Academic journal article African Studies Review

Reading the Diary of Akinpelu Obisesan in Colonial Africa

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Reading the Diary of Akinpelu Obisesan in Colonial Africa

Article excerpt


This article considers the private diary not just as a historical source or literary text, but mainly as a symbolic cultural creation with sociological and psychological dimensions. The multiple identities of Akinpelu Obisesan, a member of the colonial intelligentsia in Ibadan, are analyzed, giving us insight into the transformations in Yoruba masculinity in the colonial period and his own attempts at self-invention. The article also emphasizes the overlap between the personal and the general: between the private and the public domains and how the diarist straddles, and is in turn affected by, sociocultural currents reverberating from these two sites.


One of the products of colonialism in Africa was a Western-educated elite with a distinct social identity. The political and nationalist activities of this elite have been well researched by several scholars, but with a few notable exceptions (see Echeruo 1977 and Zachernuk 2000 on Nigeria), the same cannot be said of its social history. This study is therefore a contribution to the growing literature on the consumption patterns and life style of this elite. It focuses specifically on an elite pastime, namely, that of the diarykeeping culture. It examines the diary of Akinpelu Obisesan, a member of the local intelligentsia in Ibadan, a city that later became the administrative headquarters of the colonial establishment in western Nigeria. However, while the details of the diary entries analyzed here reflect local developments, they are by no means peculiar to the Nigerian context. In a sense, they represent the nuanced cultural creations of the colonial subject in Africa, who, in addition to creating other public platforms of self-articulation, devised a personal outlet for the expression of thoughts about the social environment and his own role in it.

This article views the private diary notjust as a literary text but also as a symbolic cultural creation with psychological and sociological dimensions. While these two grids necessarily call for separate conceptual schemes, they are by no means mutually exclusive. They support and sometimes shed light on each other. Central to both paradigms is the issue of the selfhood of the diarist. The cathartic quality of the diary-keeping "ritual," as well as its other psychological dimensions, are part of diary-keeping as a private and personal experience, while the sociological aspect reveals the attempts of the diarist at self-representation and negotiation of his multiple identities. In the case of Obisesan's diary this latter preoccupation is particularly significant because, among other things, it unravels the individual experience of the diarist as a masculine subject, emphasizing how he was able to deal with different notions of masculinity in the course of his life. This article also discusses the intersection of other parameters of difference such as age, class (social status), and generation with gender in shaping individual identities.

The background for this study is provided by a discussion of the rise of the educated elite in colonial Ibadan, including the development of Ibadan literary culture and the career of Akinpelu Obisesan. Next I provide an overview of different perspectives on the diary, with special emphasis on the conflict between its public and private aspects. I then provide a conceptual framework for understanding the diary as a symbolic cultural creation, focusing on the sociological and psychological dimensions of diary keeping. The approach throughout is multidisciplinary, combining historical analysis with psychological, sociological, and philosophical perspectives.

The Rise of an Educated Elite in Colonial Ibadan

The role of the missions in the creation of an educated elite in Africa has been well studied (Ade-Ajayi 1965; Ayandele 1966). The foundation for Western education in Nigeria was laid in the nineteenth century by missionary groups such as the Church Missionary Society (CMS), the Wesleyans (Methodists) , the Roman Catholic Mission, the American Baptists, and the Presbyterian Mission (Fafunwa 1991:76), with the CMS as the most important in Ibadan. …

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