Exploration of Cognition in Ugandans for Psychotherapy


Cultural Psychology tries to understand the mind-set of the local people of indigenous populations for the purpose of successful psychotherapy. If the counsellor does not understand the background traditions, customs and culture of the people they serve then they cannot understand the subtleties of their cognition in solving life issues and problems. In this paper we will explore the background between Ugandan traditional belief systems and post colonial religious faith. How this contrast and conflict in the mind of the Ugandan and create a dual cognitive approach to life.


The modern Ugandan for the purposes of psychotherapy presents a complex cognition produced by a recent history of emancipation from colonialism (1962) to years of violent dictators such as Obote and Amin who both created an atmosphere of terror in the country. (1. See Social Origins of Violence, Kasozi 1994) In addition to these periods of violence is a conversion to religious western faith that include mostly protestant churches but with minorities of Muslim and catholic influences. Religion dominates the television and radio air time with almost 50% of all programming about fanatical worship and faith healing. Almost all the population go to one type of church or another creating on the one hand deep religious faith and on the other a constant fear of hell-fire and damnation. Mixed into this melting pot is the modernisation of the youth who are listing to rap music, black soul and other ethnic sounds. Most are accompanied by video showing girls in mini-skirts gyrating in a sexual manner to masculine raunchiness of the lyrics. At the same time the government of the day is trying to bring in a new moral order and banning mini-skirts in the streets and putting warning messages in front of music videos saying not suitable for under 18’s. The government is also trying to introduce through parliament a marriage act to continue the dominance of men in society and unequal rights for women as accepted as the norm. The same government of President Museveni (2. 27 years in power after a coup de grace) is openly talking about anti-gay legislation to suppress and eradicate homosexuals in Uganda. A constant discussion amongst the people is the corruption of officials and politicians; this includes land-grabs by illegal means backed by local authority, aid money from the West being used for personal enrichment and bribery from the lowest traffic official to the highest ministers of government. While of course proving corruption is almost impossible when it becomes a daily accepted practice it does not stop the people having a negative view of their lives in terms of control and prospects for a better future. One last note is that Ugandans are not a consolidated people but in fact the land, from history, has been settled from many different regions of Africa, in the West from Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, in the East from Somalia, Congo and Rwanda and in the North, the Sudan and the Central African Republic. This mix of cultures and traditions has caused much of the in-fighting since the 1960’s when the British colonialists gave the country its liberation.

Traditions, Custom & Culture:

There is an interesting dichotomy between the tribal traditions of the Ugandan people, with their 150 year old introduction to Western religion, mostly Christianity and traditional pagan beliefs. This is brought about by the practice of Witch Doctors in all parts of the society from advisors to the King (3. Kabaka) to political influence and the general population who want to consult the witch doctor on many areas of life. Witch doctors provide a service that over-comes the faithful especially for emotional needs in love and relationships. When you ask the local people around Lake Victoria’s poor area, they say the witch doctor is Godless, (not without Gods but without the Christian God) he can bewitch people into acting out his commands, solve problems in economics and business, curse you, provide love potions, poisons to kill, predict the weather and the power of prophecy. Recently a young girl whose husband had strayed to another woman (very common) tried to woo him back with a love potion provided by the local witch but the liquid she covertly put into her husbands drink actually poisoned him and he died. She is now facing murder charges for her husband’s death. (2. New Vision News 2013). Many news reports talk about love potions gone wrong or being cursed and so not being in control of ones actions. All mitigating circumstances that a person can present to a court, as your excuse for a crime or misdemeanour.

Some of the social problems of Ugandans are those that many African countries are suffering from such as alcohol abuse, illegal drugs, HIV and AIDS (the only country in Africa that is still recording a rising HIV infection rate) plus vast youth unemployment and lack of opportunities in the work-place. These social problems of course bring many mental health consequences to the community. Sexuality is by far the most poignant problem when seen as hypocrisy of faith and religion. As stated earlier many Ugandans attend church every week (including the young) they pray and uphold the faith in a very fanatical way, praising out-loud the Lord and all his blessings and at the same time many of the men are practicing traditional polygamy and bride price practices. Although under the law bigamy is an offence it is not prosecuted unless extreme pressure is brought to the case. Many church going married men have girlfriends (other wives as they are referred too) and have children by these women. While still going to church every week and praying for the faith. Divorce has become common which means for many first wives, abandonment. Many early deaths from HIV infection are directly attributed to the practice of polygamy and refusal of men to use condoms as a barrier device. The second most difficult area for Ugandans is health, not as you might suspect from poverty or malnutrition, but actually obesity amongst the middle class. Over-eating can be seen as a reaction to past hard times when food was scarce and you had to eat what you could get, but now over-eating is a past-time, many fill a plate to over-flowing and consume vast amounts of high-fat foods. Cancer, heart attacks and diabetes are very common and high in comparison to other nations.


