African Theories of Social Work

Theories are like these century-old roots, they help the trunk and everything else. If you replace these roots, the rest will not stand. In citrus farming, an orange tree branch can be grafted onto a lemon tree and thrives only in certain conditions, if those conditions disappear, the tree will not give oranges but lemons.

Myth About Theories

  • It is a myth that theories should be developed in west countries or that useful theories are those developed in the west. African people from several centuries ago have been developing theories, and we continue to do that now. We have old but very useful theories that our ancestors developed. Most might not be written, they are orature (oral literature), but they are the old roots of our society. Most western theories are not useful to African communities, some are even dangerous to African society as you will see in the color coded boxes below.
  • It is a myth that only professors can develop theories, anyone can develop a theory. A theory becomes important based on how much it is used. African theories are used less, therefore, they do not become important. Only when Africans use their theories can they become prominent. We have seen this with Ubuntu.
  • It is a myth that when you write your essay, thesis, review, blog, presentation or report you need to rely on western theories. Your strongest writing is that which uses appropriate, local and indigenous theories.
  • It is a myth that we only have to use existing theories, no, you can develop your own. When you are writing an essay, report, thesis, book chapter or book or planning an intervention, you can start by presenting the data and information, then propose a theory. Others call this a grounded theory approach or bottom-up approach. The fact that you need to gather the information first, often results in people avoiding grounded theory approach in favour of established theories but it is important to develop theories. This theory is quite relevant to Africa but it allows for more theories to be generated. This covers the current gap in literature, and avoid us using theories, models and approaches that do not promote African values.
  • It is a myth that theories only come from researchers. In fact, persuasive theories in western literature were not developed from research but by philosophers, thinkers or lay people.

Truth about theories

When professional social work was introduced to Africa, as was the case in most developing countries of the Caribbean, Asia, the Pacific and South America, the foreigners who brought social work wrongly assumed that social work was new to these regions, and therefore chose to sideline, ignore and replace existing systems with theirs. In replacing existing systems, the foreign people depended on theories from outside. The local theories did not die, but thrived where western influence was not there, or alongside them. With time, most local theories found their way back into African social work.

Groups of Theories, Models and Frameworks Used in Africa

The green group of theories consists of theories that we consider safe and useful. Most of them were developed from within Africa. The green group also has a few emerging theories developed in Africa, they are safe and useful too. The amber group consists of theories developed outside but that may be useful. The red group, as the color suggests, are harmful or dangerous theories, or those with limited relevance. More theories will be added.

Safe theories, approaches, frameworks and models

Theories and approaches from outside that may be useful

  • Systems Theory (the west’s Ubuntu-like ideas, should not replace Ubuntu or be seen as equal)
  • Social Learning Theory with African examples and explanations

Theories and approaches that have very limited relevance, are harmful or dangerous.

  • Colonial and Neo-Colonial Theory
  • Assimilation Theory
  • Dependence Theory (that Africa will do well by depending on the west)
  • Psychoanalysis (Freud)
  • Body Mapping Approach
  • Modernisation Theory (too much focus on western market values for urban communities)
  • Darwinism/Theory of evolution by natural selection
  • Biestek’s Principles of Casework (too much focus on western individualistic and Christian values)
  • Positivism (Auguste Comte)
  • Trauma Theory (it magnifies ‘trauma’; too much focus on deficits; views individual as weaker, the worker or organisation as experts; presents families and culture as sources of trauma; has been used to demonise African way of life and culture; neglects structural issues like colonialism, assimilation; advances western view of trauma and neglects the role of the individual in shaping their own present life). Trauma approaches are cause trauma in themeselves, they relieve and magnify it.
  • Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs (too much individualistic ideals)
  • Individualism (as a philosophy it promotes smaller social networks, individualised (as opposed to family or community) identity, promotes autonomy which causes conflict, unnecessary competition, materialism and ultimately poor mental health)
  • Western feminism

Ubuntu Theories

Whose fault is it if no one knows about the philosophy of your grandfather and mine? Is it not your fault and mine? We are the intellectuals of (Africa). It is our business to distill this philosophy and set it out for the world to see (Samkange, 1980).

Samkange (1980) argued that Africans need to learn, write and practice ubuntu. Just as westerners use philosophies of their ancestors, Africans should find pride in the philosophies of their ancestors like ubuntu. There are several theories, frameworks and models built on ubuntu. For a start, this article might be useful. More articles are available in the Special Issue published by the African Journal of Social Work in 2020.

Ubuntu is a collection of values and practices that black people of Africa view as making people and their communities authentic. While the nuances of these values and practices vary across different ethnic groups, they all point to one thing – an authentic individual human being is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world. The term ubuntu is expressed differently is several African communities and languages but all referring to the same thing. In Angola, it is known as gimuntu, Botswana (muthu), Burkina Faso (maaya), Burundi (ubuntu), Cameroon (bato), Congo (bantu), Congo Democratic Republic (bomoto/bantu), Cote d’Ivoire (maaya), Equatorial Guinea (maaya), Guinea (maaya), Gambia (maaya), Ghana (biako ye), Kenya (utu/munto/mondo), Liberia (maaya), Malawi (umunthu), Mali (maaya/hadama de ya), Mozambique (vumuntu), Namibia (omundu), Nigeria (mutunchi/iwa/agwa), Rwanda (bantu), Sierra Leonne (maaya), South Africa (ubuntu/botho), Tanzania (utu/obuntu/bumuntu), Uganda (obuntu), Zambia (umunthu/ubuntu) and Zimbabwe (hunhu/unhu/botho/ubuntu). It is also found in other Bantu countries not mentioned here. 

Unhu (ubuntu) Education Theory

In education, ubuntu has been used to guide and promote African ideas, and to decolonise it from western educational philosophies. Ubuntu education uses the family, community and environment as sources of knowledge but also as teaching and learning media. The essence of education is family, community, societal and environmental well being. Interaction, liberation, participation, recognition, respect and inclusion are important aspects of ubuntu education. Methods of teaching and learning include groups and community approaches. In short, ubuntu shapes the objectives, content, methodology and outcomes of education.

