Introduction to Orality, Literacy and Performance

Orature is a living tradition precisely because orality, its base, is always at the cutting edge of the new and the experimental in word and experience.” (Ngugi wa Thiog’o. Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. Columbia University Press, 2012, p.83.)

©Afrocentric Confessions

26th of Aprill, 2023

After our first session of getting to know each other, we finally dipped our toes into the topics orality, performance and literature.

Obviously, the first question that occurred was ‘What is orality?’. In order to answer this question, we put our focus on the African continent, specifically  East Africa, Somalia. We learned that it is common and preferred in Somalia to distribute and share information orally, from person to person. People are more comfortable to hear information rather than reading it. This also has an effect on how they learn. A big part of the learning process happens through conversation and participation. This tradition of orality has often been falsely perceived as primitive by Western society. Luckily, this perception experiences a transformation as western scholars nowadays acknowledge the historical, cultural and social richness of orality and orature.

As we lay our focus on folktales in our seminar, we continued with discussing some aspects of storytelling. For instance, the fact that not every individual is skilled in telling stories, singing,  playing the drums or dancing. This is why oftentimes more than one person is involved in telling and performing the story, which causes a uniqueness every time the story is told and performed. Hence, in contrast to literature it is bound to the present and can never truly be captured by written text only.

Finally, we touched upon Postcolonialism and the influence of Colonial languages on Indigenous languages. As many African societies did not have a significant literary tradition, many languages did / do not have their own script . Therefore, these languages currently use the Latin alphabet even though this oftentimes  does not capture all qualities of the Indigenous language. Additionally, at present it is common that speakers are more proficient in the Colonial language than the Indigenous language.

As can be seen on this Moroccan sign, Colonial languages are predominant. But efforts to preserve  Tamazight, a language indigenous to North Africa, with the help of the Tifinagh alphabet, are being made. 

© Amazigh World News

Preserving a language and stories ? This brings us back to the topic. Over the course of this semester, with the help of modern day technology, we will try to help preserve folktales from Ghana. I am looking forward to learn more about the Konkomba, an ethnic group in Ghana, and the technological methods we will use to secure their folktales.

Folk tales, Coding and Old Ladies and their Cats


Digitalising folk tales from cultures and areas deeply rooted in oral traditions and orality helps archive these tales, as well as the languages and cultures they derive from, and thereby gives them the opportunity to transcend time and space to reach more people. One might of course ask whether translating folk tales from their original marginalised language into an institutional, widely spoken language such as English means domesticating this language and therefore ultimately contributing to that language’s endangerment. However, as we have also concluded in class this winter term, if the translator uses the method of foreignization for their translation, meaning that they give visibility to the original language and culture (cf. Venuti), it can also help an endangered language be preserved. Translating and showcasing the Konkomba language is rather a case of preserving and archiving the existence of the language and culture, because it is in danger of going extinct in the near future. Therefore, translating (with the method of foreignization) and subtitling the Konkomba folk tales in English gives visibility to the language and culture, because by hearing the folk tales in their original language and following along with the English subtitles helps a non-Konkomba listener become familiar with the language as well as the culture.

The folk tale

A folk tale is a tool of language and culture documentation, transmission, and preservation. In a traditional sense, folk tales are oral stories that are passed on from generation to generation, but it became more common for them to also be written down over the years (cf. Thompson 4). However, there are cultures and areas around the world where orality and oral folk tales dominate and hence these stories do not necessarily exist in a written form. 

A folk tale is region-specific and always expresses, communicates, and transmits beliefs, values, a morale, or myths among other things of its culture of origin. It is mostly quite short and changes are predetermined with each re-telling because of its oral nature (cf. Pullum 96). The folk tale, its language and culture are sources of indigenous knowledge about a people’s history, cultural heritage and belief system and are hence deeply interwoven with each other – as explained by our course instructor Tasun Tidorchibe.

