Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander
Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander

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.”

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Students blog about their observations, and the posts inform class discussions.

All semester, Cobham-Sander and her students are exploring how literature has evolved with technology, including how authors use digital formats and the Internet to transform their relationships with audiences.

“The class is about genre,” Cobham-Sander says. “What happens when you start writing in a different genre? This could mean anything from a street sign, to an email, to a blog. What happens to form when you do that?”

Students keep blogs about their observations for classmates to read. “We talk about the parts of the reading that we, as a group, have found the most compelling,” says Zachary Yanes’17. “This leads to more interesting discussions, both online and in class.”

A few weeks after Heyward-Rotimi’s visit, the class discussed Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Americanah.

“By the end of the course we’re looking at experimental listicles and Twitter novels,” Cobham-Sander says. “I tell students, ‘The form changes the user and the user changes the form.’”