Ubuntu social work, welfare and development theory

This refers to Afrocentric ways of providing a social safety net to vulnerable members of society. Common elements include collectivity, ukama (ralationality), ujamaa (collaboration) and looking at people holistically. These approaches are indigenous, and help to decolonise. Ubuntu is against materialism and individualism. The social interventions done by social workers, welfare workers and development workers should strengthen, not weaken families, communities, society, the environment and peoples’s spirituality. These are the 5 pillars of ubuntu intervention: family, community. society, environment and spirituality. 

ubuntu research philosphy

Ubuntu can guide research objectives, ethics and methodology, and decolonise research agenda and methodology. The objectives of ubuntu research are to empower families, communities and society at large. In doing ubuntu research, the position of the researcher is important because it helps form relationships with the participants. The agenda of the research belongs to the community, and true participation is highly valued. Ujamaa, which means pulling together and is about collaboration, is highly valued. Oral literature (orature is valued because most of African thought is not written. Relational and collective approaches too research are valued. Human beings are seen as part of nature, not as separate from it. Data collection methods include dare, an approach that involves participants sitting together, often in a circle, and sharing respectively, in turn. Story telling nyaya and dialogue hurukuro are valued. In true ubuntu research, written consent is of no significance, it is not valued because relationships are more important than contracts. Research is incomplete without asking the participants to verify what you are going to publish, how you will gain from the research and how the community will gain. The research itself, together with feedback, must be provided in appropriate language and formats Ubuntu values good communication, that is, how you say what you have to say. How deep is what you say? Other participants and leaders, require opportunities to talk at length kuseva, orating using proverbs, idioms, folklores, maxims (short statements) and even songs. Ubuntu research values humane approaches and discourages cheating, deceit, harm and disrespect. 


‘…actions are right roughly insofar as they are a matter of living harmoniously with others or honouring communal relationships’ (Metz and Gaie, 2010, p. 273). ‘One’s ultimate goal should be to become a full person, a real self or a genuine human being, Metz and Gaie, 2010, p. 275. Relationships (ukama) are important. Among the Shona people for example, when a person dies, his or her property is shared amongst relatives and there are culturally approved ways of doing this. The practice is called kugova. Life is valued. As Samkange said, “If and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life” (Samkange, 1980, p. 7)


In the book Hunhuism or Ubuntuism, Samkange (1980) said ‘Is there a philosophy or ideology indegenous to (a) country that can serve its people just as well, if not better than, foreign ideologies?”. Samkange’s maxim for leadership is “The king owes his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him” (Samkange, 1980, p. 7). Here, a king refers to a leader of a home, family, school, work place, village, community, organisation, country, nation or international. It also refers to a professionals like a social workers because of the statutory authority they have when working with families, community or clients.


Samkange’s theory has three maxims (short statements) as shown in the table. For a history of Samkange, see this document.

SummaryMaxims (ubuntu statements)
Human relations“To be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them” (Samkange and Samkange, 1980, p. 6   “The attention one human being gives to another: the kindness, courtesy, consideration and friendliness in the relationship between people; a code of behaviour, an attitude to other people and to life, is embodied in hunhu or Ubuntu” (Samkange and Samkange, 1980, p. 6).
Sanctity of life“If and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life” (Samkange and Samkange, 1980, p. 7)   This is an ethical principle.
People-centred status“The king owes his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him” (Samkange and Samkange, 1980, p. 7)   Here, a king refers to a leader of a home, family, school, work place, village, community, organisation, country, nation or international. It also means a professional like a social worker because of the power they have when working with service users, community or clients.
Samkange’s ubuntu maxims

Other maxims

Motho ke motho ka batho. This is Sotho or Tswana language meaning a person is a person through other people. In Zulu it is Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. In Shona it is Munhu munhu nevanhu. The maxim I am because we are, means Ndiri nekuti tiri (Shona).


Ubuntu spirituality is communalised, and values the family and environment. 


Ubuntu justice emphasises these elements:

  1. Deterrence which can be done socially, physically, economically or spiritually
  2. Returning and Replacement – meaning bringing back what has been stolen, replacing it or compensating. In Shona language this is called kudzora and kuripa
  3. Apology, Forgiveness and Reconciliation (restoration of ukama or relations) after meeting the above
  4. Warnings and Punishments (retribution) from community, leaders and elders if the above have not been achieved or ignored
  5. Warnings and Punishments from spiritual beings if the above have not been met. In Shona culture, these are called jambwa and ngozi

Families, and communities are involved in the processes of justice.


Kenneth Buchizya Kaunda was born in 1924 in Zambia. Together with his compatriots led a struggle against African colonisation, and later became Zambia’s as its founding president from 1962 to 1991, 27 years. He died in in 2021. His philosophy of ubuntu was writern in the 60s but summarised in 2007. Kaunda (2007)’s eight basic principles of African humanism or ubuntu are:

  • The human person at the centre, people centred

“…This MAN is not defined according to his color, nation, religion, creed, political leanings, material contribution or any matter…”

  • The dignity of the human person

“Humanism teaches us to be considerate to our fellow men in all we say and do…”

  • Non-exploitation

“Humanism abhors every form of exploitation of MAN by man.”

  • Equal opportunities for all, non-discrimination

“Humanism seeks to create an egalitarian society–that is, society in which there is equal opportunity for self-development for all…”

  • Hard work and self-reliance

“Humanism declares that a willingness to work hard is of prime importance without it nothing can be done anywhere…”

  • Working together

“The National productivity drive must involve a communal approach to all development programs. This calls for a community and team spirit…”

  • The extended family

 “…under extended family system; no old person is thrown to the dogs or to the institutions like old people’s homes…”

  • Loyalty and patriotism

“…It is only in dedication and loyalty can unity subsist.”

Kaunda wrote “Zambian humanism came from our own appreciation and understanding of our society. Zambian humanism believes in God the Supreme Being. It believes that loving God with all our soul, all our heart, and with all our mind and strength, will make us appreciate the human being created in God’s image. If we love our neighbour as we love ourselves, we will not exploit them but work together with them for the common good (p. iv).” His two basic personal principles were relating with the creator, God and relating with neighbours or each other.


Kaunda, K. D. (2007). Zambian humanism, 40 years later. Sunday Post, October 28. 20-25.