The Konkomba folk tale “A Cat Saves an Old Lady from a Troublesome Wolf”, gives insight into the reason why most old ladies are fond of cats, with its roots deriving from Konkomba mythology. The folk tale is about an old lady – an upininkpil – and how a wolf always steals the food she is making. Whenever the old lady makes yam and pounds fufu (a type of mash) she sings a song. Hearing the song, the wolf approaches, thereby answering upininkpil’s song with one of its own. This causes the old lady to run away in fear. Because the wolf always comes when she is making food, she has tried to seek protection from other animals, but without success. However, one day a cat visits the old lady and offers to capture the wolf for her. The cat tells her to do everything as usual and the old lady agrees. The wolf comes, starts singing its song and enters the old lady’s house. But at that moment the cat jumps on the wolf and kills it, saving the old lady from her predicament. The cat chose to save the old lady instead of a fellow animal. This is believed to be the reason why many upininkpils keep cats as their pets.

Process: Coding and Video Editing

After receiving the folk tale, I began coding in Visual Studio Code. I started with the header and put in all the required information: the title of the folk tale, the author, storyteller, editor, date, and place among others. It was a bit difficult, however, to find the exact geographical location of Chakping, the village in which the recording had taken place. After I had completed the header, I started encoding the folk tale. As we practiced this a lot in class, I encountered few problems while encoding the story. The only thing I had to remember though was to use italics. Encoding the song included in the folk tale was a bit more challenging, as there were multiple song sections, so I had to use a lot of tables and division elements to go back and forth between the narration and the song section of the folk tale. Lastly, I encoded the notes and the glossary. As we talked about this a lot during term as well and even changed our approach on how to do it, it went quite smoothly. I used <gloss xml:id> in the glossary and <term ref> in the story, because xml:id always needs to be unique and hence cannot be used in the code if a term comes up multiple times in the folk tale. At the end, after I had finished the coding, I checked what it looked like by converting the TEI document into a PDF via TEIGarage.

Then, I started with the subtitling of the video. I used the software SubTitle Edit one of my classmates recommended, as it is a lot easier to use than Davinci Resolve’s subtitle function. Because I used this software, I was able to work rather quickly on the subtitles, as I only had to copy and paste the subtitle text into the software and adjust the timestamps for each subtitle sequence after having set the settings to the correct amount of characters per line. Thanks to our instructor Tasun Tidorchibe, who provided me with the timestamps, I had no real issue with this process. The only thing that slowed me down a bit was the fact, that I had to use my family’s old laptop because the software did not work on my own computer. I exported the subtitles and then went on to work in Davinci Resolve for the video-editing.

Davinci Resolve, similar to my encounter with it during term, was a bit of a struggle once again. Not only did the software almost shut down when I was nearly done, but I also encountered a problem with the display of the video in the software itself, as the image was suddenly gone and even though I somehow managed to get it back, the size was off. Thankfully, nothing major happened and I was able to edit and finish without any damage to the video itself. During the video-editing process, I had to adjust some of the subtitle timestamps for them to align with the storyteller’s speech, as well as lengthen them a bit because some were just too short at first. I also added some subtitles for background noises and adjusted the overall look of the subtitles for them to be easier on the eyes. I had to render the video twice because I wanted to change some things after having a look at my first draft. Because I had issues with editing title, credits and the copyright in Davinci Resolve for the folk tale I worked on in class, I decided to use my computer’s own video-editing software for the finishing touches since I am more familiar with its handling.

So lastly, I used iMovie to add a title page, the credits and the CTS logo for the copyright. I was not able to put the logo into the video for the folk tale I worked on in class, because Davinci Resolve did not let me. With iMovie it thankfully worked, so I put the logo into the upper right corner of the video. With that I was able to finish the video-editing part without any further struggles and also completed my task in digitalising the folk tale. 


With digitalising this Konkomba folk tale, not only is a version of the folk tale itself but also the culture and language it derives from preserved. As the Konkomba people are a minority culture and their folk tales are hence minority oratures, by not only translating but also digitalising and therefore preserving them, this folk tale, its story and its orality have been transported and archived (cf. Bandia 111). Contributing to this project really opened my eyes for the beauty of folk tales once again. When I was little, I loved fairy tales, folk tales and mythology from different cultures, but I did not keep up my interest in them all too much the older I got. Additionally, I also got to know a culture I had no previous knowledge about, which also shows the power folk tales hold in terms of transmitting and communicating more than just a story. I got to improve my coding and video-editing skills as well, which I had not utilised in quite a while. So all in all, this was a very enriching experience and now I know why old ladies like to keep cats as their pets – and this possibly not only in the Konkomba culture. 

