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Making History: The Past in the Ijesho Present

J. D. Y. Peel
Man
New Series, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Mar., 1984), pp. 111-132
DOI: 10.2307/2803227
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2803227
Page Count: 22
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Making History: The Past in the Ijesho Present
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Abstract

The paper concerns the relations between politics and concepts of history in Ilesha, a Nigerian town. It is argued that purely "presentist" approaches to concepts of history are severely deficient and that analysis should focus on "stereotypic reproduction" as a dialectical process in which present practice and representations of a real past limit one another to give a sense of control over the vicissitudes of historical change. Ijesha concepts of the past are approached by an examination of the nature and use of itan (oral historical narratives). Besides implicitly static precedents, the Ijesha also had cyclical and linear ideas about the past, which had different functions; conveying respectively models of political action and a sense of their community's growth. A key civic ritual is shown to provide a mnemonic for a central motif-the contested relationship between king and people-of the oral traditions. The colonial period saw a new acceptance of cultural change, but static and cyclical notions continued to have their uses: to sustain a sense of communal identity and to provide a blueprint of popularist politics. The data do not support any idea that the past (as against the present), even as embodied in ritual, can only serve an essentially conservative function, still less that it is divorced from practical politics. It is also argued that Africanists have exaggerated the effects of literacy on historical ideas, and that the Ijesha uses of the past are strongly characteristic of all situations where history is linked with collective identity.

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