Kaunda, K. (1974). Humanism in Zambia: A Guide to its implementation. Lusaka. p. 131.

Kaunda, K. D. (1973). The humanist outlook. Longman Group Ltd., UK. p. 139.

Kaunda, K. (1966) A Humanist in Africa. London: Longman Greens

Ukuru Theory

Ukuru means dominance, oppression or colonisation. It can happen at individual, community, societal or global level. The opposite is uhuru, which means freedom. Mukuru is the dominator. Ukuru results in silencing of voices, beliefs, values, theories and thoughts. Due to ukuru, some histories, literatures, symbols and practices are made invisible or are not recognised. In social work, ukuru has made African founders and theorists of social work invisible while promoting western founders and theorists. Pan-African ideals of familyhood, communityhood and spirituality are often submerged in western ideals of individualism. Ukuru has both short and long-term psychosocial impacts including conformity where the silenced adopt mukuru’s voice, beliefs, values, theories and thoughts; silencing, self-silencing or peer-censoring where individuals set limits for themselves and others; parallelism or parallelity which is a situation where individuals use African ways alongside western ways or situations where people do what they do not value or believe in; imitation which is doing what social workers in western countries do, thinking that west is better or leaving the thinking to someone else; identity erosion; enslaved mindset (mental slavery); reduced self-esteem, inferiority complex or colonial mentality; ‘criticalless’, that is not being critical  and conflict that results from parallel divisive systems and interpretations. Ukuru has many other negative impacts – psychological, social, cultural, economic, environmental, spiritual and political.

Decolonial Theory

They refuse colonial theories’s position that for Africa to develop, we need to replace ourselves with colonial institutions, economies, religions. Decolonization starts at the family and community and moves onto the school through to all other institutions of society.

African Social Development (ASD) MODEL

Social development is about dealing with social problems at the macro level – social policies, social structures and social institutions. What gap does social development addresses? Social work is often practiced at the micro to meso levels, that is the individual, family and community level. The macro level, involving social work with whole of society (the social), is often ignored, especially in Africa. Social development addresses this gap by working to address social policies, social structures and social institutions. It deals with social problems from a structural angle.

Kaseke (2001) said social development seeks to ensure that individuals have access to resources necessary for meeting basic needs and in conditions that do not undermine their self-esteem. The pursuit of social justice and egalitarian ideals is at the core of the social development model.

“Social development emerged as a result of dissatisfaction with a development model that puts undue emphasis on economic growth at the neglect of social factors. Economic growth had not necessarily resulted in an improvement in the welfare of the people. Thus social development emerged as an attempt to draw attention to the importance of social factors in the development process…The starting point for the social development model is that the modernisation approach has failed to transform developing countries. The benefits of economic development have not trickled down to the majority of the people. Instead the wealth is concentrated in the hands of few people while the majority live in absolute poverty…Thus the social development model represents a shift from the residual (welfaristic) model. A social development model sees the role of social work as that of facilitating social change and ultimately enabling individuals to realise their potential”, (Kaseke, 2001). He concluded by saying social workers have been dealing with symptoms rather than the root causes of the problems… Thus in order to change the material welfare of the poor, there is need for intervention at both the macro and micro levels…traditional practice of providing public assistance to destitute members of society has failed to make an impact on the amelioration of poverty.

Kaseke, E. (2001). Social development as a model of social work practice: the experience of Zimbabwe. School of Social Work Staff Papers. Harare, School of Social Work.

Developmental social work (DSW) approach or developmentalist theory

Unlike social development, developmental social work involves both social and economic development. Developmental strategies can be applied when doing work with individuals, groups, families, communities and society at large. In short, developmental approach cuts across all methods of social work. At times, is is referred to as socio-economic development. Characteristics and intentions of developmental approach are:

  1. Improving poor people’s productive capacity to address poverty
  2. Ensures access to means of production, particularly land, including introducing land reforms
  3. Focuses on maximising people’s form of production e.g. farming, mining, fishing, trading, processing and others
  4. Creates and supports policies that support people to realise their full potential
  5. Focuses at both micro or local (families, villages and communities) and macro or large-scale (district, provincial and national) levels
  6. Community level framework or plan locks into national framework or plan
  7. Social work curriculum is designed from a social development perspective
  8. Economically viable social assistance programs e.g. start-up capital, support, public assistance or others
  9. Infrastructure development
  10. Adequate funding for rural programs and rural workers
  11. Does not look at public assistance as an end, but as a way to ensure that people become socially and economically active
  12. Casework and groupwork are not prioritised because they are remedial and palliative, they perpetuate and maintain social exclusion
  13. Economic and social strategies are meant to address poverty and underdevelopment
  14. Disagrees with western modernisation’s view that poverty and underdevelopment results from the setup of African communities, lifestyles, cultures and methods
  15. Disagrees with the view economic growth is the answer to poverty, in fact, economic growth with no human face is the facilitator of inequality

Some role of development and social workers are:

  • Creating opportunities for economic productivity (e.g. farming, irrigation, mining, fishing, off-farm income generating projects, self-employment and enterprises)
  • Lobbying and advocacy for social justice
  • Mobilising local savings
  • Improving people’s economic productivity skills
  • Community workers mobilise the rural communities to improve infrastructure such as roads, bridges, clinics and schools
  • Assisting communities to develop development projects (proposals, plans, funding and feasibility)
  • Ensuring that communities contribution is valued, pursued and recognised

One-Africa Theory

This theory proposes that we need to focus on what binds African people because there is more that bind that separate them. The theory further suggests that colonists focused on separating Africa by creating country borders, emphasising tribal conflicts and nurturing language differences. Instead this theory promotes:

  • Dismantling of colonial borders and creation of a federation of all African countries (or United States of Africa)
  • A unified African military force
  • One currency with an African central bank
  • One African citizenship and one passport that will allow movement freely across borders
  • One continental organisation (the African Union [AU] started in 2001, previously the Organisation of African Unity [OAU] formed 25 May 1963 in Addis Ababa)
  • Unitary African government
  • Broad common cultures and philosophies e.g. ubuntu while acknowledging unique components of each culture
  • Central headquarters (offered by Ethiopia)

