Japanese Journal of Cultural Anthropology
Online ISSN : 2424-0516
Print ISSN : 1349-0648
ISSN-L : 1349-0648
The Structure of "History" in a Society without a Writing Tradition : An Analysis of the Oral Chronicles of the Boorana in Southern Ethiopia
Chikage Oba-Smidt
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2013 Volume 78 Issue 1 Pages 26-49


In this paper, I describe how people without a writing tradition preserve and construct their own history, based on my research of the oral chronicles of the Boorana in southern Ethiopia. There are two trends in the studies of oral history in sub-Saharan Africa. Traditionally, historians rejected the use of oral histories. On the other hand, ethnographers have tried to use oral tradition to reconstruct history through oral traditions, with more or less success. There is, however, another perspective: one that is interested in the historical worldview of local people in relation to their cultural context. This paper follows the latter tradition. In my research, I focused on the structure used to construct and preserve the historical memory of the Boorana as documented in their historical narrative. In the second chapter, I show that the oral chronicle of the Boorana is deeply interrelated with the generation system called gadaa. That system has eight generation sets, the sixth of which, called gadaa, provides the leader of the Boorana. That person, known as abba-gadaa, bears the main responsibility for politics and ceremonies during the eight years in which he belongs to the gadaa generation set. There have been 70 abba-gadaa so far, according to the oral chronicle. The Boorana have memorized all the names of previous abba-gadaa, and can narrate events that are said to have happened during each of their eight-year terms. Secondly, I describe where and why people narrate and listen to the oral chronicle, as well as who is involved. I point out the great gaps in historical and cultural knowledge between different people. Members of lineages that have produced the gadaa or clan councilors in the past usually have more historical knowledge. On the other hand, those who are not members of an important lineage do not usually know such things. There is a tendency for historical memories to be preserved within politically important lineages. Therefore, I suggest that the knowledge gap caused by the sociopolitical system leads those with relatively many more historical memories to become politicians. People have thus preserved their historical memories in order to keep and defend their political positions. Thirdly, I mention the influence of modern techniques on the traditions of the oral chronicle. Those include education in history as provided by the state's modern schooling system, intervention by anthropologists, and the popularization of recording technology since the 1990s. Those factors have allowed the creation of a "Boorana history" out of the oral traditions. Through that modernization process, the Boorana have reconstructed their history reusing structures that subsisted in their historical memories. The third part of the paper analyzes the categories and patterns of the historical narrations of 14 informants living in different regions. The Boorana tend to focus on several specific events in their narrations, including conflicts with neighboring ethnic groups, internal political conflicts, disasters such as excessive rain, droughts and epidemics, and the life histories of abba-gadaa. I observed four different patterns of narration used by the informants, as follows: 1) those that refer to cultural concepts for interpreting the cause of the events, such as maqa-baasa, dhaacii, and raaga, 2) those that refer to fixed patterns of expressions, phrases, poems and proverbs, 3) those that refer to stories of succession and the origin of the abba-gadaa, 4) those that refer to stories with a fixed plot. focus on the concept of maqa-baasa in pattern (1) , which is frequently used by narrators. I describe the Boorana view of history, which can be illustrated by the discourse of the maqa-baasa. The maqa-baasa represents the given names of the abba-gadaa. There are seven given names, each one of which, in the Boorana imagination, is linked with a specific destiny, such

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2013 Japanese Society of Cultural Anthropology
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