The Sisaala (sometimes spelled Sissala), a beautiful people who originate from among the Mossi, Mamprusi and Dagomba tribes of Ghana, are known and loved by God. Within the last two generations, most Sisaala villages have converted from African traditional religion to Islam. The underlying focus of their belief system, however, remains traditional ancestor worship. SIM serves this people group through primary health care, rural development, church planting, and leadership training.
Most Sisaala live in the flat grasslands of the Tumu district in northwestern Ghana. However, about 20% of the Sisaala have migrated to the south. Ghana is located on the coast of West Africa, just five degrees north of the equator. However, the Sisaala are more than ten degrees north and are in the 10-40 window.
Northern Ghana's weather is hot and tropical. The Harmattan, a wind that blows from the Sahara desert, turns the sky to a haze of dust from December to February. The two seasons are humid and rainy (March-September) and dry (October-February).
The Sisaala child is born into a large extended family, and is viewed as belonging to everyone, not just to the parents. The child is seen as a gift from the ancestors. A sense of individualism does not exist in Sisaala culture. Community and family are paramount. When a child reaches the age of six, he or she has "sense," meaning the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Since the Sisaala's way of life is rooted in the fact that families work together to produce their own food, children spend a lot of time working alongside their parents to collect firewood, haul water, fire pottery and tend livestock and crops. A Sisaala proverb captures this reality: "When the harvest is on, the whole family is in the field."
Home and Health: Traditional Sisaala homes are mud block lined rooms built around a central courtyard to form a family compound, but today many Sisaala plaster their homes with cement and roof with metal roofing sheets. Much of the Tumu district is electrified, allowing TV and radio broadcasts. Roads are in poor condition, but as with much of Ghana, progress is being made to tarmac the major link roads. The Tumu district has a police station, post office, and banking facilities. SIM has worked together with community leaders to develop hand-dug wells or boreholes with handpumps across the region. This has allowed the Sisaala an adequate source for safe drinking water. There is one national doctor in Tumu, who is supported by several overseas medics from various NGOs. Several outlying health posts provide health-care for those not requiring admission to the hospital. For most Sisaala, the hospital is till the medicine of the white man and is only sought after traditional medicine has failed to offer relief.
Food: Food is the international language of friendship. In Sisaala cuisine, several people share a bowl of food. Kore, the staple food, is thick cornmeal mush eaten with soup made of green leaves and dried ground fish. A favourite Sisaala meal is pounded yam, or Kapalla, which is rather like heavy mashed potato. It is offensive to eat with your left hand. Using your right hand only, you take a piece of kapalla and dip it in the soup. Soups are made by boiling peanuts or a variety of green leaves. Rice and beans are considered a special treat because the meal is expensive. "The food is very tasty, and we'll miss it when we're in Canada," says SIM missionary Andrea Bauman. Many Sisaala are subsistance farmers, growing crops like maize, peanuts, yams, cotton, and cassava. Others raise food for cash, especially peanuts, yam, and cotton.
Greetings: There's no such thing as a "standard" Sisaala greeting. They have a phrase to fit every occasion. Bedia (pronounced BAY-dee-ha) is the morning greeting you would give someone you meet on a walk. Ediapina (I-dayh-pi-NAH0) is the reply. There's always a conversation starter suited to your setting. Swapping greetings of any kind almost always involves a chat about family (including extended family) and work. Quickly passing by with a wave or a nod is rude to the Sisaala.
Weddings: A wedding is a process that takes years. It traditionally starts with the suitor's first visit to a young woman's home to indicate his interest to her parents. Gifts to the prospective bride's family set off the marriage process until the groom pays a dowry of livestock and presents to his in-laws. A Sisaala dowry tends to be paid several years after the marriage when the couple has children. This is deliberate because the man wants to be sure the woman will give him children and that the marriage will last before they pay all. Neighbors, friends, and village or section elders, who need to be consulted before a marriage takes place, often witness the process that culminates in the young woman's move to her suitor's village. It is taboo for people of the same village or "clan village" to wed.
Funerals: Funerals are elaborate, and until the influence of Islam, everyone had two. Today, two funerals are held mainly for the elderly. The first funeral happens at the time of burial. Another larger one follows, sometimes immediately, but often weeks or months later during the dry season. The "second funeral" lasts three days, and people from many communities attend, especially if it is for an old person, as anyone remotely related will come. This funeral involves a procession around the village in which war songs are sung, shotguns are fired, and traditional weapons (spears, bow and arrows) are waved in the air amid drumming and dancing.
Baby Naming Ceremonies: As well as weddings and funerals, baby naming ceremonies are a major occasion for the Sisaala. SIM missionaries, Phil and Andrea Bauman, had a taste of such a ceremony when Vamboi, the village, held a Christian baby naming party to recognize their daughter Cara's arrival. This ceremony, led by Simon, the Vamboi church leader, was also a good opportunity to share their faith with friends and neighbours. Over sixty people attended from Vamboi and surrounding villages, including the Vamboi chief and elders.
Traditionally, political authority does not extend beyond the village, but resides in the hands of the village owner, the jangtina. As custodian of the village shrine, the jangtina was responsible to settle intra-village disputes through certain rituals. Today, this "village owner" position still exists but provides leadership in conjunction with the local village chief and the district paramount chief.
SIM began serving among the Sisaala in 1978. Three SIM families are working among this people group. They are involved in primary health care, church planting, and leadership training. Forty baptized Sisaala believers fellowship in eight organized churches related to SIM and six other fellowship groups, as well as other denominations working in other villages. To help reach the Sisaala and other groups with the transforming message of Jesus, SIM partners closely with the Ghanaian church called the Bible Church of Africa.
Many Sisaala listen to the message of Christ with interest but are reluctant to commit themselves because of their Islamic beliefs. Fear of losing the protection of their ancestors also keeps the Sisaala from responding to Christianity, but the church is slowly growing.
There are eight major dialects spoken by the 121,000 Sisaali people. A New Testament in Isaalig, a Sisaali dialect, was printed in 1984. Work on the Old Testament is still forging ahead, with most of the historical books, the Psalms, and the major prophets at the checking stage. In 2003, the entire New Testament became available on cassette in Isaling. Due to a low literacy rate, audio recordings are a more effective means of sharing Jesus with the Sisaala. Oral storytelling and apprenticeship are traditional ways to relay information.