The goals of a one-Africa are to cover the region against political, economic and social manipulation and to present a united front. Large economies, the likes of China and the United States have benefited from their large markets. Africa has over 1.2 billion people in over 54 countries

Proponents of the one Africa theory include the founders of the OAU including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Muamar Gaddafi of Libya, Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie, President of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser, Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and people like Marcus Garvey of Jamaica. Statements in support of one-Africa include the following:

Alieu Ebrima Cham Joof from Gambia addressing pan-African leaders in 1963: It is barely 75 years when the European Powers sat around the table in Germany each holding a dagger to carve up Africa for its own benefit.… Your success will inspire and speed up the freedom and total independence of the African continent and eradicate imperialism and colonialism from the continent and eventually neo-colonialism from the globe… Your failure, which no true African in Africa is praying for, will prolong our struggle with bitterness and disappointment. I, therefore, adjure that you ignore any suggestion outside Africa and holding that the present civilization, which some of the big powered are boasting of, sprang up from Africa, and realising that the entire world has something earthly to learn from Africa, you would endeavour your utmost to come to agreement, save Africa from the clutches of neo-colonialism and resurrect African dignity, manhood and national stability.

Kwame Nkrumah address to pan-African leaders, 1963: On this continent it has not taken us long to discover that the struggle against colonialism does not end with the attainment of national independence. Independence is only the prelude to a new and more involved struggle for the right to conduct our own economic and social affairs; to construct our society according to our aspirations, unhampered by crushing and humiliating neo-colonialist controls and interference… No sporadic act nor pious resolution can resolve our present problems. Nothing will be of avail, except the united act of a united Africa. We have already reached, the stage where we must unite or sink into that condition which has made Latin America the unwilling and distressed prey of imperialism after one and a half centuries of political independence. As a continent we have emerged into independence in a different age, with imperialism grown stronger, more ruthless and experienced, and more dangerous in its international associations. Our economic advancement demands the end of colonialist and neo-colonialist domination in Africa… The masses of the people of Africa are crying for unity. The people of Africa call for a breaking down of boundaries that keep them apart. They demand an end to the border disputes between sister African States – disputes that arise out of the artificial barriers that divided us. It was colonialism’s purpose that left us with our border irredentism that rejected our ethnic and cultural fusion. You can read more about Nkrumaism here.

An extended theory proposes that inclusion of the African diaspora in one Africa. Such include states started by former slaves taken from Africa as well as states or communities with black people, including those in the Pacific including Australia. Others have even called for a common language, and Swahili has been mentioned as a potential candidate. One language would address the division in Africa according to main colonial languages.

There are advantages and disadvantages with this theory but it is important to note that the current work of the AU seems to be largely informed by this perspective.

Indigenisation Theory

They argue that Africa should use African ideas, philosophies, literature, theories, approaches and models.

African Strengths Theory

This theory is now new to Africa or was invented for Africans. It has always been there, though not in written form. The theory says if you focus on things you can do better, you will succeed because that is where your strength is. If you want to follow others you will fail because that is not your domain. This is an opposite of the deficit perspective that has been used by outsiders on Africa. What are some elements of these deficits?

  • that Africa’s religions do not exist, and to be replaced.
  • that African land ownership does not exist, land to be taken away.
  • that African skin color is inferior, to be changed, replaced or assimilated.
  • that African methods of economy, research, jurisprudence, farming etc are inferior, to be replaced
  • African languages are inferior, and they are to be replaced

Related to the concept of strengths and deficits is power and powerlessness. Power is anything that makes you do things better, easily and successfully. Powerlessness does the opposite. Another concept is resilience, which means ability to withstand pressure against all odds.

African Asset Theory

From an ubuntu perspective, Africans value assets and use them to quantify and qualify wealth. Assets can be classified as follows:

  • Family assets: land, cattle, houses, food, clothes, blankets, inherited/monarchical leadership and power, knowledge, water sources,
  • Community assets: pastures, paths, roads, schools, local markets, water sources,
  • Societal assets: rivers, markets,
  • Environmental assets: forests, shared land
  • Spiritual assets: worship places, ancestors, symbols of worship
  • Social capital: family relations and community networks

Ujamaa Theory (African Community Theory)

Ujamaa is about communityhood. It is about communities working together and looking after each other. It is about human relationships. Although ujamaa existed long before Julius Kambarami Nyerere was born, it can be credited to him because he popularised it when he was President of Tanzania.

Individual-in-Family Theory (IIF)

Family circumstances contribute to a person’s wellbeing as well as strategies to maintain, promote and revive that wellbeing. The focus is the family not the individual.

African Family Theory (Ukama Theory)

Ukama means relations, it is about familyhood. Families look after each other. For an individual, family includes immediate, extended and tribal relatives. The pillars of the African family theory are (1) value for marriage (2) value for child bearing (3) value for blood-line and maintaining race-line (4) value for extended family (tribe or clan) (5) value for strengthening the bond between the families involved in the marriage e.g. exchange of gifts (6) value for a permanent home (7) value for sharing or dividing family roles (8) value for looking after one another and not putting individual needs first (9) value for community (10) maintaining African values

Each member of the family has roles in the family, extended family and community. If a member fails to play their role, the family, extended family or community will not function effectively. Some of the roles include:

  1. Mothers (includes mother’s sisters)
  2. Fathers (includes fathers brothers)
  3. Bothers and sisters
  4. Aunts
  5. Grandparents

Ukama as social capital

Ukama is an asset, it is social capital. From the family and extended relationships an individual gets (1) resource or economic support when needed (2) moral and psychological support, for example during sickness, disasters or death (3) social support, for example, mentoring (4) information, for example, family history (5) care (6) alternative family (7) dispute resolution (8) inheritance, for example of a home or land, livestock (9) identity and belonging

Theory of Grandparents

This theory emphasizes the positive contribution of elderly people. They are regarded as denhe reruzivo (a well or pot of knowledge). Their wisdom is valued. This theory does not support the notion that being aged is associated with retirement from life, lack of wisdom, uselessness and evil. When people grow old, they become wiser and more caring.

