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Far from Freud:

Difficulty in Explaining Psychosexual Development in Ethiopia

(Janetius, ST., 2006)


The definitions of health and disease, normal and abnormal are determined by the prevailing social norms; they are culturally determined.  "Culture" refers to a group or community with whom we share common experiences that shape the way we interact and understand the world. It includes groups that we are born into, such as gender, race, or national origin, religion etc. It also includes groups we join or become part of. Our culture influences how we grow, develop, think and behave interact and participate in groups and in communities. In counselling and psychotherapy, culture is understood to pose a barrier to quality therapy. The Western theories of human behaviour and personality, counselling and therapy modules that are popularised all over the world do not fit to the needs of people from another culture and do not explain fully. Therefore, an effective psychologist should work in harmony with background influences of human conditions specifically the tradition, life-world, environmental and geographic condition of the specific people. Psychologists are more and more becoming aware of the problems of cultural relativism and focus increasingly on cultural contextualization or culture-specific approach in understanding and answering human behaviour and mental health issues.

As a psychologist and counsellor, my main source of difficulty in understanding human behaviour in either Asia or Africa is that, almost all the theoretical frameworks used in understanding human behaviour, personality, human development and counselling process are Western origin that reflects their culture, thinking and life world. In addition, many of the basic assumptions of psychology such as: the scientific and rational approach, the striving for self-actualisation and the preference for active adjustment over passive acceptance reflect the socio-economic, political and philosophical context of the Western Euro-American cultures.

In fact, just like any reflecting psychologist in the East, I have my own reservations to the applicability of many western theories of psychology in Asia and Africa. The difficulties deepened more in the recent years as I started my work in Ethiopia. In my practise as a counselling psychologist in the University of Gondar made me realize that the psychosexual development theory of Freud is not culture-sensitive and needs lots of modifications and revisions in order to be applied in Ethiopia or African cultures. Personally, Sigmund Freud is one of the psychologists I admire most and often tell my students and friends that Freud is my grandfather. However, thinking about Freud in African culture, specifically in Ethiopian make me a war cry for culture-specific theories of human development and personality.

The Psychosexual theory of Sigmund Freud…

Sigmund Freud's Psychosexual Development can be defined as the harmonious interplay of the individual’s psychological and sexual capacities within an ordered and ethical value system. A person’s psychological growth is conditioned by the libido or the inner energy that is reflected in sexual growth. Also, our personality develops as we move through a series of psychosexual stages. Freud's most basic hypothesis was that each child is born with basic instincts, a source of basic l energy called libido (vaguely translated as sexual pleasure). Further, each child's libido becomes successively focused on various parts of the body (in addition to people and objects) in the course of development. Freud was influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Therefore, emphasizes the biological basis of human development a lot. Freud talks about four/five stages of development (latency period is not considered a stage of development by many authors). Each stage is characterised by different demands for libido gratification and ways of achieving; if any trouble arises in normal development process, fixations arise to hinder the personality all through our life.


 During the first postnatal year, libido (sexual pleasure) is initially focused on the mouth and its activities; nursing enables the infant to derive gratification through a pleasurable reduction of tension in the oral region. Infants seek gratification through mouth, mainly sucking the breast, feeding, crying, and other oral explorations. Freud called this the oral stage of development. Fixation at this stage will affect the growth of the child, especially the personality, leading to disturbed adult behaviours like being passive, overly dependent, verbal aggression, impatience, greediness, and a preoccupation with giving and taking. Adult habits like smoking, overeating, thumb sucking, objects chewing are expressions of fixations and poor oral development.

During the second year, the source of excitation is said to shift to the anal area, and the start of toilet training leads the child to invest libido in the anal functions. Freud called this period of development the anal stage. Too little gratification in this stage results fixation often reflected as orderliness, neatness, rigidity, obstinate, stingy, and possessive and other compulsive behaviours.

During the period from three through six years, the child's attention is attracted to sensations from the genitals, and Freud called this stage the phallic stage. This stage is one of the important periods of psychological development. Oedipus complex occurs in male children and penis envy in females. Oedipus conflict according to Freud takes place when most male children realize the sex difference in their organs, and the male child identifies with the father and desires his mother. Castration anxiety makes the male child afraid of the father (a strange feeling according to Freud that the child fears that he may loose his sex organ for such thoughts). In the female, it is labelled as Electra complex (by the latter psychologists) where the female child desires her father and hates mother thinking that it is the mother who created her without penis. Conflicts and fixations at this stage, according to Freud lead to homosexuality, authority problems, and rejection of appropriate gender roles.

 The half dozen years before puberty are called the latency stage. No significant developments take place and libido is dormant at this stage. A kind of repressed drives at this period may lead to formation of friendships, or hobbies. Finally, genital stage of development in which mature gratification is sought in a heterosexual love relationship with another.

Freud believed that adult emotional problems result from either deprivation or excessive gratification during the oral, anal, or phallic stages.

Coming to the Ethiopian Context …

The major problem to the application of this theory in the Ethiopian context arises in the age brackets given  by Freud. Look at the table below:



In Ethiopia, there is a longer period of breast-feeding compared to the Western and other cultures. For example, in my research, almost all the students surveyed categorically state that they drank milk up to 3 ½ to 4 years. The only exception is poverty or famine, in such case the mother has no milk and the child is deprived of longer breast feeding. Another cultural issue that hinders the application is the second stage of Freud’s theory - the toilet training period.  Practically there is no toilet training as such given to children in this part of the world, except few cities like Addis Ababa, Mekele and Nazareth. In all other places, children go for toilet anywhere and everywhere without discretion and without parental guidance. Although there are many projects by western countries and WHO funding for public health that shows that almost majority of the population has toilet facilities, in my observation research projects of public health are only in papers not seen in the ground.

If we apply the theory of Freud in this context, we have to classify all the people of Ethiopia having fixations that lead to poor adult development, which would be farce. How can one say that the whole country is suffering from neurosis because of a western theory of human development?

Throughout the world indigenous peoples have maintained their unique philosophy, worldviews and associated knowledge systems for centuries to explain realities, which are often ignored or undermined by Western civilization and society.  The indigenous peoples of Asia and Africa and their unique lifestyles are often unnoticed or under-appreciated.  Realizing the value of indigenous wisdom or knowledge, uniqueness of different cultures of different continents, many scholars today try to create psychology for specific culture and population integrating the core values and beliefs, customs of different societies. The social, geographical, cultural factors play a vital role in the understanding of human growth, development, personality, maturity etc… It is evident that Western-made psychology and theories does not provide enough knowledge about people and their behaviour in other parts of the world. Therefore, we need culture-specific theories of human behaviour, human development and personality.

To Conclude…

The theory of Freud clearly reflects the human development in the society he lived and similar societies around the world. Therefore, it is applicable in such societies. However, when we try to understand the human development applying the psychosexual develop theory in Ethiopian context, due to cultural, environmental and social conditions of the people, it is not at all applicable to the majority of the population.

So, Ethiopian psychosexual development is far from Freud…