Sunday, August 22, 2021

Growing up in Nigeria, Ebenezer Adeyemi noticed the resource gap between local communities and often wondered what led to this imbalance. Jumping to the present, you will find him working to answer these same questions as he pursues a doctorate in anthropology. Adeyemi is focusing his studies on local and global factors contributing to inequity as well as the ways marginalized communities can advocate for themselves to address – with an emphasis on how they can gain better access to healthcare.

Adeyemi’s research revolves around the community of Makoko in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. Life in Makoko is characterized by inadequate infrastructure and social services – a lack of paved roads, running water, electricity, and other government services. Much of Makoko is built with stilts upon the water of Lagos Lagoon, so the community also faces challenges from the government in simply preserving its settlement and gaining formal recognition as part of the city.

As an anthropologist, Adeyemi is interested in examining all the obstacles facing communities like Makoko and analyzing what factors contributed to their marginalization. He prioritizes understanding exactly why each individual group of people becomes marginalized, before researching coping mechanisms that marginalized communities use to survive and negotiate access to city resources.

Ebenezer Adeyemi

In Makoko’s case, Adeyemi looks to the broader history of Nigeria and its colonial roots to help put its current inequities into context. Nigeria is now a postcolonial society that gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960. Yet, Adeyemi sees many of the current systems of inequality in place there as a direct continuation of those created during colonial rule.

“During the postcolonial era, we saw a situation where the ruling elite only continued the kind of lifestyles that the colonial officials left in terms of segregation, corruption, and other practices,” says Adeyemi. “Witnessing that as I grew up, I’ve always been interested in learning why people have to live in such difficult conditions, despite the fact that there is an abundance of resources in the country.”

This early fascination continues to drive Adeyemi’s academic pursuits. Early on, he recognized that there is already an abundance of research on resource distribution and marginalization in the Global South, but there is limited research on survival strategies in marginalized communities. He plans to address this by focusing his dissertation on specific ways to promote the agency of people facing this marginalization, hoping to contribute to this research area in anthropology while helping groups identify effective ways to advocate for their own needs.

Adeyemi is still gathering preliminary data, but he sees his long-term goal as an effort to help address systems of oppression and marginalization in affected communities. He believes the education and training in anthropology that he is receiving at Iowa is an important step in developing the skills and knowledge he needs to complete his research.

“Anthropology gives you the analytical and critical thinking skills necessary to understand many of the factors involved in inequality,” says Adeyemi. “We grapple with a lot of difficult topics. When we analyze things like why people are suffering, we start probing deeper into structures of inequality that put people in the position to be marginalized in the first place. Yet, we don’t stop there; we go a step further to look at what people are doing to change their conditions as well and negotiate access to resources.”

Adeyemi is eager to share his excitement about anthropology with other students now as a teaching assistant for the department. As an educator, Adeyemi now leads deep discussions about cultures – similar to the ones he enjoyed so much when he first began studying anthropology. He relishes the opportunity to talk with others about cultural differences and listen to their perspectives, as well as share his own insights and inherent connections to his own culture. A central part of his teaching emphasizes viewing cultures through the lens of cultural relativism — an understanding that cultures have their own unique context and that one shouldn’t judge others’ cultures based on one’s own culture. This approach has led to many interesting and productive cultural discussions with his students.

Adeyemi has seized a variety of other opportunities during his educational career at Iowa. He was granted a Stanley Award in 2020 from UI International Programs to conduct summer research in Makoko for his dissertation, although the pandemic led him to instead conduct archival research online with a partner institution in Lagos. The University of Iowa Center for Advancement and the Office of the President awarded him a student impact grant in 2020 to assist with his research, while the Graduate College offered him assistance through its tech equity fund as he and his fellow students faced economic and technological challenges brought on by the pandemic. Adeyemi also received the Obermann Fellowship, enabling him to participate in the 2021 Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy – where he shared his research and learned practical ways of conducting research for public scholarship and community-engagement.

Beyond his current university community, Adeyemi was awarded a spring research fellowship this year to participate in the Garden and Landscape Studies Graduate Workshop at Dumbarton Oaks, a Harvard University research institute. The workshop focused on public health, public landscapes, and the histories of landscape design, providing more perspectives for his approach to his dissertation research.

While Adeyemi has taken on a variety of challenging initiatives during his educational career, he credits the anthropology program at Iowa for opening up so many different doors for him and providing unique opportunities to develop both personally and professionally. 

“My time at Iowa has been an amazing journey,” says Adeyemi. “The anthropology graduate program is very intense and challenging, but it has helped me grow. I am grateful to my advisor, Professor Theodore Powers, and members of my committee for their continuing support and guidance. I’m very grateful for the platform and opportunities I’ve received from the Department of Anthropology, the Graduate College, and the University of Iowa.”