Friendship Bench Approach

Founded by Zimbabwean psychiatrist, Dr Dixon Chibanda, in 2010, the theory states that if you want people with psychosocial problems to speak, you need to provide a suitable environment (e.g. a bench, not necessarily an office), you need to develop friendship with them, they need to speak with a trusted person (in this case older grandmothers) who have experience in listening and are not judgmental. Grandmothers represent wisdom, care and kindness. Two people sitting on a bench symbolises deep friendship. It does not have to be a nice bench, it can be a stool, a log, stones or just flat ground but it has to be private. The bench approach can be used in mental health, social work, counseling and family work with any age group – youths, students, children or adults.

African Environmental Theory

Africans have a symbiotic relationship with their natural environment. It is a source of income, a heritage and a source of spiritual being.

African Spiritual Theory

The importance of being, becoming, connectedness, belonging, identity, homeliness, ‘futureliness’, ‘pastliness’, wholeness and purposefulness in life. There are two kinds of spiritual being:

  • Positive spiritual being that gives strength, motivation and all the positive aspects mentioned in the first paragraph.
  • Negative spiritual being that results in loss of strengths and causes social dysfunction.

Maori People’s Models of Wellbeing, Illness and Health

Maori are the indigenous people of Aotearoa (also known as New Zealand). Maori models of wellbeing, illness and health are:

  • Whare Tapa Wha, which means a 4-sided house: the 4 walls are:  whānau or family, hinengaro or mental, tinana or physical, and wairua or spirit. These work as a whole for better health.
  • Te Wheke which means the octopus: the octopus signifies interconnected aspects. These aspects are: the head of the octopus represents child or family. The tentacles represent wairuatanga or spirituality, hinengaro or mental, taha tinana or physical, whanaungatanga or extended family, whatumanawa or emotional, mauri or life principle in people and objects], mana ake or unique identity, and hā a koro mā a kui mā or inherited strengths, and finally other Māori concepts.
  • Māori healing model: Māori healing has five cornerstones as follows wairua or spirit, hinengaro or mental, tinana or physical, whānau or family, and matauranga or education.
  • Te Whetu which means star: this holistic model of wellbeing is based on mind (hinengaro), body (tinana), spirit (wairua), family (whānau) and land (whenua). Health and wellbeing come from the connection the mind, body and spirit but also the family, the genealogy (whakapapa), and connection to genealogical land. Health interventions are culturally appropriate if they address these aspects. This is te whetu or star. The model emanates from experience and wisdom shared from generation to generation. While Pākeha (colonialists) dismissed Maori views of health and wellbeing and colonised Maori ways of living, the views and ways exist today. Other important concepts from Maori include family spiritual guides, spiritual signs (through nature and animals), role of tribe or extended family, māori rongoā’ (herbal or natural treatment) and romiromi or mirimiri (massage).

Further readings:
(1) Durie, M. (2001) Mauri Ora: The dynamics of Māori health. Auckland, Oxford University Press (2) Jones, R. (2000) Diagnosis in traditional Māori healing: a contemporary urban clinic. Pacific Health Dialog, 7 (1), 17-24 (3) Mark, G., & Lyons, A. (1982). Maori healers’ views on wellbeing: The importance of mind, body, spirit, family and land. Social Science & Medicine, 70(11), 1756–1764. (4) Ministry of Health. 2015. Tatau Kahukura: Māori Health Chart Book 2015 (3rd edition). Wellington: Ministry of Health. (5) Pere, R. (1995) Te Wheke: a celebration of infinite wisdom (2nd ed.), Ao Ako, Gisborne, New Zealand

Tanoa Ni Veiqaravi (Serving Bowl of Serving Others)

Tanoa is a bowl used to serve locally made drinks. It is a beautifully carved wooden bowl with four or more legs to stand on. Tanoa are found in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Solomon and many other islands in the Pacific. ‘This culturally nuanced framework integrates both Western and Pacific social work perspectives to support professional practice, policy development and research across the region’, (Ravulo, 2018). The theory has four pillars and these are:

  • Talanoa – oral histories reflect Pacific perspectives – thinking / knowing / doing / becoming (including spirituality & cultural views
  • Collective identity – Individual strengths and achievements supports collective wellbeing
  • Reciprocity – Creating a bigger picture approach that incorporates individuals / families  / communities
  • Egalitarian – Everyone plays their part in creating and upholding roles and responsibilities
Tanoa ni veiqaravi (Ravulo, 2018)

Source: Ravulo, J. J. (2018). Australian students going to the Pacific Islands: International social work placements and learning across Oceania. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 30 (4), 56-69

Orature Theory

This pedagogical theory asserts that non-written forms of literature are equally powerful. Orature (oral literature) is passed through the spoken word and thrives in communities when it is practised or lived. Most of Africa’s ‘literature’ is not written, hence the use of the term orature, which was coined by Ugandan theorist Pio Zirimu (Gikandi, 2003). Orature includes folklore, songs, stories, poems, teasing, epics, jokes or humour (comics/funnies), metaphor or idiom and proverbs and riddles. Orature is a rich oral tradition and a lived experience which forms part of the African culture. Non-written sources were just as important, especially in communities that did not have a tradition of writing.

Diaspora Theory

This theory has two opposing dimensions, those who are pro-diaspora and those who are anti-diaspora.

  • Those that are for argue that the diaspora the diaspora offers opportunities for Africans to work, gain income and develop their families, communities, nations and Africa as a whole. There are those who support this theory on the basis that incomes and freedoms are better where Africans migrate to.
  • Those against it argue that those going out are selling out, they should stay to develop together. Others strongly argue that the best of African brains, innovations, artists, scientists and energy is taken away to develop other nations at the expense of African communities. Others are concerned with gross violation of human rights through racism, trafficking and continued slavery in the diaspora. There are several ways that people migrate: education, work, scholarships, refugees, trafficking, border jumping and many others.

The African Union (AU) defines the African Diaspora as “Consisting of people of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union.” It went further to state that the AU shall “invite and encourage the full participation of the African Diaspora as an important part of our continent, in the building of the African Union” (AU, 2020, paragraph 3).