Secondary literature

  • Bandia, Paul. “Orality and translation”. Handbook of Translation Studies Volume 2, edited by Yves Gambier and Luc van Doorslaer, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011, pp. 108-112.
  • Pullum, Tracie. “Promoting Writing with Folktales.” The English Journal, vol. 87, no. 2, 1998, pp. 96-97.
  • Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. 1946. Berkley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1977.
  • Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility. London, Routledge, 1995.

Demarginalising Orature – Translating Minor Forms into the Digital Age (WiSe 22/23)


In the winter term of 2022/23, I participated in the ‘Demarginalising Orature’ seminar, organised and held by Dr. Eva Ulrike Pirker, Tasun Tidorchibe and Jana Mankau. The seminar aims at “decolonizing knowledge and making knowledge (and primary materials) from a Global South context available in a responsible way” [1]. We, the participants, were “introduced to Ghana’s literary culture and multiethnic society; the problem of major and minor languages and forms of expression; orality, literacy and digital media cultures; power relations in the postcolony and [our] bearing on acts of cultural translation” [1]. In an attempt to help demarginalise orature, we worked on digitising a collection of Konkomba folktales by encoding them with TEI so they can later be transformed into HTML format and uploaded to the Centre for Translation Studies’ github. We also subtitled a number of folktale narrations so the respective videos could be published in the HHU Mediathek and be made available to a broader audience. These documents can also be used for research purposes. Thus, we are contributing to the preservation and demarginalisation of Konkomba oral traditions.

Figure 1 TEI and Konkomba folktale telling session

Orature and Orality

As mentioned above, the seminar aims at demarginalising orature; oral literature. According to Turin et al., orature “broadly includes ritual texts, curative chants, epic poems, folk tales, creation stories, songs, myths, spells, legends, proverbs, riddles, tongue-twisters, recitations and historical narratives” [2]. Orality, in contrast to literacy, is characterised by its “immediacy, ephemerality, unpredictability, flexibility” [3], it is communication by spoken word and it is dependent on the teller’s memory and “occasion-bound” [3]. Furthermore, it is quite difficult to assign any authorship to oral traditions, as, according to Bisilki, they are usually passed on from the older generations to the next [4] and regarded “as communal intellectual property” [2] by the respective communities.

In the past, orality has often been regarded as inferior to literacy. The roots of this assumption lie, amongst other things, in colonialism. Bandia writes that “[m]odernity has ascribed a stigma to the concept of orality which has become synonymous with ‘backward’ and ‘primitive’” [5]. Thiong’o points out that “[t]he hegemony of the written over the oral comes with the printing press, the dominance of capitalism, and colonization. This hegemony, or its perception, has roots in the rider-and-the-horse pairing of master and slave, or colonizer and colonized, a process in which the latter begins to be demonized as the possessor of deficiencies, including of languages” [6].

But oral traditions have a long and rich history and are an integral part of many communities’ cultures all over the world. As Turin et al. point out, “oral literature such as narrative and song often serve as important cultural resources that retain and reinforce cultural values and group identity” [2]. This is the case for Konkomba folktales as well. Folktales (called itiin in Likpakpaln, the language of the Konkomba people) can have various purposes, depending on the context in which they are told, by or to whom they are told, what the folktale is about etc. They often contain moral lessons or offer explanations for why things are the way they are. But what applies to all folktales is that they are “sources of indigenous knowledge” [7].

