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Documentation of Dirge songs among the Uruan people in Nigeria


Language Ibibio
Depositor Eno-Abasi Urua
Affiliation University of Uyo
Location Nigeria
Collection ID 0277
Grant ID SG0121
Funding Body
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

This collection documents the dirge, a ritual funeral eulogy performed by elderly women and professionals at the death of a family or community member, and also during a catastrophic event, as practised among the Uruan people of Nigeria. Traditionally used at funerals, the dirge is rarely practised these days because of a shift to Western funeral customs and has become a highly endangered traditional art form. Through observations, audiovisual recordings and interviews, the depositors have built, analysed and archived a collection on the dirge in Uruan, which is accessible to both the language community and academic researchers.

The dirge belongs to that aspect of the culture/language that is endangered in instalments. Dirges which are unique, living and functional verbal art usually composed to be sung, chanted or invoked during performance in the presence of an audience at a given social, religious or ritualistic occasion, are now on the verge of extinction for the following reasons:

  • professionals, non-professionals and others, who hitherto were dirge singers, have abandoned the trade for other vocations, as their trade seems to have lost relevance
  • funerals are now conducted by churches, even in very remote communities
  • there are no written/documented texts for reference purpose and therefore if not documented, dirges will be lost
  • not many fora for the performance, observation and consequent recordings of dirges

Though not as specialized and elaborate as other praise songs, dirges are usually logical, topical, and some of them are composed on the spur of the moment. This project will document and analyse the stylistic features of Uruan dirges.

In the Uruan traditional society as in many traditional African societies, death is seen as a phase in a continuous stream of life. There is a strong connection between the living and the ancestors. From the dirges at funerals, we learn about the deceased, his/her occupation, his role in the family/society/community, the language, etc. Some of the linguistic and stylistic contents of the dirges may no longer be in current repertoire of the modern Ibibio speaker, given the rarity of performance, underscoring the urgency for its documentation. The dirge is therefore an important source of ethnographic studies. A dirge composed as a result of natural disaster or catastrophe from human interaction such as betrayal, insights may be obtained into the context and content. The observers are to be judges, as it were. In addition, other cultural information is garnered from the dirge.

However, with the advent of Christianity and Christian funeral ceremonies, dirges have little place in the equation. The dead Ibibio nowadays are usually given Christian funerals with interment in public cemeteries. There seems to be a general aversion to public cemeteries; people are yet to get used to family members being buried in such places since traditionally family members, unless in cases of suicide, were buried close to their homes, underscoring the significance of the continuous link between the living and the dead.


Group represented

Uruan people of Nigeria, practictioners of the dirge, a ritual funeral eulogy performed by elderly women and professionals.

Uruan, one of thirty-one Local Government Areas in Akwa Ibom State of Nigeria, is located in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Based on the 2006 National Census, the population is 118,300. Uruan is divided into three geo-political zones, north, central and south. The Uruan people proudly refer to themselves as Uruan Inyang Atakpor, in other words the people of the great river. Since the Uruan people border the Atlantic coastline and the creeks, their major occupation is fishing. Others include canoe/boat making, farming, trading, hunting in the forests, clay moulding, arts and crafts. Cultural offerings include the Ekpe, Ekpo and Ekong masquarades, Ibid Aban, Ebre and Asian Ubo Ikpa dances. Another important cultural piece is the Mboppo festival where young girls are put in the well-known but erroneously labelled ‘fattening’ rooms in preparation and tutelage for marriage.

Songs and poetry play significant roles in the life of the African. This is also applicable to the Uruan people. Whatever the occasion, songs must be part of the ensemble, without which the occasion cannot be said to be complete. Even in modern day activities, such as commissioning of an asphalt type road, a new university, songs and dance usually find their way into the programme. Songs then are crucial to the lives and times of the Uruan people. Poetry gives life and expression to Ibibio communal life. Of all the forms of Ibibio oral poetry, dirges, also called elegiac poetry, seems to be the most neglected and endangered. Dirges belong to praise poetry, though funeral songs. Unlike court poetry, dirges could be performed by both professionals and non-professionals, and often times they are the exclusive preserve of women.


Language information

The dominant language varieties in Uruan LGA are Ibibio, and to a lesser extent Efik, both are mutually intelligible. Efik is spoken largely by the older population while the younger people, who are more in number, speak Ibibio. Altogether there are over two million Ibibio speakers. The Ibibio language has benefited from a fair amount of scholarship and publications, including the Ibibio language orthography (Okon Essien 1983); Ibibio-English dictionary (Kaufman 1985); Ibibio-English dictionary (Ekong 2008); Ibibio grammar (Essien 1990); Ibibio Phonetics & Phonology (Urua 2000); Ibibio e-dictionary (Urua, Ekpenyong & Gibbon (2004); Ibibio e-concordance (Urua, Ekpenyong & Gibbon (2004). Several important publications, theses and dissertations have been produced in respect to the Ibibio language. The Holy Bible New Testament has been translated into the Ibibio language; work is in progress with the translation of the Old. Ibibio news translations are provided by the State radio and television services. There is an Ibibio speech synthesis project, a pilot project under the LLSTI scheme with Professor Dr. Dafydd Gibbon as the coordinator. A follow up project is sponsored by the World Bank under Nigeria’s STEP-B project.

The Ibibio language may not be considered to be endangered. However, aspects of the language are highly endangered; some aspects have, in fact, become extinct, which is what we label ‘endangerment by instalments’ or ‘instalmental endangerment’. For instance, Ibibio children and young adults nowadays find it difficult to count up to ‘fifty’ in Ibibio because of the preference for western counting system learnt in schools to the Ibibio traditional one; some traditional games such as ekak (children’s sand game), nyori (Ibibio discus) have become extinct; certain flora which served as food in the community including, nsama (beans with hard shiny skin), edomo (creeping plant with fruits that look like irish potatoes) are no longer eaten and known because of the adoption of western foods. Because these plants are no longer part of the culinary menus of the typical Ibibio person today; these nouns have fallen into disuse and are no longer part of current Ibibio lexicon. Proverbs with which adults used to spice their speech in teaching the young and others are no longer common verbal art. Consequently, Ibibio young people (under 40 years of age) have very little or no knowledge of these words. Although we can talk of intergenerational transmission with respect to the Ibibio language as a whole, the transmission is highly limited and fast eroding.


Collection contents

When complete, the collection will include

  • audio and video recordings as well as digital photographs of the dirge performance, or staged performances where the dirge is no longer performed
  • transcription, translation as well as annotation of language used (Efik or Ibibio or other), verbal art and ritual communication, specialised linguistic repertoire, the structure of the dirge
  • musical description and analysis of the dirge
  • notes from questionnaires and interviews on the level of endangerment of the dirge in Uruan
  • audiovisual recordings of interviews of ‘dirger(s)’ or dirge performer(s) and community members
  • audio and video recordings as well as digital photographs of Christian funerals for contrast to capture the changes that have taken place in Uruan society
  • an edited version of the recordings in audio and video film clips that can be played at funerals/memorials


Collection history

The materials for this collection were gathered and analysed during the depositor’s research for the ELDP Small Grant between 2011 and 2012.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Urua, Eno-Abasi. 2013. Documentation of Dirge songs among the Uruan people in Nigeria. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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