Bottom-Up Approach

This approach applies to different situations, including in community development, research, politics, policy, conflict resolution, governance and education. The underlying philosophy is that starting from the bottom is always more successful than starting from the top. In community development, starting with the community going up to government is more beneficial than top-down approach where governments take ideas and initiatives to the people. In research, starting without a theory then develop a theory from research data is a bottom-up approach.

Kalinganire’s Social Work Practice Model (2017)

Social work in Rwanda (as in the rest of Africa) will succeed if it embraces the following traditional values and practices.

  • Ubunyarwanda (national pride): pride in national citizenship, cooperation and cohesion
  • Dignity: self-respect and good character
  • Cooperation: working together
  • Itorero ry’igihugu: aim to be good, live in peace and harmony, strong sense of cultural values. These values are:
    • Perseverance
    • Mutual aid
    • Individual and social responsibility to family and community especially children.

Case Management Framework

The full name of this framework is National Case Management System for the Welfare and Protection of Children in Zimbabwe. It was developed in 2017 by the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare. It has six steps as shown in the picture.

Six Tier System of Child Care, Welfare and Development

This system was developed by Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare (Zimbabwe) (1999) as part of its National Orphan Care Policy to respond to high numbers of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) from the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The system lists and describes sources of care and welfare, and generally a social safety net for children. These, are, in order of the priority they are used in Zimbabwe:

  1. biological or the nuclear family
  2. extended family (kinship care)
  3. community care
  4. formal foster care
  5. adoption
  6. residential child care facility

Number 1 and 2 are fully supported and culturally appropriate in the African context.

Number 3 has support but it has challenges because it is believed that people who are related by blood should stay with and look after a child. However, the community can provide support whilst the children stays at their home or with their relatives. Formal foster care and adoption are very foreign concepts, they are not fully supported by Africans. Adoption for instance, has been favoured by white people who come from outside to adopt black children, and many see this as an extension of white supremacy and colonialism. Residential care is also very foreign but has been forced upon African communities by western philanthropists, workers and governments. Large and small institutions (or children’s homes) are being closed or changed to residential villages. The homes have failed to address the challenges because they use a westernised model that has created new challenges of children who do not fit into African communities. The ultimate solution is to support families, extended families and communities and not to foster, adopt or institutionalise children then dump them when they turn 18 years.

Jairos Jiri Charity and Philanthropy Model

Jairos Jiri was a Prince in the Rozvi Royal family, the last Shona rulers of Zimbabwe. His names of respect were Moyo (meaning heart) and muRozvi (his tribal and royal name). He was born in 1921 in Bikita Reserve, a dry area where his people had been driven by white colonialists three decades earlier. His father, Chief Mutenyami Jiri was a Kingmaker, an Appointer of Rozvi Chiefs. As Royal people, people like Chief Mutenyami would not only appoint chiefs but provide social services in the community like feeding the hungry and housing the travelers or homeless. His mother, Mai Marufu came from a royal family too and was charitable as was expected of her role. As expected of Royal Rozvi, Baba Jiri’s family was guided by unhu values. They were spiritual and valued family and community. They prayed to Mwari (God) and respected their elders, present and past. Values of helping, giving, friendship, being good in the community and working and doing work that please Mwari (God) guided their royal family. In 1950, he founded Jairos Jiri Association for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled and the Blind in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. It was initially registered as Bulawayo and Bikita Physically Defective Society. At the time of his death in 1982, the Association, which Mr. Jiri founded, had grown from one centre in 1950 to 16 centres including schools, special schools for the deaf and blind, hostels and homes, vocational training center, agriculture skills training center, clinics, orthopedic workshops and satellite units, community-based rehabilitation programme, craft shops and gender empowerment programmes. For all this work, he was recognized and awarded locally, regionally and internationally.Baba (respected father) Jiri’s charity model was replicated by several organisations in Zimbabwe and Africa. His model can be described by the acronym HOPESS as follows:

HHave natural values of hunhu.
OObserve the environment for opportunities to help.
PProvide help using your own physical, financial and other resources.
EEncourage and treat people you want to help as your friends and family.
SSeek outside help.
SStart and sustain a charity organisation.

Jairos Jiri Disability and Rehabilitation Model

TTake people you want to help as your friends or family (ukama).
OOnly use existing facilities like friends, hospitals and homes (ujamaa).
PProvide resources like transport people to facilities because they may not be able to go on their own.
AAdequate care, education and support. Provide practical ideas about how rehabilitation could be done.
RReduce stigma and cost of care by providing housing (institutionalization).
EEnterprises (ushavi) for income.
NNeed for supporting carers like his wife and friends.
TTraining opportunities for self-reliance.

TO PARENT, is to provide care as you would do your own children. This was a key strategy for Baba Jiri. The facilities he built were homes, he was Baba, the father and his wife was a Mother. This explains why Ethel, his 4th wife was able to carry on with the family trust after Baba’s death. The major strengths of his model are that it supports building of skills and income but a major weakness is institutionalisation because resources like food, shelter and education are limited. Further, once institutionalised, people are separated from community and it becomes very difficult for them to thrive in those communities when they go back. This model does not address the structural issues that cause disability, exclusion and injustice. However, the work that he started has changed to include community work and advocacy for social inclusion.


Kwame Nkrumah became the first Prime Minister of Ghana in 1952 (and later President in 1966) after the country achieved independence from Britain. He promoted a pan-Africanist ideology now known as Nkrumaism (at times called Consciencism). The Africanist’s ideas are crucial for social work teaching and practice.

This resource will be useful for subjects like Social Development, Socio-Economic Development, Globalisation, Law and Policy, Politics and Social Work, radical Social Work, Decolonisation, Research and many others.


