Dirt permeates everyday life in urban Africa, but it is more than an empirical substance: dirt is also an idea—or a complex set of representations—that shapes local perceptions of sexuality and the body, and influences people’s attitudes towards waste, recycling, urbanisation, ethnicity and migration. Dirt is a vital category for understanding urban cultures in Africa, and it has a history that has yet to be examined in detail. Besides the work of epidemiologists and occasional anthropological accounts, however, there have been no sustained studies of locally situated understandings of dirt in Africa. This project will identify and reflect on African representations and understandings of dirt in a comparative historical perspective for the first time. With reference to four key themes—colonialism, the environment, sexuality and ethnicity—everyday cultural practices will be addressed in Nairobi (Kenya) and Lagos (Nigeria). In examining particular African locations and historical contexts, the project will evaluate not only the social and political histories of specific ‘dirty’ discourses, but also the theoretical and methodological directions that the concept of dirt generates as a starting point for comparative interdisciplinary case-studies. Employing a range of methodologies, the two teams of researchers at the Participating Institutions (Kenyatta University, Nairobi, and University of Lagos) in Years 1-5, and the doctoral and postdoctoral researchers at the Host Institution (University of Sussex) in Years 3-5, will identify local African representations and understandings of dirt. In addition to other major outputs, the PI will build a website that addresses political, methodological, theoretical and ethical issues, as well as providing an archive of primary resources. Key objectives include: to learn from positive and negative valuations of words connoting dirt in Africa, and to develop a paradigm for interdisciplinary work in African cultural studies.
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