Talking with . . .

. . . Daniel Jordan Smith

an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    ONE THING THE PEACE CORPS HAS produced (besides writers) is a good many academics, especially RPCVs who have come home to earn additional degrees and become professors of international studies, medicine, or anthropology. Dan Smith (Sierra Leone 1984–87) has done that and more. His book, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria published by Princeton University Press looks at fraud in Nigeria, the largest source, after oil, of foreign revenue. Having lived and worked in Nigeria, and being married to a Nigerian, Dan draws on his firsthand experiences to give us an insightful and well written account of “the Nigerian factor” as Nigerians call corruption in their country. As Dan points out, “they [Nigerians] are painfully aware of the damage corruption does to their country and see themselves as their own worst enemies.” This book, as the jacket says, “is a profound and sympathetic attempt to understand the dilemmas average Nigerians face every day as they try to get ahead — or just survive — in a society riddled with corruption.”
         Over the last few months I have interviewed Dan (who is on the faculty at Brown University) about his work in the Peace Corps, his book on Nigeria, and what he sees for the future of Africa.

    Where are you from in the States, Dan?

    I grew up in northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., but I went to high school in New Hampshire, and to Harvard for college.

    What was your Peace Corps assignment in Sierra Leone?

    I was a health Volunteer assigned to assist in extending and improving the primary health care program in the chiefdom where I was posted. I spent a lot of time working with primary health care staff and Village Health Workers. I also worked with another Volunteer to upgrade local water wells and provide complementary health and sanitation education.

    I presume you went on to graduate school after the Peace Corps.
    Yes, that’s right. I first got a master’s degree in Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, and later a Ph.D. in Anthropology at Emory University.

    How did the Peace Corps experience influence what you studied?
    The Peace Corps had a profound impact on what I decided to study and on my career path. I first chose to do an MPH because I had been a health Volunteer and wanted to continue to work in international health and development, especially in Africa. After the MPH program I got my first public health job working as a Project Advisor on a Child Survival Program in Nigeria run by an American non-governmental organization called Africare. I spent three years in Nigeria with Africare, and in many ways Peace Corps both predisposed me and prepared me for this kind of work.
         But along the way I had certain questions and frustrations with public health and development work and I thought that Anthropology might offer a useful and illuminating perspective about the kinds of things I was worrying about while also allowing me to continue to pursue my interests in and commitment to Africa. In retrospect, three and a half years in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone prepared me very well for doing anthropological research, because many of the challenges of adapting to and understanding another society while in the Peace Corps are akin to what one faces doing fieldwork as a cultural anthropologist. I’ve done all my anthropological research in and writing about Nigeria, but I feel like I owe a great deal to my Peace Corps experience. Indeed, I hope that in the future I will do research in Sierra Leone.

    You've talked about many of the challenges of adapting to and understanding another society being akin to what one faces doing fieldwork as a cultural anthropologist. Tell us a little more about how the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone prepared you for doing anthropological research.

    In my experience in the Peace Corps it quickly became apparent that being an effective Volunteer required a great effort to acquire a kind of cultural competence — epitomized by language fluency and eating and enjoying local cuisine, but encompassing a wide range of familiarity with and empathy regarding local traditions, practices and understandings. In addition, just getting to know people and becoming an accepted person in the community turned out to be simultaneously the most treasured aspect of my Peace Corps experience and the crucial factor in being able to do some effective work. All of this translates wonderfully into what it takes to do good research as a cultural anthropologist. The challenges — but also the joys — are very similar.

    What was your PHD study?

    I did my dissertation research in southeastern Nigeria among the Igbo-speaking ethnic group looking at the relationship between social change and family and demographic processes. Specifically, I was interested in a seeming paradox: why was it that Igbo people, who by many measures (education, mobility, urban exposure, women’s autonomy, etc.) are among the most “modern” of Africans still value high fertility and have so many children. This seemed to go against the conventional wisdom that modernization (whatever, exactly, that means) is associated with low fertility. My research addressed this question and I came to the conclusion that relatively high fertility remains important for Igbos (and indeed for many Africans) because ties of kinship continue to be necessary for access to social resources, even when those resources are modern ones, like education, state services, opportunities for urban migration, employment, and so on. Essentially, I argued that in a clientelistic political economy like Nigeria’s, people navigate social, economic and political life through kinship ties, and in such an environment having relatively large families still makes sense — even though one must acknowledge, and Igbo people certainly experience, many countervailing pressures.

    Is your book A Culture of Corruption the result of your Ph.D. work?

    My book is not directly the result of my Ph.D. research, though in retrospect I have been collecting ethnographic “data” about corruption in Nigeria ever since I started working there in 1989. As I decided what to write my first book about I felt almost obliged to write about and try to explain corruption in Nigeria. I took on the topic in part because it so dominates Nigeria’s global reputation, in part because it is in many ways misunderstood, and in part because for Nigerians themselves corruption — and the discontents it generates — is a primary lens through which they experience, understand and criticize contemporary life.

