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.