In Conversation

What’s dirty? English professor explores the question in Lagos

Stephanie Newell discusses her book, “Histories of Dirt,” legacies of colonialism, and the political significance of who is and isn’t considered “unclean.”
A portrait of Stephanie Newell — made out of repurposed trash — by Yusuf Durodola

A portrait of Professor Stephanie Newell — made out of repurposed trash — by Yusuf Durodola

Dirt and dirtiness are ubiquitous — but the ways we conceive of it vary in ways both cultural and personal. In her new book, “Histories of Dirt: Media and Urban Life in Colonial and Postcolonial Lagos” (Duke University Press), Yale English Professor Stephanie Newell examines how and why spaces and people in that Nigerian city have been labeled “unclean” from the days of British colonial rule to today.

Newell investigated newspaper articles, colonial travel writing, public health films, and other sources to show how perceptions of “dirt” or being “dirty” influenced colonial governance, and — through interviews with Lagosians themselves — explored urban Nigerians’ own values and opinions about what constitutes dirtiness.

YaleNews interviewed Newell about her book via email; this semester she is the Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Newcastle University in England. She is also Professor Extraordinaire at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

How did you, an English professor, become interested in a historical examination of what you describe as the “cultural politics of dirt”?

I’ve always been interested in popular culture as much as literature in English, and while researching a previous project on colonial creative writing, I became intrigued by the number of times British travelers in West Africa used ideas about dirt to interpret local people’s appearances, clothing, consumption patterns, and domestic lifestyles. Slowly it dawned on me that “dirt” and “dirtiness” were not simply terms to describe physical uncleanliness and insanitary behavior. People’s cultural differences — in food preferences, beauty products, interior decoration, commodities, fashion, etc. —gave rise to judgments about a person’s “dirtiness.” I started to wonder if there were similar local categories in West Africa for “dirty” people, places, and things, and how the history of colonialism and European trade in the region impacted on local ways of thinking about dirt and dirtiness.

Dirt, then, in your book, is less about substance and more about people’s perceptions of others. When you use the word “dirt,” what do you mean?

Histories of Dirt book cover

The book is concerned with “dirtiness,” what is judged to be “dirty,” and all the ways “dirt” is used as a category of interpretation when people refer to others in terms of filth, uncleanliness, shabbiness, immorality, etc. Once the project got started in Lagos, the research team quickly moved away from English words into local Nigerian concepts of dirt and dirtiness in a range of Nigerian languages. Rather than imposing our own definitions of dirt, we asked our interviewees to tell us what they understood by the word “dirty” (in English, Nigerian Pidgin, Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, etc.), and whether they could give us examples of dirty people, places, and things. In this way, we built an understanding of local perceptions without superimposing an external concept.

Can you share a few examples of things Lagosians commonly labelled as dirty?

One of the more surprising findings from our interviews was that, when asked to describe a “dirty” person, numerous Lagosians talked about people’s unkempt appearances and cluttered houses over and above a person’s need to wash. Large numbers of people said someone was dirty if he or she was not “neat.” Neatness was the opposite of dirtiness; it referred to a well-ordered home, the presence of consumer goods, and the absence of litter, mosquitoes, overcrowding, shabbiness, clutter, creases, and dust. Interestingly, this idea about neatness took account of the fact that the majority of Lagosians live in cash-strapped households where goods and garments are rarely brand new. Neatness doesn’t refer to someone or something that looks shiny and new, but to a person or thing that is washed and correctly placed.

One particularly interesting definition of dirt emerged when Yoruba-speaking Lagosians commented on trash in the city. Whereas household waste was described as “light dirt,” easily removable and often recyclable, retaining its usefulness and value in society, the city’s dumpsites were regarded as completely negative spaces, capable of swallowing and annihilating what is human. Dumpsites were regarded by many people as a space outside, or beyond, society; the objects to be found there were beyond reclamation into society. These were places where “true dirt” could be found. One consequence of this way of thinking was that the people who worked on dumpsites, and the animals that picked over them for food, were sometimes seen as toxic and untouchable, as if they too had been transformed into waste.

