Mpofu, E. (2002). Indigenization of the psychology of human intelligence in Sub-Saharan Africa. In W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.), Online Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit 5, Chapter 2), Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington USA.

This material is copyrighted by the author(s), who have kindly extended to the Center the right to use the material as described in the Introduction to this collection and the form entitled "Agreement to Extend License to Use Work."



Elias Mpofu
Department of Counselor Education
The Pennsylvania State University


Studies on the psychology of human intelligence in sub-Saharan Africa have revealed that the indigenous people of that geo-cultural region regard intelligence as having social and cognitive components. They also showed a greater valuing of practical rather than academic intelligence. The practical kind of intelligence that is highly prized in African villages did not readily transfer to African school settings, which place a greater emphasis on academic oriented intelligence. Conceptualizations of intelligence in among the Shona of Zimbabwe span a number of domains: interpersonal/social, planning, decision making, and problem solving, resource management and utilization, work and productivity, education and culture, health, leisure and recreation, self-regulation/civic engagement. The identification of constructs for intelligence that are indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa is an important step towards the construction and validation of eco-culturally valid measures of intelligence in that region.


Historically, studies on human intelligence in sub-Saharan Africa have focused on determining the cross-cultural transportability of Western psychological tests and constructs to the African context (Irvine, 1988; Kendall, Verster, Von Mollendorf, 1988; Mpofu, in press). The enterprise has been motivated in part by the need to discover universals in human cognitive functions and thereby enhance the status of psychology as a science. Applications of Western psychology in sub-Saharan Africa have also been considered a stage of in the development of indigenous psychology (Mpofu 2002; Mpofu, Zindi, Oakland, & Peresuh, 1997).

Azuma (1984) identified five stages in the development of indigenous psychologies in non-Western countries: pioneer, translation and modeling stage, indigenization, integration. At the pioneer stage of the development of psychology in non-Western countries, the intellectual elite of a non-Western society recognize the relevance of Western psychology to their society and introduce it to their education systems through college level textbooks. The translation and modeling stage is characterized by attempts to apply Western psychological concepts and technologies, often with little or no adaptation. The indigenization stage is achieved when new concepts and technologies appropriate to the local culture are developed whereas the integration stage is when concepts from Western and local psychology are combined to address local problems. Mpofu et al. (1997) regarded psychology in sub-Saharan Africa to be in the pioneer or modeling and translation stage in the development of psychology in non-Western communities. Studies on human intelligence in sub-Saharan Africa aimed at unraveling the conceptions of and practices in intelligence that are indigenous to African communities (e.g., Berry, van de Koppel, Annis, Senechal, Bahuchet, Cavali-Sforza, & Witkin, 1986; Grigorenko, Geissler, Prince, Okatcha, Nokes, Kenny, Bundy, & Sternberg, 1999; Irvine, 1988, Mpofu, in press, Serpell, 1977, 1991; Sternberg, Nokes, Geissler, Prince, Okatcha, Bundy, Grigorenko, 2001; Wober, 1974) heralded the beginning of the indigenization of the psychology of human intelligence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Indigenization of Psychology of Human Intelligence in Sub-Saharan Africa: Some Representative Studies

The study by Wober (1974) on conceptions of intelligence among the Baganda and the Batoro is probably among the most known of all African studies. Wober established that Ugandan Baganda and Batoro villagers described intelligence as socially oriented behavior of benefit to the collective. The Ugandans' view of intelligence as essentially social contrasted with the cognitivistic perception of intelligence in Western societies. Irvine's (1970, 1988) studies of intelligence among the Shona of Zimbabwe also established that they regarded intelligence as public-spirited behavior or achievements that benefit the group. According to Irvine, the Shona regarded intelligence to comprise ungwaru (dispositional intelligence), and uchenjeri (social intelligence). Mpofu (1993; in press) regarded intelligence among the Shona and Ndebeles of Zimbabwe to comprise njere (wisdom) (Shona) or ukhalipile (Ndebele), kutumika (social responsibility) (Shona)/ /okuthumeka (Ndebele), and musoro (socially constructive disposition) (Shona)/ /ulenqondo (Ndebele), success in life, superior educational qualifications, and problem solving ability.