    Where have you taught besides Brown?

    Brown has been my only full-time teaching position, but I also taught at Emory University while I was doing my Ph.D. and I taught several courses at Abia State University in Nigeria when I had a Fulbright Fellowship.

    What do you teach in Brown?
    I teach mainly in the areas of medical anthropology and the anthropology of development, but also more broadly in cultural anthropology. I teach courses such as “Culture and Health,” “International Health: Anthropological Perspectives,” “Anthropology and International Development: Ethnographic Perspectives on Poverty and Progress,” and “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.” I also plan to teach courses specifically on Africa.

    As an academic, would you think the study of “the Peace Corps” would make a good academic study at Brown or any other colleges or universities?
    Yes, I think someone could do a fascinating study of the Peace Corps. I’d be surprised if there hasn’t been some stuff already done, though I am unaware of any anthropological study — taking the Peace Corps as a kind of ethnographic object. I know that there are many RPCVs who have gone on to become anthropologists. We have had several just in our Ph.D. program at Brown.

    Let’s go back to your book and its topic of corruption. Does Africa, particularly Nigeria, have a future that will not be limited by such widespread corruption that those of us who served in Africa know from first hand experience?
    Let me say that I think corruption is a feature of every society, not just African societies. But I also think it is fair to say that Africa, and Nigeria, has been especially hampered by corruption. I argue in the book that to understand corruption in Nigeria one must recognize and unravel the paradox that ordinary Nigerians are simultaneously participants in corruption even as they are also its primary victims and its loudest critics. The scope of corruption and the degree to which it creates a sort of vicious cycle contribute to its intractability. But I am somewhat optimistic because I see that ordinary Nigerians (and Africans more generally) are extremely self-conscious about the pernicious effects of corruption. Half my book focuses on explaining major social trends (like burgeoning Pentecostal Christianity, resurgent ethnic nationalism, and vigilantism) in terms of being responses to popular discontents with corruption. I see a tide of popular expectation for change and argue that even when elites use the facades of democracy and development to facilitate corruption and maintain inequality, they are stoking popular aspirations that they will not necessarily be able to control. So I am hopeful, but also worried about some of the paths to change that could unfold.

    Many of our readers are interested in publishing books. Explain the process for an academic like yourself to have a book published by a major university press, such as Princeton. For example, did you write the book first and submit it? Did the press come to you and ask for such a book? What is the usual way [if any] for someone to get a scholarly work published?

    It’s a long process, but I suspect publishing any book is. The process differs a bit depending on the stage in one’s career. For relatively senior and more famous academics it’s possible to get a book contract before one has actually written the book. This was my first book, and I wrote the whole manuscript before I solicited a press. I sent a book prospectus, my CV, and a sample chapter around to the major presses I was interested in. I had several good options because various university presses expressed a desire to review the book. In the end — again, at least for a first book — you have to choose one press to review the book. I chose Princeton. They then sent the manuscript out to (anonymous) peer reviewers in my field (in this case, anthropology and Africa), and based on the reviews the press decided to proceed with a contract.

    How long did it take you to research and write A Culture of Corruption?

    I was doing “research” for the book even before I knew it, in the sense that I use material from when I first started working in Nigeria in 1989. But I began consciously thinking about and studying corruption around 2001 and spent several summers and six months in 2004 in Nigeria collecting more material — though I was also working on other projects at the same time. I wrote most of the book in an intensive five-month stretch between January and May 2005, during a semester-long sabbatical.

    Recently on the television program 60 Minutes there was another example of this fraud in Africa. Most Americans have such a distorted view of Africa, from Tarzan on one hand to hustlers selling fake watches on the streets of New York City, to emails in their computer mail. Those of us who have lived in Africa have a different view of the continent. What can we do as RPCVs to correct this view of Africa?

    I think it’s incredibly important to represent Africa accurately and no doubt most of the images circulating in America are far too negative and stereotypical. I guess one of the most important things RPCVs can do is share their stories of the real Africans they know. Real people’s lives aren’t easily reducible to negative stereotypes. For me it was the connection to people that was so powerful in the Peace Corps, and it has shaped not only my career in research and teaching, but also my politics and the ethical choices I make in everyday life. I think in the end it’s those connections to real people and the stories we can tell to make Africa and Africans accessible to others that can make some difference.

    From your recent trips to Africa, your family connections, etc., what do you see for the future of Africa, or just Nigeria?

    I am at once hopeful and fearful about the future in Africa and in Nigeria particularly. I am fearful because inequality remains so entrenched even as ordinary people increasingly realize that they deserve better. This breeds a lot of discontent, and the pathways forward are uncharted. Often these unfulfilled expectations contribute to anger and violence. I am hopeful because in my experience most Nigerians — and I suspect most Africans — genuinely want a more just, equal and peaceful world, and even though they have experienced many of the promises of democracy and development as facades for corruption rather than real progress, in the process aspirations for change have been strengthened.

    Thank you for your time and for this interview.
    My pleasure.