Figure 2 Performance of kinachuŋ cultural dance

To give an example, one of the folktales discussed in the seminar is called “Why he Wasp has a tiny Waist”. This particular folktale was told by Waja Ngalbu in Chamba, Ghana. To quote the introduction of the folktale: “The following story relates how the wasp’s self-exile from his community eventually deformed him. It presents the wasp as a loner who refuses to participate in communal activities and thus incurs the wrath of his kith and kin. The story, grounded in the communal spirit of Konkomba funerals (particularly the kinachuŋ cultural dance), celebrates teamwork and depicts the centrality of communal living among Konkombas. The storyteller makes this clear at the outset of his narrative when he commences his tale with its moral lesson before relating the tale itself” [8]. So the folktale features an animal character (the Wasp, called ulangben in Likpakpaln) that interacts with human characters, as many Konkomba folktales do. According to Thiong’o, “in the narratives of orature, humans, birds, animals, and plants interact freely, often change into each others’ forms, and share language” [6]. The folktale gives an explanation to a real phenomenon (wasps have tiny waists) and it contains a moral lesson: the folktale highlights the importance of a communal spirit within the community. In Konkomba culture, it is important to attend communal activities like funerals or participate in farm work or other activities such as shelling maize. A folktale therefore transports values and elements of the respective culture, which, again, highlights the fact that oral traditions are an important source of indigenous knowledge and “essential vehicles for transmitting language and culture” [7].

The Konkomba People and Language

I have already touched on some aspects of Konkomba life, values and traditions, now I would like to give some more background information. The Konkomba people live in the area of the “Oti valley in the northern section of the Ghana-Togo border” [9] (see map below). It is estimated that there are a little over 1,2 million Konkomba people in total, about 112,000 of whom are living in the Togo area [7]. According to Kachim, it is widely agreed upon that the Konkomba are “one of the aboriginal groups of northern Ghana” [9].

Figure 3 Map of Konkomba areas in Ghana and Togo

When discussing Konkomba history, it is important to mention the aspect of colonisation. The Konkomba people were affected by this through imperialist Germany’s rule between 1884 and 1914. This is when they occupied Togo (and also Cameroon, Tanzania and Namibia). Eventually, “the German colonial empire was taken over by the French and the British” [10]. But the German rulers were met with resistance, also by Konkombas, for example “[o]n 14 May 1895, a German troop stationed at Katchamba, and led by the German von Carnap-Quernheimb, was violently attacked by Konkomba warriors armed with poisoned arrows” [11].

The Konkomba society is patrilineal, so the male offspring will inherit, a Konkomba community is also structured politically – there are “chiefs, elders, clan heads, family heads” [7] and the Konkomba believe in “God, lesser gods, ancestors, satan, evil spirits, reincarnation, etc.” [7]. Their primary occupations are farming and trading, which is why sometimes, during folktale telling sessions, farming related activities are done simultaneously (like shelling maize etc., an example of this can be seen and heard in this video).

Further information regarding Likpakpaln can be extracted from the image below:

Figure 4 Introduction to Likpakpaln by Tasun Tidorchibe

Final remarks

Participating in the “Demarginalising Orature” seminar was a very enriching experience. Not only did I gain skills in the fields of coding and video editing, I was also able to broaden my horizon by learning about the Konkomba society and language. As folktales are a source of indigenous knowledge, it is very important to preserve them. But this has to happen in a responsible and sensitive way (keeping in mind the colonial history and marginalisation). We have to remember that this is not our knowledge, so we have to give visibility to the original owners / holders of the knowledge (this is why, for example, the narrators of the folktales are always mentioned in the XML / PDF files and videos). Visibility is very important in the field of translation as well. That is why a foreignising mode of translation was used by Tasun Tidorchibe to translate the folktales from Likpakpaln into English. Here, you can see how some words in the text are untranslated. They are also listed at the bottom of the file in a glossary which gives explanations to the Likpakpaln terms. In this way, the source culture and language are not entirely “covered up”, but they are still visible to the reader.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this seminar to any of my fellow students interested in doing something useful and meaningful.


[1] Demarginalising orature – Translating minor forms into the digital age. (n.d.).

[2] Turin, M., Wheeler, C., & Wilkinson, E. (2013). Oral Literature in the Digital Age: Archiving Orality and Connecting with Communities. Open Book Publishers, xiiii, xix, xix-xx.

[3] Tidorchibe, T. (n.d.). Introduction to orality and literacy, 12.