Irvine (1970, 1988), Serpell (1977, 1991) and Grigorenko and others (1999, 2001) are among the few researchers who have carried out programmatic research on indigenous conceptions of intelligence in communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Serpell (1977, 1991) investigated conceptions of intelligence among the Chewa of rural, North Eastern Zambia. He had Chewa adults with no formal schooling nominate children familiar to them for typical tasks in their village or community (e.g., being sent on an errand, looking after a pot on the fire) and to give reasons for their nominations. A thematic analysis of the villagers' responses revealed that intelligence in that community was understood in terms of four indigenous constructs: nzelu (wisdom), chenjela (aptitude), tumilika (responsibility) and khulupilika ( trustworthy). Nzelu and chenjela represented the cognitive aspects of intelligence and tumilika and khulupikila the social aspects. Serpell's studies also found superior performance on village tasks by children as nominated by the adult Chewas was not correlated with school achievement. Grigorenko et al. (1999) investigated conceptions of intelligence among the Luo of Kenya and identified four terms that referred to intelliegence: rieko, luoro, winjo, paro. The Luo term rieko refers to smartness, knowledge, ability, skill, competence and power. Rieko is also defined with reference to context of performance or perceived source of competence. For instance, school rieko refers to ability in school-related tasks and rieko mzungu to competence in white man's (mzungu) technology. Luoro refers to respect and care of others as indicated considerateness, obedience and willingness to share. Winjo is defined by appropriate deference to adults, the elderly and authority figures while paro refers to innovativeness, creativity and the ability to follow through with tasks. Luoro and winjo represented the social component of intelligence among the Luo whereas reiko and paro represented the cognitive aspects. Only school reiko was positively correlated with school achievement. Superior performance on tasks valued by Luo community (e.g., knowledge of herbal treatments for common local illnesses) was unrelated to the activities of schooling (Sternberg et al., 2001). The findings by Serpell (1991) and Grigorenko and others (1999, 2001) that intelligence among the Chewa of North Eastern Zambia and the Luo of Kenya was unrelated to school achievement suggest that school activities in the two communities were not compatible with the activities that are valued by subsistence agricultural economies. They also suggest that cognitive values among the Chewa and Luo are dissimilar to those of the school. School activities in sub-Saharan Africa mirror Western cognitive values and attitudes (Mandaza, 1986; Kasfir, 1989; Serpell, 1991; Serpell & Boykin, 1994).

Previous discussion of conceptions of intelligence among the Shona align it with success in school activities. This difference between the Chewa of Zambia and Luo of Kenya communities on the one hand and the Shona of Zimbabwe on the other in the role of school activities in defining intelligence may be explained by the fact that the Shona of Zimbabwe are a more literate community, and place a high value on schooling. Schooling among the Shona is associated with success in life, which the Shona regard as a primary indicator of intelligence (Mpofu, in press). Intelligence was related to schooling in literate societies (Oson, 1984). It is likely that with increasing levels of literacy among the Chewa and the Luo, the gap between their view of intelligence and the activities of schooling will narrow and be more encompassing of the activities of schooling. In other words, greater exposure and access to formal education is likely to result in a shift in cognitive values towards a greater accommodation and acceptance of the activities of schooling, if only for their instrumental value (e.g., access to jobs in the formal sector; greater income capacity) (Serpell, 1991).

Research linking conceptions of intelligence indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa and objective, external criteria such as school achievement (e.g., Serpell, 1991; Grigorenko et al., 2001) represents moves towards the integration stage in the development of psychology in that geo-cultural region. The next section reviews representative research towards integration or the highest stage in the development of the psychology of human intelligence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Integration in the Psychology of Human Intelligence in Sub-Saharan Africa

Attempts at developing the psychology of human intelligence in sub-Saharan Africa by integrating relevant Western and local constructs to address local, African needs are exemplified by the studies by Serpell (1977, 1991), Kathuria and Serpell (1999), and Grigorenko et al. (1999), and Sternberg et al. (2001). For instance, Kathuria and Serpell (1999) developed the Panga Munthu Test (Make-A-Person Test), a language-reduced test suitable for use by children in rural Africa. The test presents children with wet clay (plasticine) and the children are asked to make a person with the clay. The children's figures are then quantitatively scored for accurate representation of human physical characteristics. An interrater reliability of .89 was observed for the Panga Muntu Test with rural Zambian children.