The major themes and features of Kaunda’s pan-African model are:

  1. Need for maintaining an African overarching philosophy in all spheres of life – political, economic and social.
  2. Doing away with colonial mentality, breaking with colonial past
  3. Appreciation of African values, heritage and worldviews
  4. Socialism – ensuring that the means production, distribution, and exchange is community owned and controlled
  5. Authentic African identity
  6. African spirituality

Orature Theory (Zirimu’s Orature Theory)

This theory argues that most of the knowledge, theories, philosophies and memories and evidence in African society is not written, it is contained in songs, dances, stories, proverbs, tales, poems, songs, clan poetry, oral theories, models, frameworks and names. They are not oral, they also involve performance, an audience, and at times, teachers and mentors. Knowledge is stored in memories, symbols and the environment from where it is decoded and communicated orally or otherwise. For example, praise poetry and praise names play an important role of communicating people’s ancestry or family tree. In the same manner, clan animals convey meaning about ancestry, history and rules of families and tribes. Without these sources of knowledge, incest would be difficult to prevent and people will easily forgot their genealogies. Orature sources of information are a precious heritage that should be protected and nurtured. Ugandan theorist Pio Zirimu is credited with coining the word orature, meaning oral literature. Simon Gikandi (2003) said orature ‘means something passed on through the spoken word, and because it is based on the spoken language it comes to life only in a living community.’ He further said ‘Where community life fades away, orality loses its function and dies. It needs people in a living social setting: it needs life itself.’

Oral literature is very much useful in teaching, learning, researching and writing social work. In a critical piece titled, Useful or less serious literature? A critical appraisal of the role of ngano (folktales) among the Shona of Zimbabwe, Enna Sukutai Gudhlanga and Godwin Makaudze clearly showed the usefulness of orature. They said, ‘Colonialist and Eurocentric scholarship has always refuted the existence of literature in Africa before European intrusion on the continent. In instances where such scholarship had evidence of the existence of African literature, it was treated with skepticism, and in most cases regarded as less serious or child-like. However, a re-look at African oral art forms shows that not only did the people have a large body of literature, but also that the literature was a very serious and illuminating exploration and celebration of both life and the indigenous people’s cultural values. It was a literature bound on producing a real African who fitted well into the dictates of life on African soil’, p. 2291. They showed that orature is useful for work with individuals, families, communities, children, society and environment.  They conclude that ‘the paper unearths the significance of Shona folktales, including even the obvious, so as to challenge Africans, who have been colonised for nearly a century to revisit their perceptions, assumptions and attitude towards African oral art forms. This is because self-discovery and self- definition are the necessary points of departure in the decolonisation process that many African countries are engaged in’,  p. 2291 and that ‘Shona folktales are not useless literature as was claimed by early missionaries and explorers. Rather they are a serious and illuminating exploration of life and history. The tales are about life as lived and celebrated in society. Telling them is narrating life, is celebrating African cultural values. They again play a crucial role, of nurturing young children into responsible citizens of society. Thus it is prudent that scholars of African literature, culture and history focus on oral literature as a way of having a sound understanding of indigenous people and their rich cultural heritage’, p. 2298. The links to these papers referred are below.

Theory of Dead Aid

Founded by Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist, this theory argues that international development aid provided to Africa is doing more harm than good. Dambisa argues that for every dollar given in aid, many more dollars leave Africa for the donor countries. Her 2010 book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, gives a broader view into the problems of aid. “In the past fifty years, more than $1 trillion in development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Has this assistance improved the lives of Africans? No. In fact, across the continent, the recipients of this aid are not better off as a result of it, but worse—much worse”, said Moyo.

In the dead aid theory or myths of aid thesis Dambisa’s view is that when it comes to Africa, aid is a cancerous disease not the cure. In the 1970s, aid picked but poverty went up in Africa. Asia was poorer than Africa, received little aid, but now Africa which received aid is poorer than Asian countries like China, Singapore, Taiwan and others.  In the hands of powerful African leaders and politicians, aid becomes an asset to fight for just like diamonds, it is used for manipulation and corrupt activities. Africa needs economic growth not aid, argues Moyo. More than US$1 trillion dollars has been given to Africa as aid from the west in the last 50 years but as Rwanda President Paul Abdoulaye Kagame said, there is little to show for it in terms of human growth and economic development. Former Senegalese President Wade, said aid alone has never developed a nation. The aid given to Africa so far, is equivalent to over US$1000 per African. Aid has not lived up to expectations of reducing poverty and increasing economic growth. As development and growth strategy or policy, aid has been mythical if not deadly. The thesis can be divided into three ideas (1) what aid is (1) the problems with aid (3) aid-free alternatives. We have prepared this document titled Dead Aid Theory and Social Work about this theory. View or download the document to learn about the ten (10) problems with aid and the 5 no-aid alternatives that Moyo proposed.


Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher. His ideas contribute significantly to social work education, teaching, training, learning and practice and more generally to decolonisation.

  • Emancipatory learning – learning should empower students, people or communities to challenge, overturn and liberate them from oppression and colonialism.
  • Learning should be transformative.
  • Education should conscientise people and make them aware of their oppression, leading to taking action against oppression.
  • Critical pedagogy, learning, reflection, understanding and awareness are all important, they lead to emancipation which leads to liberation
  • Teaching and learning should involve respectful dialogue, and acknowledge the humanity of each other.
  • Educators should not treat students as empty vessels (it is dehumanising) that they fill with the knowledge but rather learn together at the same pace (the banking concept of teaching, where students are fed with knowledge to digest later, is wrong).
  • Unjust systems dehumanise people, and those dehumanised should pursue a process of humanise themselves (to become truly humans).
  • For liberation to occur, those facing injustice must use their own language to define their world and the injustice they face
  • Liberation needs revolutionary leaders, who use dialogue with people to develop a common understanding of their injustice, and then plan actions together.


To understand this theory, we do have to appreciate the Ubuntu concepts of musha, ukama, kushava and nyika. Musha means a permanent home, where one lives with family closer to relatives and a permanent community. Musha is usually located in someone’s ancestral lands, on it is a home or homes, farming land and a grave yard. It has spiritual, social and economic significance. Musha is connected to other misha of relatives, friends, community, country and continent. When death comes, musha is the final resting (burial) place. Ukama means relations, mainly those connected by blood. When a person leaves their home to work in another area, town, country or continent, it is called kushava. Kushava is not permanent, a person who goes out to work is expected to come back at musha frequently and when they have worked enough, they come back permanently.  So kushava is a journey that starts at musha and ends there. Every individual’s family has musha. Migration is a form of kushava. Nyika means country. There are two forms of country. Countries that are run by Kings (Countries with a capital letter C) and present day countries which are nation states that are run by presidents in Africa with the exception of Eswatini and Morocco that still have functioning monarchies at national level. In a Country, you find a person’s land or ancestral lands and in country, a person has citizenship.