[4] Bisilki, K. A. (n.d.): Folktales And Gender Among The Bikpakpaam ‘Konkomba’ Of Ghana, 349.

[5] Bandia, P. (2018). Orality and Translation. Routledge, 108-109.

[6] Thiong’o, N. w. (2012). The Oral Narrative and the Writing Master. Orature, Orality, and Cyborality. In Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. Columbia University Press, 64, 76.

[7] Tidorchibe, T. (n.d.). Folktales as expressive tools for language and culture: the Konkomba context, 7, 12.

[8] Ngalbu, W. / Centre for Translation Studies. (2020). Why The Wasp Has A Tiny Waist, 1.

[9]  Kachim, J. U. (2019). View of Origin, migration and settlement history of the Konkomba of Northern Ghana, ca. 1400-1800, 133. p. 133

[10] Blackshire-Belay, C. A. (1992). German Imperialism in Africa The Distorted Images of Cameroon, Namibia, Tanzania, and Togo. Journal of Black Studies23(2), 236.

[11] Müller, B. (2022). The ›Mystery‹ of the Konkomba’s Severed Thumbs: Historical Fact, Colonial Rumour or Legend of the Defeated?. Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften Dezember 2021, 15(2), 96. doi:10.14361/zfk-2021-150208

Figure 1: Tidorchibe, T. (n.d.). Introduction to orality and literacy.

Figure 2: Tidorchibe, T. (n.d.). Introduction to orality and literacy.

Figure 3:

Figure 4: Tidorchibe, T. (n.d.). Folktales as expressive mediums for language and culture: the Konkomba context.

Last Session: Presentations

For our last session on Thursday, 26th January, we were tasked with presenting the projects that we had been working on throughout the semester. We discussed the coding and video editing process and experience of the folktales of the Konkomba culture, while focusing on the various difficulties we faced and how to avoid mistakes. In the last blog post you can read about our experience and problems while encoding the folktales. This is why I am going to talk about our video editing experience in the following.

Video editing problems 

This was our first experience with video editing and using the video editing programme Davinci Resolve. Therefore, many problems and difficulties occurred while editing the videos and adding the subtitles. In the following, I’ll be sharing the problems we faced and our tips to avoid these mistakes.

If you are working in a group, it is easier to use the same video editing programme. This will avoid issues when merging different parts of the video, which we had difficulties with. Another issue was the length of the subtitles, as ours were often way too long. Therefore, subtitles should not appear for more than eight seconds and each line should not exceed 40 characters.  Additionally, you should always add a title and copyright and it is easier to add the title before adding the subtitles. Using the pyramid form for subtitles with two lines will give a more clear structure.  Furthermore, it is important to subtitle everything and check the timing of the subtitles to ensure they match the content. In the end, when exporting the video, don’t forget to export the subtitles and burn them into the video.

A couple concluding words

Video editing can be a challenging task, especially for those who are completely new to it and have never used a video editing programme, such as Davinci Resolve. However, with some practice and the previous mentioned tips, it will be easier to edit a video the next time.  The course “Demarginalising Orature — Translating Minor Forms Into the Digital Age“ provided us with the opportunity to learn new skills in video editing and coding. However, what was very special about this course was that we learned about the Konkomba culture and its folktales. 

Introduction to video editing and subtitling

Subtitle Example: Bilinyi Chikpaab James narrates “Nachiin Pays for Feasting on Unyii’s Children” / Source: HHU Mediathek

Hello everyone!
In this post I’m going to tell you a little bit about our last “Demarginalising Orature” session. As you may have guessed from the title, we talked about and worked on video editing and especially subtitling. In the past few weeks we have learned about Konkomba folktales, language and culture, we have worked with some of the folktales by encoding them using TEI. And now the next step is editing videos of Konkomba people narrating the folktales. Ultimately, you will find them in the HHU Mediathek.

Our last session

So, what happened in our seminar? Firstly, our tutor Jana gave a presentation, introducing us to a video editing program called DaVince Resolve (DVR). She also introduced us to some of the basics of subtitling. E.g. the length of a subtitle, which should be no more that 30 characters per second. The ideal length is 15-20 CPS but as Jana pointed out, this is quite difficult to achieve. Futhermore, a subtitle should always start synchronously with the speech (defining a subtitle’s start and stop point is called spotting). If the subtitle comprises 2 lines, it should be presented in pyramid form, so the upper sentence should ideally be shorter than the lower one. There are many more rules and conventions regarding subtitling but naming them all would go beyond the scope of this blog entry.