A majority of children in rural sub-Saharan Africa are more familiar with clay as a medium of expression than they are with pencil and paper. This is because pencil and paper are not readily available to children in much of rural Africa. Rural Zambian children's performance on the Panga Muntu Test was superior to, and uncorrelated with their human figure drawings with pencil and paper as well as teacher ratings of the children's academic abilities. These findings suggest that (a) experience with instructional medium is a key consideration in teaching children with exposure to alternative media; (b) use of unfamiliar instructional media may mis-represent children's learning ability or attainment; and (c) schools need to consider instructional media scaffolding (or bridging) experiences for those children whose socio-cultural backgrounds may be different from school culture.

Sternberg et al. (2001) developed a Test for Tacit Knowledge for Natural Herbs with Luo children of a rural Kenyan community. The test sampled from common illnesses in the Luo community and standard herbal treatments for those illnesses in that community. The children were expected to have acquired knowledge about the illnesses and herbal treatment regimens through experience and informal observation. Children were presented with 22 stories and required to identify an illness that the story depicted and the appropriate herbal treatment; they could also be asked to name an illness for which a herbal medicine was the correct treatment. The children's responses were scored quantitatively. An internal consistency of .60 was observed for the Test of Tacit Knowledge for Natural Herbal Medicines. Children's achievement on the Test of Tacit Knowledge for Natural Herbs were uncorrelated with their performance on academic ability measures (i.e., Raven's Matrices, Math, English attainment tests). These findings suggest that context and procedures for learning herbal medicines were underrepresented in schools that the Luo children attended or did not transfer to academic kinds of learning.

The significance of the studies just reviewed lies in that they represent genuine attempts to recognize and respect indigenous intellectual values by using ecologically valid, local materials and media. They also demonstrate the appropriate application of psychometric procedures with indigenous materials and for the purpose of supporting local educational activities. This is unlike the tradition of applying Western tests of intelligence to native Africans for the purpose of making normative comparisons which is characteristic of the pioneer, and modeling and translation stages in the development of psychology in non-Western countries as previously described. The normative comparisons are unjustified in view of the apparent differences in cognitive values between indigenous African and Western communities.

Conceptions of intelligence among several communities in sub-Saharan Africa as previously discussed represent their implicit theories about intelligence. Implicit theories are those that reside in people's minds and the basis for the judgments they make on their and others' behavior (Sternberg, 1985). People's implicit theories of intelligence are important for understanding the underpinnings of their behavior as well as their value system. A knowledge of people's implicit theories of intelligence is a critical resource in constructing an explicit (or formal) theory of intelligence relevant to a community. The studies on implicit theories of intelligence among a number of communities in sub-Saharan Africa are in important start in understanding intelligence among Africans and from an African perspective.

The significant advances that have been made thus far have been limited by the lack of a critical mass of research on various aspects of intelligence among communities in sub-Saharan Africa. The limitation is explained in part by the fact that there are very few psychologists or social science researchers on the African continent (Mpofu, et al., 1997). A miniscule number of these are involved in research on intelligence (Mpofu, in press). Even fewer are investigating people's implicit theories of intelligence. The training opportunities for a majority of psychologists in Africa have tended to be with programs in Western countries most of which have significant limitations in cultural responsiveness (Mpofu et al., 1997). Psychology training programs on the African continent itself have generally remained ossified in the past in that they still aim to faithfully reproduce the content and research questions of interest to Western rather than African communities (Mpofu, 2002; Serpell, 1993). The formation of a consortium on research on human development in Africa that was mooted by delegates to an International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development (ISSBD) (Agak, Baguma, Mpofu, Nsamenang, Serpell, & Zimba, 2000) may provide a forum for training psychologists in Africa with a greater cultural sensitivity and requisite research skills to add to the indigenization effort. The need to add to the corpus of literature on indigenous conceptions of intelligence is apparent. In the next section I briefly present the findings of a survey I carried out on intelligent behavior among the Shona of Zimbabwe.