The same concept applies to the refugee journey. No one can be a refugee for ever. No one wants to leave their permanent home, community and country permanently even if they are granted citizenship of another country. They can stay in temporary homes in their country, in neighbouring countries and overseas, but their permanent home remains and they will remain connected. Ultimately, they will return to their permanent home. The migration or refugee journey starts with unfavourable conditions in home country or community but in other cases, people are forced into the journey because of slavery, false hopes or promises. When they depart from their permanent home, they the preference is to stay near home where they have access to relatives, their community and people they relate with in terms of race, language and practices. For refugees, this could be a refugee camp. For migrants this could be an industrial area or town. If conditions become good, they can return or return frequently. If conditions are not good, they move on to another place especially outside the country. This is a difficult decision because they will be moving away from permanent home where there is the comfort of family and community. The next step is to move to places with more favourable opportunities especially outside the continent, again, this is a very difficult decision. Refugees or migrants will take up opportunities for permanent residency or citizenship but they will remain connected to t

Assimilation and acculturation can solve immediate problems of transition, but create harder problems in future because after assimilation and acculturation, the return becomes difficult. Getting citizenship or permanent residency, a job or a house in another country does not provide ultimate belonging.

Often, countries who take migrants and organizations, individuals and families who support refugees to come to their countries do so hoping that the refugees will stay in the host country for ever. But this is fallacious for most African refugees who do not want to be separated from their family, relatives, musha, countries and continent forever. Being a refugee or migrant is a journey, that finishes with coming back home to contribute to your own family, community and country. Death on country, and burial in country are preferred. Every journey ends where it started.

Some important concepts in this theory are:

  • Culturation: a process of internalising or being socialised into one’s culture through parental, family and community teaching and observation but also reading, watching and behaving.
  • Acculturation: a process of learning another culture to the extent that you allow it to replace your own culture or you wrongly accept it as your own culture. It is a result of social, economic, psychological and political processes of the dominant culture that weaken and attract ‘converts’ from other cultures. Acculturation has several negative consequences including but not limited to conflict in family and community, mental health, colonial mentality, mental slavery, disempowerment and low self-esteem.
  • Multiculturation: a process of learning or mixing cultures together with the hope of promoting multiculturalism but multiculturalism itself is a fallacy which doesn’t work, it can not be achieved where there is a dominant or colonising culture. Multiculturalism can be used to hide histories of colonisation. Due to multiculturation, the dominant culture usually swallows the less dominant group through assimilation. Multiculturalism could work where there are no racial differences.
  • Deculturation: a process of erasing people’s culture, and replacing it with something different.
  • Assimilation: this process includes acculturation and deculturation and is very dangerous. While people’s culture is being erased, it is being forcefully, gradually or covertly replaced with the dominant culture. It often involves replacing religions, languages, knowledge (education), laws and race. The biological process of race replacement is the highest form of assimilation.


The Adinkra people are an Akan tribe of Ghana, West of Africa. Their symbol is a bird called Sankofa. Like many African tribes, the Akan’s literature found in their rich oral traditions and symbols. The Sankofa (shown below) is not just a bird, it is orature.

Sankofa teachings have now been collected into an academic theory. The theory can be summarised as for you to successfully go forward, you need to look back. The Sankofa principle can be applicable or understood as follows:

AspectLook Back (behind or past) to move ahead (front or future)
Knowledge (e.g. philosophies, orature, theories or frameworks)Use philosophies, oratures, theories or frameworks of the past to shape the future
Practice (e.g. reflection and critical thinking)Look back to learn to improve your practice
Pedagogies (e.g. teaching and learning)Look back for pedagogies
Social work (e.g. social welfare, social assistance, community work and development)Leave no one behind
Present socio-economic circumstancesConsider the importance and contribution of history
CultureLook back to where you come from
HistoryValue your history. History of families is important in understanding their present situation and aspirations.
Learning (e.g. assessment and teamwork)A Sankofa assessment asks students to use the past to inform the present and future.
Research (e.g. ethics and literature review)Look at literature already there before new research. Past literature is useful for current research  
Family, relations or communityIf you succeed, support others to succeed.
I am because we are.


This theory was developed by Du Bois in the book (Du Bois, 1903, The Souls of Black Folk), and it says, if you are a black person living or working in a country of white people or a person of mixed race (in this case black plus another race), your position is difficult because you belong to two worlds – the world of blackness and the world of the other race. This is double consciousness or twoness. It affects the way you identify, think, see the world and act. You will be divided between the two races, and it is difficult to commit to one of the races. Du Bois was mainly referring to black people in countries of white people.

One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (1903)

Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretence or revolt, to hypocrisy or radicalism. (1903)

I began to feel that dichotomy which all my life has characterized my thought: how far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country? And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge? (1968: 169)

It is true, as I have argued, that Negroes are not inherently ugly nor congenitally stupid. They are not naturally criminal and their poverty and ignorance today have clear and well-known and remediable causes. (1940: 173–4)

The focus of his thesis was America but double consciousness affects:

  • black people who have migrated to or are working in countries of white people
  • mixed race children and people in general (referred by Du Bois to as coloured group, the group he belonged)
  • mixed race couples
  • black politicians or military personnel serving in countries of white people

In social work, double consciousness affects the way one defines colonisation and decolonisation.  

Another important concept related to double consciousness is race suicide, which Du Bois saw as an attempt to assimilate to the ‘white and the yellow race’ as a result of being ashamed of being black or of mixed race. Assimilation is facilitated by domination and oppression but also inferiority complex. Du Bois gave the education system as an example, it is designed to facilitate assimilation. He said:

It is almost impossible for a Negro boy trained in a white (Northern) high school and a white college to come out with any high idea of his own people or any abiding faith in what they can do. (1940: 191)

Double consciuosness features in the work of Mbiti (1969) who argued, among other views, that Africans who have converted to foreign religions such as Christianity and Islam often struggle with what spirituality they should embrace – their African spirutuality or the European and Middle-Eastern.