DaVinci Resolve and SubtitleEdit

“Edit” page in DaVince Resolve / Source:

Then, a fellow student, Lisa, also gave a short presentation on DVR and also introduced us to another program. According to both Jana and Lisa, DVR can be a bit difficult to work with, especially in the beginning. But luckily Lisa is familiar with another subtitling software, which she introduced to us as well. It is called SubtitleEdit. You can find a very useful step by step tutorial for DVR and SubtitleEdit in her blog entry. Some “fun facts”: According to their website, DaVinci Resolve is Hollywood’s #1 post solution. Apparently, many films and TV-shows are edited in DVR. It was first released in 2004. SubtitleEdit, on the other hand, is a free open-source subtitle editor.

SubtitleEdit interface / Screenshot by Lisa


To sum it up, in our last session we learned about subtitles and subtiling tools. During our session, DaVinci Resolve made my laptop crash and there were definitely some initial difficulties. But SubtitleEdit is a bit more beginner-friendly and in the end we will manage to subtitle all our folktale videos, I am sure! Yet another step to conserving orality and making Konkomba folktales accessible to a broader audience!

Group Work: Encoding folktales

In today’s session we did a presentation of our group work: Every group of two to three people encoded a folktale into TEI. We shared our experience with encoding itself, issues that occurred while working on the stories, and problems we had with the program Studio Visual Code.

Issues while encoding

The groups used different approaches to highlight the Likpakpaln terms: some just tagged them with <term>, others additionally highlighted them as superscript. There were also struggles with placing the end-tags at the right spot, but Jana revised our TEI-documents and made us aware of and helped with our issues and mistakes.

Livia and I had problems with the Live Sharing within Studio Visual Code, but worked our way around it. Our group also highlighted the headers with <hi rend=”bold”>, but Jana reminded us of the fact that by using the <head>-tag alone around the header it will already be visualized in bold writing, so after revising we took out the <hi>-tags to not overcrowd the document unnecessarily. Jana also pointed out that there was a little inconsistency in our xml:ids, since we had a little mix-up when tagging the terms with the appropriate ID.

One way to appoint an ID in the glossary …
… and referencing it in the text.

There was a slight confusion in class about when to use the xml:id and the target attributes, since an ID must be unique within a document. Livia and I tried the solution of using the xml:id attributes within the <gloss>-tags in the glossary and referencing the IDs by using <term target=”#term-id”> around the terms within the text. As it turns out, this is working, so we were quite happy with finding a solution.

New folktale, new issues

Moving on, or rather continue practicing, the groups chose new folktales to work on. We were instructed to take on a story that contains a song, so we could practice the use of tables in a TEI-document for presenting the original Likpakpaln songtext next to its translation. The <table>-element is a tricky one, because you need to build a table with its rows and columns, which can be very hard to envision, when there is no spreadsheet in front of you, but instead something like this:

The first cell of a row always contains the line in Likpakpaln, the second the English translation.

Unfortunately (or luckily?), the folktale Livia and I chose contained a very simple song that only consisted of names and so it didn’t need a translation, ergo no table. Instead, we used the <l>-tags – l standing for ‘line’ – for each row.

The instructions in parenthesis might create a new problem:
Should they be part of the song division or outside of it?

By encoding various folktales, I think all of us realized that TEI and XML are a bit complicated, but actually very logical in their use. Although it seemed abstruse and confusing when learning about the tags and attributes in the beginning, everything makes sense when practically working with it. Encoding is definitely a practice that needs a lot of exercise and revision to understand it. And our work within the sessions really helps here by applying the universally known phrase: learning by doing!

Guest Lecture on The Sɩsaala Dirge by Dr. Confidence Gbolo Sanka


Last week we listened to a lecture about Ghanaian funerals by Dr. Sanka. The lecture was mainly focused on the nature and qualities of the Sɩsaala dirges as well as answering what exactly makes them literary.

