On Being Native and Getting Co-opted
How much should one get involved with the field? Don’t get me wrong, this is not about activist ethnography, at least not explicitly.
One of the problems of being a native anthropologist is the presence of the possibility of being co-opted by the field. As you probably know already, I am a Nigerian doing fieldwork with Nigerians in Cotonou, Benin. One afternoon, one of my friends called to invite me to write an article in the magazine that is going to be published by the Nigerian community in Cotonou as part of the 48th Nigerian Independence Day celebrations in Cotonou. He asked whether I could write an article on the contributions of Nigerians in Benin to the Beninese economy. I know much about that, as that actually forms a part of my research: there is no studying informal trans-border trade between Nigeria and Benin without studying the impact of Nigerians on the economy of the country, so I could reel them off right away. But then, I know that the audience of the magazine is made up of Nigerians, and most likely of officials of the Nigerian state. I am also quite aware of the ‘official’ stance of the Nigerian state towards smuggling, and even towards Nigerians who trade, in Cotonou, in goods that are banned in Nigeria. I had to find a way to write an article with enough meat to qualify for publication in the magazine, and therefore make my friend proud, but with just enough not to incur the wrath of the Nigerian embassy in Cotonou, or to call undue attention to my research.
The compromise was to write a one-page article about the impact of Nigerians in Cotonou by focusing on the social. When I wrote about the economy I had to make sure I mentioned only goods that originate in Nigeria and so contributed to the official economy of the country. My friend explicitly asked me not to write about certain goods that are imported into Benin chiefly to be re-exported, informally, to Nigeria. The questions: was I unethical by agreeing to write the article at all? And was I wrong by agreeing to be selective in the goods I mentioned? Who has ever been in this kind of situation?
Oh, by the way, my friend and I decided to share the credit for the article.