Acting Intelligent: Implicit Theories Among Zimbabweans

In a survey on implicit theories of intelligence among indigenous Zimbabweans, I had 49 college students of a Shona cultural background (18 = females; 31 = males; 17 = rural; 32 = urban; Mean age = 36.37, SD = 6.41years) complete an open-ended questionnaire on various aspects of intelligence. The students attended a major distance learning university in the country and were from a variety of backgrounds: the religious orders, counselors with governmental and non-governmental organizations, teaching, nursing, law-enforcement, homemaking social work. The students were asked to report on intelligent behavior by themselves and members of their culture of origin. Specifically they were asked to describe intelligence things that (a) "you often do" and "have done in the last 12 months"; (b) people from "your culture of origin often do" as well as "have done in the last 12 months". The students were also asked to report unintelligent things that (a) "you sometimes do" and "have done in the last 12 months"; (b) members of your culture of origin "sometimes do" and "have done in the last 12 months". The activities that individuals and communities value, are represented in their implicit theories of intelligence. Previous research (Irvine, 1972; Mpofu, 1994) demonstrated that African students were reliable reporters on their communities. Irvine (1972; p. 99) explained this in terms of "the existence side by side in highly educated African students of two systems of causation": traditional-indigenous and modern.

Students' responses were analyzed thematically and clustered into eight domains: Interpersonal/Social, Planning, Decision Making, and Problem Solving, Resource Management and Utilization, Work and Productivity, Education and Culture, Health, Leisure and Recreation, Self-Regulation and Civic Engagement (see Table 1). Sentences or phrases that had a similar theme comprised a behavioral domain.

Table 1. Domains of Intelligent and Unintelligent Behaviors by Zimbabwean College Students of a Shona Cultural Background and People of their Culture of Origin


Intelligent Behavior by

Unintelligent Behavior by



People of my Culture


People of my Culture

Behavioral Domain

N         ( % )

N         ( %)

N        ( %)

N      ( %)

a) Interpersonal/Social

40         (26)

22        ( 20)

46          (39)

30     (31)

b) Planning, Decision Making and Problem Solving


31         (21)   


18         (16)


13         (11)


3       (3)

c) Resource Management and Utilization


20         (13)


21         (19)


21         (18)


22     (23)

d) Work and Productivity

17         (11)

9             (8)

11         (10)

3        (3)

e) Education and Culture

34         (23)

25         (23)

3              (3)

23     (25)

f) Health

1             (1)

4          (3.5)


8             (7)

10     (10)

g) Leisure and Recreation

3             (2)

4          (3.5)

3             (3)

0        (0)

h) Self-Regulation/Civic Engagement


5             (3)


8             (7)


11          (9)


5         (5)


151     (100)

111     (100)

117      (100)

96     (100)

Note. The domains were derived following thematic analysis of students' descriptions of typical intelligent and unintelligent behaviors by themselves, and members of their culture. N = number of statements by students per domain and actors (i.e., self, cultural group).

The Interpersonal/Social domain was derived from statements by the students in which relationships were central. For example, statements on intelligent things often done by the self (e.g. "Taking care of family", "Hang on to my partner", "Took my old mother and orphaned niece into my home"); and intelligent things done by the cultural group (e.g., "Cooperate with others", Helped others in need, "Tolerate other races and religions", "Respect each other") were regarded as falling under the domain of Interpersonal/Social. Unintelligent things done the self (e.g., "Shy to tell someone in his or her face how stupid he/she is", "Having not visited my mother in-law over a grudge", "Making decisions which negatively affect others", "Gossiping") or by the collective (e.g., "Resisting change", "Accusing each other of witch-craft", Divorcing the barren", "Forcing people to marry wives of the family's choice".) were also classified under the Interpersonal/Social domain. Statements on intelligent things by the self such as "Work effectively and efficiently", "Researching and performing better at work" and "Driven myself at work and earned big monies" were clustered under Work and Productivity, and so were statements of unintelligent behavior by the self like "Cheating at my work by working below my ability", "Keeping my work to the last minute" and "Embarking on a project that failed". Intelligent actions by the members of the culture of origin concerning Work and Productivity were such as "Forming work cooperatives", "Crafting arts", and "Ploughing".

