It’s a subculture often dismissed with a punch line: Nigerians who email unsuspecting victims and convince them to send money in return for nonexistent goods or deals. This semester, 25 Amherst students looked beyond the punch line to the young perpetrators of the infamous scam.
The students are taking the course “Digital Africas,” taught by Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander and cross-listed in English and black studies. Through various readings, the course examines how African writers incorporate digital technologies into their work.
The first reading was Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s 2009 novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance, which tells of an unemployed college graduate who becomes enmeshed in the Nigerian scammer society. For perspective on the novel, Cobham-Sander turned to a guest lecturer, Kamela Heyward-Rotimi, who has conducted ethnographic research on the so-called “419 culture”—named for the section of Nigeria’s criminal code outlawing the scam.
When Heyward-Rotimi came to campus in September, she challenged the one-dimensional perception of Nigeria and the fraud. As she said, 80 percent of Nigeria’s 15-to-24-year-olds are unemployed or underemployed. Some turn to fraud for money and status, or as way to “fight Western exploitation of Nigeria, by fleecing Westerners.” Some scammers prosper; many do not.
While scammers are hardly unique to Nigeria, it’s that country that’s labeled “a scam nation,” she said. “Their national identity is marred due to the scamming of a few.”
A backlash against the scheme comes from Nigerians worried about their country’s image. “At the heart of these debates,” Heyward-Rotimi said, “is a battle for the national ideal that they feel is threatened by globalization through Western popular culture.”