Digging the dirt on cultural politics: Africa project wins €2.2m funding

City life: A matutu (private taxi) in the busy streets of Nairobi. Photo: Dr Mbugua wa Mungai

University of Sussex English Professor Steph Newell has been awarded a European Research Council Advanced Grant of 2.2 million euro to lead a five-year survey of contemporary urban life in Africa as revealed in attitudes to and perceptions of “dirt”.

The Cultural Politics of Dirt in Africa, 1880-present (DIRTPOL) is fundamental research that is expected to inform public health policy and practice. It will involve an interdisciplinary team of 14 media and communications scholars, sociologists, cultural historians and others led by Professor Newell, exploring African attitudes to dirt.

The research will draw on in-depth interviews with communities and schools in two African sites – the multicultural cities of Nairobi in Kenya and Lagos in Nigeria.

Two teams of three postgraduate researchers will conduct extensive surveys of public discourse, across a number of African languages, on public health and other issues (pamphlets, newspaper articles, radio phone-ins) and carry out archival research.

DIRTPOL will involve collaboration with two African universities: Dr Mbugua Wa Mungai of Kenyatta University in Kenya has been appointed Nairobi regional coordinator for the project, while Dr Patrick Oloko of the University of Lagos in Nigeria will be coordinator in Lagos. Both academics visited Sussex for the DIRTPOL project launch in October.

The project pulls together two important research themes for Professor Newell –African popular culture and the exploration of multiple and conflicting definitions of “dirt” to understand how people of similar or different backgrounds perceive each other.

Professor Newell says: “I have been thinking about this subject for a long time, partly because of the wealth of African literature that draws on the theme of dirt as a metaphor.

“We’ll be investigating people’s attitudes, perspectives and the language around dirt: what is ‘dirty’ and what do we mean by that? How do we judge and act towards each other as a result of that understanding? Dirt is often a category people use to interpret otherness, be it cultural, religious or sexual, and the resulting discourses can be seen as a failure an effort—often a failed effort— to interpret the ‘other’.

“We’ll be looking to find out what life is like, for example, for communities who live and work on rubbish tips, or discovering from young people in schools what it’s like growing up in an African urban environment, with lots of different cultures living together.

“Dirt is the lens through which we will look at urban experiences in Africa, opening up new perspectives on public health.”

Project progress and findings will be shared through a conference, a web site, a book and academic papers by Professor Newell and members of her team.

Professor Tom Healy, Head of the School of English at the University of Sussex, says: “DIRTPOL illustrates the School of English’s commitment to interdisciplinary research and its long-standing interest in exploring English writing and the use of English in Africa. The opportunities of collaborating with Lagos and Nairobi are immensely exciting for us.”

Another part of the DIRTPOL project will involve reaching out to NGOs and talking to policy makers on environmental and public health issues. The aim is to work collaboratively with NGOs and support their work with data. Two doctoral researchers and two postdoctoral researchers will be appointed to the project in 2015.

Notes for Editors

Steph Newell is Professor of English at the University of Sussex. Her research interests include West African literature, African newspaper culture, African readerships, the history of homosexuality in Africa, and postcolonial theory. She has published widely on African popular literature and West African newspaper history. Professor Newell's new book, The Power to Name, is published by Ohio University Press.

The DIRTPOL project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).

The European Research Council

Set up in 2007 by the European Union, the ERC aims to stimulate scientific excellence in Europe by encouraging competition for funding between the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age based in Europe. Since its launch, the ERC has awarded €6.3 billion to over 3,800 researchers performing frontier research in Europe. The ERC operates according to an "investigator-driven", or "bottom-up" approach, allowing both early-career and senior scientists to identify new opportunities in all fields of research (Physical Sciences and Engineering, Life Sciences and Social Sciences and Humanities), without predetermined priorities.

The ERC, which is currently funded under the EU's Seventh Research Framework Programme (FP7), has a total budget of €7.5 billion from 2007 to 2013. In 2011, the European Commission proposed to almost double the ERC budget under the new EU research programme Horizon 2020 for 2014 to 2020.

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Last updated: Tuesday, 22 October 2013