What is a Sɩsaala Dirge?

The Sɩsaala dirge is a versified expression of grief specific to the Sɩsaala people and is usually performed during funerals after adults have passed away. Dirges are commonly performed by a group of people, who are singing along while playing instruments, and are often led by a poet-cantor. However, it is not uncommon to hear someone practising the songs of a Sɩsaala dirge by themselves, as it is expected by every member of the community to know and be able to sing these songs.

Types of Dirges

The dirges can be divided into three structural types. The first consists of a song that commonly contains only one or two lines that are repeated several times. The second type includes a song and one or several appellations, which are only performed by poet-cantors. The last structural type consists of appellations, an anecdote and a song and is always performed by a professional poet-cantor.

Furthermore, the dirges can also be categorised according to the age of the deceased. If this person was between the ages of fifteen and sixty, the dirge will be a mourning funeral. When the deceased person was older, the dirge will be a celebration of life and the audience will wear white instead of black, which is worn for the mourning dirge. If, however, a child died, no dirge will be held. This is because the people attending the dirge will be too distraught and mournful to perform the necessary songs. The poet-cantor will also be unable to distract the mourners from their grief, as the death of a young person is not an occasion to celebrate anything.

Dirges in Africa vs. the West

Dirges can be found in many cultures all over the world. The Sɩsaala dirge specifically shares some similarities with Western funerals. Both are performed in similar situations and their forms are alike as well. Additionally, the type of language they use is the same because it mainly uses culturally specific imagery. However, there are a few notable differences. Some of them are the manner of creation and the delivery, as well as the involvement of the audience, the question of authorship of the songs and the use of body language.  An example of these differences is the fact that the audience can join in with additional songs and narratives during the dirge in Africa, while this would not be tolerated in the West. Another example would be that in Africa, rather expressive body language is used during narrations; this is not the case in Western cultures.

Features and Functions

Many stylistic devices are used during Sɩsaala dirges such as repetition, use of tone, ideophones and parallelism. These features are especially prominent in the songs that are performed. The performances during the dirges function as a tool to install values into people and, generally, propagate communal values. This is usually done by the poet-cantor. The performances act as a medium for mourning the dead and are a source of inspiration for written literature, society as a whole and individuals. In addition, the dirges function as a reservoir of historical knowledge and a platform for social commentary. However, the features and functions often vary between the different Ghanaian dirges because every ethnic group’s traditions evolved differently.

The Dirge as a Literary Piece

Dirges can be seen as literary pieces because they contain elements of prose, such as the short narration performed by a poet-cantor, elements of drama are involved, as well as ideophones, similes, rhetorical questions and a simple but interesting plot. Additionally, they contain elements of dramas in the way the narration is structured similarly to Greek dramas. Moreover, impersonations and representations of occurrences from tales can be seen being performed by actors. Lastly, Sɩsaala dirges also show elements of poetry in the repetition of lines and the stylistic devices typically used in the performances.


Sɩsaala dirges are not performed as often anymore as they were in the past. This is caused in part by a lack of interest in tradition shown by the younger generation as well as a rise in other religious beliefs. If someone is, for example, a Christian or Muslim, they often do not perform the dirge as their ancestors did because it goes against their beliefs. The result of this is that the performance of dirges is steadily declining. Another factor is that art, such as a poet-cantor’s performance, is sometimes seen as something only done by lazy people who do not want to work in the fields. Furthermore, there has been a disintegration of traditional extended family values and an absence of internal structures that can lead to the failure of organising a dirge. All of these aspects lead to increased ignorance about Ghanaian culture which also increases the previous factors.

Aesthetics of Konkomba folktales

The issue of library catalogues and classification

We started the session by discussing this question: In which category can we sort Konkomba folktales? We watched a video of one such folktale. The storyteller uses gestures, imitates sounds, sings alone and with the audience, and uses intonation to create drama. So, which category fits the Konkomba folktale? Prose, drama, or poetry? Konkomba folktales display elements of all these categories. Hence, we need a new classification: oral narratives, or oral fiction.