It is very interesting when talking to many Ugandans about their out-look on life and their approach to the future how negative they are about most things. They have possessive attitudes to material objects including women. Men see the wife as an object or possession whose purpose is to serve and produce offspring. When asking one youth (18 years) about his view of how Ugandans see the world he reported that 60% of what most people talk about is always from a negative point of view. They look for someone else to blame for their mishaps and misfortune. On talking to many other Ugandans and expressing this sentiment many agreed that it was generally correct. Also there is a general lack of trust amongst people, they constantly check each other for fear of being tricked, short-changed or defrauded.

What does all this mean for cognition as a mind-set to confront problem solving, constructing a reality of everyday life and a cognitive dichotomy of beliefs? That most will approach life with a negative attitude, a division between faith and superstition, a gender bias creating decision making that leads to high risk behaviour in relationships and sexual conduct and finally a general fear response to life from a history of violence and corruption.


Now our therapist has a broad background of the typical Ugandan mind-set, their recent historical events, their dichotomy of belief they can begin to understand the position the client maybe starting from. Remember just because the person recognises the division of thought and may even realise that they do not sit comfortably with reality that does not mean that subconsciously they are not having a profound effect on the persons persona. In Freudian terms – insight – should bring relief however cognitive dissonance shows that many people can hold conflicting views and still present them as rational. The super-ego of the Ugandan is steeped in traditions handed down from previous generations and shaped by the recent historical violence. This guiding influence of religious faith and superstition can create a division in the super-ego in enabling the person to hold opposing views of morality and social customs that sit easy together. The ID highly driven by the pleasure principal allows over-eating for fear of an uncertain future. Sexuality is being driven by the custom of polygamy even while the super-ego is clearly offended by this practice in its adherence to faith. The high risk sexual encounters, driven by the ID, including lack of condom usage, and despite the continuing education for the super-ego from the media of mass communication and AIDS workers, is having little or no effect of the decision making to have high risk sexual encounters. The Ego is clearly weak in its effort to referee between the high risk ID and the morally clear super-ego. The super-ego’s normal defence is to use guilt as a way of suppressing the activity of the ID but in the case of the Ugandans guilt is suppressed and leaving the pleasure principal to win out over the reality of the situations concluding that Ugandans have a weak Ego state in which to cognitively protect their own long term interests. This also includes cognitive dissonance having little effect as emotionally, particularly the men with sex and the women with over-eating that the super-ego is over shadowed by a dominant ID.

In the Therapy Room:

A presenting client of course is an individual within a society that has decided that their behaviour is not sitting comfortably with their own view of life and so has made the decision to seek support and change with the help of counselling. The therapist being schooled in a technique of therapy, but now equipped with a background in cultural psychology, is in a good place to start the healing process. It is always a good idea to gauge your client’s cultural position during the on-going process of psychotherapy in order to understand their mental set. For it is from their life position in traditions, custom and culture that they tackle their own problems with life. This mental set can be seen from a transactional analysis view as the child’s ego-state of child like values that interact with the parental ego-state preventing the client from adult rational decision making this confused with a cognitive mind-set that holds a dichotic view of beliefs. The adult ego state is prevented from functioning and could almost be eliminated from the pull and tug of the parental and child ego states in constant dissonance. The universality of Freudian psychoanalysis and Berne’s transactional analysis enables the therapist to understand how the model of the mind both from Freud in the ego positions and Berne’s ego-states can help to educate their client in their internal thinking processes leading to insightful introspection that would reduce harmful social behaviour to a more settled ego driven healthy life position. It is not easy to change long held traditions and customs as they have no direct experience to the client but are that which drives a changing culture influenced by historical values.


In conclusion this article was envisaged to enlighten both therapists and lay-persons the value of cultural psychological investigations of local people’s history, attitudes and beliefs. You cannot successfully treat a patient for mental health issues without a good understanding of how the person has developed their super-ego or parent ego-state from traditions, customs and cultural influences. It is this ability to hold dichotic states within the same reality that creates both confusion and habitual behaviour to exist in the one mind. A therapist cannot hope to assist in behavioural changes unless they have a complete understanding of a person’s belief system shaped by history and traditions.


  1. Kasozi, A.B.K. (1994) The Social History of Violence in Uganda. Fountain Press
  2. New Vision News Paper, April 2013 Ed.
  3. Kabaka = Barundian language meaning – King or Ruler
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