The domain of Planning, Decision Making and Problem Solving was derived from statements such as "I plan things in advance", I remained focused in my life" and "I use past experiences to predict the future". "No resolutions set for the future", "Unable to deal with simple situations", "Postponing solving some problems", and "Making poor judgments" are examples of unintelligent things reportedly done by the students and/or members of their culture of origin. Intelligent things students or members of their culture of origin reportedly did that could be described as representing Education and Culture were "Reading books to improve myself academically", "Wrote and passed some examinations", "Observe own cultural values", and "Honor leaders and chiefs". Examples of unintelligent things done by the students or their cultural group falling under the same domain are "Refusing children good education", "Not taking my studies seriously", "Always consulting a n'anga (traditional healer) when they know that a person is an AIDS patient instead of seeking medical assistance", and "Not reporting rape cases protecting their kin". Intelligent behaviors reported by students of themselves and members of their cultural group that fell under the domain Resource Management and Utilization included "Planning my resources, time and money", "Manipulate my environment", "Changing all furniture in my house before prices went up", and "Communal stocking of food for periods of drought". Unintelligent Resource Management and Utilization by the self and members of own cultural group included "Buying luxury goods at the expense of basics", "Overspending on amount budgeted for", "Purchased a dead battery for $850 at an action", "Appeasing spirits using a lot of money and other resources that could be used to better the life of the living ones", and "Drinking and forgetting their chores", and "Having too large families that one cannot support ". The domains for Health, Leisure and Recreation and Self-Awareness were derived similarly. Space limitations constrain the presentation of examples for these domains. An interrater reliability indice of .95 was observed of this scoring system.

As can be seen from Table 1, Zimbabwean students consider intelligence to be multilayered, and to be expressed across a broad range of life activities. Successful or practical intelligence (Sternberg, 1999) is valued by the students and their communities. This orientation towards practical intelligence among these members of an indigenous African community differs significantly from the traditional Western view of intelligence which regards it as success on academic kind of tasks. Second, the Zimbabwean students considered that intelligence in themselves and their communities was primarily shown in five main areas: interpersonal relationships, planning, decision-making and problem solving, resource management and utilization, education and culture, and work and productivity. About 81 to 94% of behaviors that the students regarded as expressing intelligence or a lack of intelligence related to these five domains. Of these, interpersonal behavior was the most expressive of intelligence to the Zimbabwean students and their culture of origin. Being educated and knowledgeable about local culture was also highly regarded as was success with the use and management of resources. The finding that native Zimbabweans consider interpersonal or social relationships and formal education to be critical to intelligence in selves and others is consistent with that of previous studies (e.g., Irvine, 1988; Mpofu, in press). Among the findings that are unique to this study is the finding that resource management and utilization, work and productivity and planning and decision making in applied settings are important to conceptions of intelligence by members of an indigenous African community.

Although behaviors in the domains of health, leisure and recreation and self-regulation and civic engagement were identified as defining intelligence or a lack of it, behaviors from these domains were less frequently mentioned. The infrequent mentioned of behaviors in the areas of self-regulation and civic engagement may be explained by that the Shonas have collectivistic cultural orientation and may be inclined to value social action within a collective or social group rather than as individuals (Mpofu, 1994). Civic engagement for the good of the general public also comes secondary to obligations to the extended family (Mpofu, in press). The Shonas are also likely to consider leisure and recreation to be intertwined with their general social life rather than as a separate social entity.