What did British colonizers characterize as dirty that local people did not?

British colonizers had long lists of things they considered dirty in Lagos. The one that comes immediately to mind, because it is probably the most unfair, is the traditional African house made from bamboo, clay, thatch, wood, or other locally available construction materials. By the late 1920s, this type of house was prohibited by the colonial authorities in favor of dwellings built with imported materials. While wealthier Africans could afford to build houses out of bricks and tiles, the detached mud-and-thatch houses used by the masses were replaced by rows of “face-me-face-you” dwellings, as Lagosians call single-story tenements. These were constructed with concrete, and had corrugated iron roofs that became unbearably hot in the tropical sun and noisy when it rained. As a number of colonial officials reluctantly admitted in the 1930s and 1940s, these dwellings duplicated some of the worst features of British inner-city slums, and were in no way superior to the houses they replaced.

Other things regarded as dirty by British colonial administrators included African water containers, which often comprised recycled tin cans and bottles. If left uncovered, the British feared these would attract mosquito larvae. African “pit latrines” were also condemned by the colonial authorities; these were deep holes in which fecal matter slowly turned to compost. Unfortunately, the toilets introduced to replace pit latrines in Lagos were so few and far between, and served so many people, that their removable buckets often overflowed, and public latrine sites became breeding grounds for diseases. This latter type of toilet also created a whole new category of waste worker: the stigmatized night-soil manin Yoruba, the agbépóò.

What are some examples of ways that people’s perceptions of “dirt” or filth contributed to stigmatization, racism, and homophobia, including government-sanctioned prejudice or discrimination in Lagos?

In the course of my research, a clear difference emerged between institutional condemnations of “dirty bodies,” and urban dwellers’ perceptions of the same bodies. For example, anti-homosexuality speech from church leaders is often inflammatory, and the Nigerian government’s law of 2013 banning homosexuality can be seen as an incitement to homophobic hatred and violence. But with the exception of only two men, the 120 people we interviewed in Lagos were not willing to condemn LGBTQ+ people outright. Our interviewees expressed curiosity about why somebody whose behavior was stigmatized would continue with such a lifestyle, and they offered a vast array of theories about LGBTQ+ people and other stigmatized bodies such as street-sweepers and dump workers. We realized that public opinion in Lagos has the capacity to be more accommodating and far less dogmatic than “official” statements about what that same public wishes or believes.

In Nazi Germany, Jews were compared to “vermin,” and in Rwanda, the Tutsis were referred to as “cockroaches” — both pests targeted for eradication. These characterizations helped to justify genocide, the worst consequence of associating others with dirt or filth. Are there any parallels for this in colonial or postcolonial Lagos?

There are no parallels for this in postcolonial Lagos, although in colonial Lagos in the 1910s, as in other British colonies at the time, serious consideration was given to the racial segregation of the city on grounds of public health. Basically, Africans were seen by colonial officials as less sanitary than Europeans, and more likely to harbor “filth diseases” as well as to transmit malaria because of their poor domestic hygiene. The effort to institutionalize these racist beliefs about Africans was driven by the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London, Viscount Lewis Harcourt, who pushed —unsuccessfully in Lagos — for full racial segregation on grounds of “public health” to protect European traders and colonial officials.

You offer a story about people who perform one of the dirtiest jobs in Lagos — the trash collectors. They collected and cleaned dolls and other toys and left them at the homes of children from poor families. Do you see a lesson in this story?

The lesson is that people who may be described by the majority as dirty, marginal, and “other” are full of their own agency. These are ordinary people whose lives are greater than any label their work attracts, including the labels used by scholars in their studies of stigmatized people.

Does your research have implications for the world at large?

In using categories of dirt and dirtiness to describe other people’s lifestyles and practices, very often we are not referring to an objective lack of cleanliness in them, but to stark cultural differences separating our own lives and theirs. To see another person as “dirty” might actually reflect our own failure of cross-cultural understanding rather than their need for soap and water: Such a failure can become dangerously dehumanizing when used in political speech.

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