitiwum, an Nso area of Cameroon, he initially worked as a nurse before going on to study at the University of Ibidan in Nigeria where he received a degree in nursing (1979), Master’s in Guidance and Counselling Education (1980) and was awarded a PhD in Clinical Child Psychology in 1984.

He wrote later that it was during his clinical psychology studies that he realised that:

“The social reality and goals of human development and education presented in standard textbooks in education and psychology were somehow different from my perception and experience of them in African societies . . .”

After a three year fellowship in the USA and the NICH, Bethesda University of Maryland, Bame returned to the Cameroon and took up a lecturing post at the University of Yaounde.

It was in 1992 that Bame published his first ground breaking book Human development in cultural context in which he advanced an interpretation of human development from an African perspective.

Similarly to Mamie Clark, working in the USA in the 1950s Bame felt that local provisions were not meeting existing needs.

So, in 1995, while continuing to lecture at the University, Bame founded and became director of the Human Development Resource Centre. HDRC’s aim was to:

“Generate evidence-based data… mount advocacy and interventions to advance the wellbeing and social competencies of Africa’s youngsters in their families, schools, communities, peer cultures, etc, and to add value to Africa’s social capital.”

The previous year he had, with Michael Lamb1, published the results of research into how Nso children from his home region acquired what he called “cultural competence”.

“Knowledge is not separated into discrete disciplines, but all strands of it are interwoven into a common tapestry, which is learned by children at different developmental stages, who participate in the cultural and economic life of the family and society.”

Bame believed that socialisation was acquired via a localised and traditional family culture which led to an idea of selfhood which emphasised obedience and built in social responsibility as a primary value.

He argued that socialisation should not be measured using Western psychology’s developmental targets.

"[Socialisation] is not organized to train children for academic pursuits or to become individuals outside the ancestral culture.

Rather, it is organized to teach social competence and shared responsibility within the family system and the ethnic community."

He identified seven stages of selfhood: new-born, social priming, social apprenticing, social entrée, social internment, adulthood, and old age and death.

Bame grouped these into three phases: a spiritual selfhood (from conception to naming); a social or experiential selfhood within the community and finally an ancestral selfhood which follows biological death.

Bame developed a theory of “human ontogenesis” which suggested that children in many different cultures learnt through their integration into everyday social life, rather than through explicit learning activities like those of traditional schooling.

Understanding this world view was key, he felt, to coping with the effects of, for example, the AIDS epidemic in Africa during the 1980s and 1990s which, Bame argued, should take into account local African frames of references and skills sets.

"What exacerbates Africa’s appalling situation is the scarcity of culturally sensitive and contextually attuned human capacity to stark African realities… As a result, across Africa, there is unexplored inertia from over-reliance on foreign capacities and resources."2

Bame cited a United Nations report on AIDS which indicated that family structures in sub-Saharan Africa were more resilient than the international development field had expected.

“A strength of Africa’s social capital, although it is often condemned, is sibling care-giving, without which Africa’s dependence on donor responses to AIDS deaths could have been overwhelming.

The ‘‘responsibility’’ that sibling caregiving confers eases adolescent children’s transition into the parental role following their parents’ death from AIDS”

One of the early initiatives of Bame’s Human Resources Development Centre (HRDC) was a training programme for local lay counsellors who worked within families to provide psychological support.

It was shown that this method combated myths and discrimination of those with AIDS/HIV.A colleague wrote later of this programme “we taught people how to live and how to die” .

The programme was widened to cover end of life care generally and opened to all denominations. Another early HRDC project was research into Cameroonian youth attitudes to HIV/AIDS and perceived risks to unintended pregnancy and STDs.

Bame’s ideas and publications led to both debate and recognition of the validity of an international approach. He was invited to lecture around the world and asked to write reports for UNICEF, UNESCO and the WHO.

Bame’s academic career continued and on his return from a sabbatical at Stanford University he was promoted to Associate Professor in 2004, and later became Professor of Psychology and Counselling.

By the time of his death in 2018 he had recently retired as the director of the Higher Teachers Training College, at the University of Bamenda where he had, in 2011, together with Therese M.S. Tchombe edited a Handbook of African Educational Theories and Practices A generative Teacher Education Curriculum which was made freely available.

Bame was also passionate about the need to support African psychologists and promote African psychology.

In 2012, he co-founded the Cameroon Psychological Association (CPA) and became its inaugural president. In the same year he was one of the nineteen signatories of the Cape Town Declaration from eleven countries that led to the creation of the Pan African Psychological Union (PAPU).

Two years after Bame’s death there are four articles on the home page of PAPU: a declaration condemning racism, a link to South African Journal of Psychology issue on Africa’s vulnerabilities to Covid-19, the Cape Town declaration and a tribute to their founder Bame Nsamenang.    

As the obituarist for The International Union of Psychological Science wrote on their website:

"Global psychology has lost an extraordinary thinker and devoted practitioner”.


References

1 Nsamenange and Lamb. Socialization of Nso Children in the Bamende Grassfields of Northwest Cameroon. In Cross-Cultural Roots of Minority Child Development. Patricia M. Greenfield and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. p. 133–146

2 Nsamenange. Cultural and Human Development in International Journal of Psychology, 2008, 43 (2), 73-77

 

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