Screenshot from HHU Mediathek showing storyteller Bilinyi Chikpaab James narrating.

We students also learned that the ways in which libraries catalogue works is restricting: As far as folktales are concerned, there is no authorship. Instead, the folktales are communal knowledge. The storyteller is a vessel to deliver that communal knowledge. However, as current-day library cataloguing requires an author, the project Demarginalising Orature uses three words to fill in the information – Konkomba Oral Tradition.

Who tells the story?

The shortest answer may be everyone. Let us go into a bit more detail. Our lecturers taught us that a storyteller does not need to have a specific age or gender. Anyone may tell a story – and, importantly, the audience is a crucial part of the telling. They chip in with parts that the storyteller has forgotten, give answers, ask questions, and join the storyteller in singing. Generally, storytelling is voluntary but there is also competitive storytelling, in which groups battle over which group has the best storytellers. The telling of folktales is a communal activity where communal knowledge is shared.

When do storytelling sessions take place?

We learned that storytelling sessions usually take place in the evenings. In fact, stories must not be told during daytime. Why? The easiest answer is superstition. Especially children are often warned not to tell stories at daytime. However, there may be some more practical reasons. For instance, people should not become too distracted from day-to-day activities which must be carried out during daytime. Moreover, children may discuss the previous night’s storytelling session during the daytime.

Screenshot from HHU Mediathek showing storyteller Wumbein and his audience singing.
How are the storytelling sessions structured?

The beginning of each storytelling session begins with a rhyme called tiin kulb or tiin kolb, depending on the dialect/regiolect. The rhyme consists of questions and answers. Storyteller and audience perform the rhyme together. The rhyme metaphorically explains what storytelling is. It also reminds the community that the stories should be fun. The rhyme is only performed in the beginning of the session but not in-between the individual tales.

After the rhyme, the storyteller who has initiated the rhyme starts telling a folktale. There are four types of commencing the story: Storytellers may dive directly into the story, ask permission from the audience, declare their intent to tell a story, or they may ask a question that creates suspense for the story to follow. After the first storyteller has finished, the next storyteller may voluntarily come forward and commence once again with one of the four opening techniques. There is no formal way of ending a storytelling session – the session ends whenever interest in the session ceases.

What are the folktales about?

Storytelling sessions are often funny – laughter, after all, is therapeutic. Yet, community members also use storytelling sessions to communicate wishes for change with the community. Women may re-tell stories, pushing for societal change by changing some aspects of the story. For instance, a woman may become a chief in their re-telling of a story, or a story may implicitly suggest that monogamy may be better than polygamy. This works as people have a right to change the stories to match their personal condition. Because the characters in the folktales are usually animals, it is a discreet way of pushing for change.


Both the discussion on the classification of Konkomba folktales and the introduction to the aesthetics of Konkomba folktales were incredibly interesting. The discussion demonstrated that library cataloguing must change to accommodate more literary forms. I find particularly interesting that the folktales can also be a way of communicating wishes for change.

Guest Lecture

Date: Thursday, 1st December, 2022.

Time: 10:30 AM.

Venue: HHU Düsseldorf, Room 23.21.U1.72 OR Webex.

For the Webex link, please write to:

[Addendum] Folktales, language and culture


Hello everyone! This blog entry was meant to be published a while ago – sorry for the delay! Luckily, Anne also published a blog entry on that lesson of the “Demarginalising Orature – Translating minor forms into the digital age” seminar. I hope you have all read it, it was very informative and I can only add a few things.

Why the Wasp has a Tiny Waist

Something Tasun said in the seminar that stuck with me was how folktales in general have multiple important functions. In fact, they do not only have entertainment qualities but also contain moral lessons and are used as pedagogical tools. They can teach the values and customs of a specific culture. One example for this would be the folktale “Why the Wasp has a Tiny Waist”, which we have also talked about in the seminar.


To sum it up, the lesson successfully conveyed the cultural importance of Konkomba folktales and the Likpakpaln language. Therefore, it is important to preserve them (e.g. by making them accessible to a broader audience). Hopefully, this blog entry can play a tiny part in this.