A rather surprising finding was the lower number of statements on health-related behaviors as defining intelligence. This was surprising in view of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Zimbabwe and other nations in the sub-region. Zimbabwe has one of the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS infections in the world, with an estimated 25% of the general population living with HIV/AIDS. It was my reasonable expectation that there would be many statements on HIV/AIDS risk-reduction or prevention behaviors by the self and members of the culture of origin as defining intelligence or a lack of. Some member checks could have helped clarify this inconsistency. Future studies with native Zimbabwean or others communities in sub-Saharan Africa should consider the factors behind the relative salience of certain behaviors in reports on intelligence in selves and culture of origin.

Summary and Conclusion

The psychology of human intelligence in sub-Saharan Africa is in the early stages of indigenization. Promising beginnings have been made by Irvine, Mpofu, Serpell, Sternberg and others in research carried out in the last 30 years. Serpell and Sternberg and others have taken the research agenda further into the integration stage in the development of psychology in non-Western societies by relating ecologically-derived measures of intelligence among indigenous communities in sub-Saharan Africa to objective external criteria like school success. Their findings suggest that intelligence as conceived among indigenous communities of sub-Saharan Africa is unrelated to the activities of schooling. The findings of studies on intelligence by Mpofu with the Shonas of Zimbabwe suggest that the acquisition of academic qualifications is regarded as indicative of superior intelligence in that community. This association may be on account of the significance of schooling to enhancing success with the formal employment sector. It is likely that increases in literacy and participation in modern economies among the indigenous communities in sub-Saharan will narrow the gap between conceptions of intelligence by African schools and their communities

Although promising beginnings have been made been made in indigenizing the psychology of human intelligence in sub-Saharan Africa, more remains to be achieved in terms of programmatic research in this area. Currently, few psychologists are involved with the indigenization effort. The indigenization and integration of the psychology of human intelligence could be greatly enhanced if psychology training programmes in Africa were more sensitive to the local cultural environment. In that connection, the establishment of a consortium on research in human development in Africa could support the indigenization effort by facilitating the training of a crop of researchers with a greater consciousness of local meanings and values. Research on intelligent behaviors among the Shona of Zimbabwe suggest that intelligence is perceived as success with a number of activities of everyday life. There is tremendous potential in developing a psychology of human intelligence that is true to sub-Saharan Africa. Greater success with that enterprise has the potential to positively influence indigenization in other areas of psychology.


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About the Author

Elias Mpofu is an associate professor at the Pennsylvania State University. His research interests are in developmental aspects of cognition, social adjustment, health care and counseling services qualities from a cultural and cross-cultural perspective. Dr. Mpofu has extensive research experience with children, adolescents, adults, and special populations (cultural minorities, people with disabilities). He is a state licensed psychologist in Zimbabwe, and a certified rehabilitation counselor in the United States. He taught at the University of Zimbabwe for 8 years before his current appointment. Mpofu is a member of 6 national and international psychology, and rehabilitation associations across four continents. Address correspondence to Elias Mpofu, Ph.D., C.R.C., Department of Counselor Education, Counseling Psychology and Rehabilitation Services, The Pennsylvania State University, 329 CEDAR Bldg, University Park, PA 16802. E-mail:; Home page:

Questions for Discussion

1. Identify cultural factors that may require "intelligence" to be defined differently than it has been in the history of Western psychology.
2. Do you think there is need for a common definition of intelligence? Support your answer with reasons.
3. What are the implications of implicit theory for the study of intelligence within and between cultures?
4. List some (a) intelligent things you currently do, and /or have done in the last 12 months.; (b) unintelligent things that you currently do, and /or have done in the last 12 months. Then classify the intelligent and unintelligent things you are currently doing or have done by domain of behavior (e.g., interpersonal, health, leisure). From the results of this informal survey, what seems to be your implicit theory of intelligence? How may this be similar and different from that of a member of an (a) older generation in your family?; (b) younger generation in your family? Explain any likely similarities and differences.
5. What is your response to the assertion that modernization will make conceptions of intelligence across cultures more similar?
6. In what contexts do you consider yourself "intelligent" and why?
7. In which contexts are you less intelligent? How have you handled situations that challenge your self perception as an intelligent person?

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