Friday, January 18, 2013

ZARMA PEOPLE: NIGER`S WARRIOR TRIBE AND HIPPOPOTAMUS HUNTERS

The Zarma people, also known as Zerma, Djerma, Dyerma or Zaberma, Adzarma,Zarbarma et al are found in the western part of Niger and the adjacent parts of Burkina Faso. They represent approximately 2 million people or 22% of Niger’s population. Because the capital city, Niamey, is located in their homeland, the Zarma constitute the majority of the city’s population. Originally, the Zarma were farmers and fishermen, but with the coming of French colonialism they were the first to benefit from the French education system. As a result, the Zarma have a strong presence in both central government (or public sector) and the private sector.
                                           Beautiful Zarma kids from Niger

The Zarma people are believed to have migrated from what is now the Fula region around Lac Debo, Mali during the Songhai Empire, and settled first in Anzourou and Zarmaganda in the 16th century. In the 18th century, many Zarma resettled south to the Niger River valley, the Fakara plateau and Zigui in what is now Southwest Niger near Niamey. Forming a number of small communities, each led by a Zarmakoy, these polities soon found themselves pressured from the north by the Tuareg and the Fula from the southeast, as well as other ethnic groups in the area.

                                                                  Zarma women

 While Zarmakoy Aboubacar founded the Dosso state from his own Taguru clan around 1750, it remained a small collection of villages in the Dallol Bosso valley until the 1820s, when it led much of the resistance to the Sokoto Caliphate. While Dosso fell under the control of the Amir of Gando (a sub division of Sokoto) between 1849 and 1856, they retained their Zarmakoy and the nominal rule of a much larger Zarma territory, and were converted to Islam. Under Zarmakoy Kossom (r. 1856-65), Dosso united all of the eastern Zarma, and left a small state stretching from Tibbo and Beri in the north, to Gafiadey in the south, and to Bankadey and Tombokware in the east.
                 Zarma girl watering cabbage Garden

The language of the Zarma is a dialect of the Nilo-Saharan language family. Traditionally, the Zarma and Songhai people view themselves as one family. The Zarma should more accurately be called the Zarma-Songhai. They have, in general, a less strict attachment to Islam and have in many ways resisted the full and com­plete conversion experience.

                               Zarma man with kids


Although it is estimated that 75% to 80% of the Zarma profess to be Muslim and 1% to 2% to be Christian, traditional African spiritual systems serve as the unrecognized grounding belief for all

Zarma-Songhai. In general, the Islamic beliefs of the Zarma-Songhai have been by way of syn­cretism blended with traditional spiritual beliefs.
                            Zarma woman carrying decorated water pot on head, near Niamey, Niger,
                       Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1970.


Among the Zarma, the Islamic rituals and ceremonies are centered on the observance of Ramadan, which involves fasting and the paying of alms for the poor, Tabaski, which is also called the Festival of Sacrifice, and the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. The syncretism is obvious in the ritual of the naming day ceremony of children that is prevalent throughout much of Africa, where prayers are bestowed on the new-­born after 7 days of life. This ritual seems to be an ongoing traditional African ritual without regard to Islam or Christianity. The practice of taking more than one wife also preceded the advent of Islam. Although the Zarma practice of polygamy, as in the past, is mostly associated with older and wealthy men, its pre-Islamic root meaning remains associated with spiritual evolution, cul­tural maturation, and family enhancement. Polygamy is highly valued among Zarma men, but monogamy is more common statistically, accounting for 70 to 80 percent of all households. The incidence of polygamy is higher among older and wealthier men; it is considered evidence of social success.

Regarding African religions, the Zarma represent the complex intersect between the retentions of traditional African spiritual systems and the (forced) adoption of one or another of the major orthodox religions. In the case of the Zarma, the adopted religion is Islam. Understanding the com­plexity of this intersect is further exacerbated by the hegemonic technique of either omitting any detailed and respectful discussion of the traditional African spiritual beliefs or, in the discussion, codi­fying the traditional beliefs in denigrating or demonic terms and interpretations.

DailyMotion Zarma culture clips
Zarma - Songhay culture:  yeenandi, the rain dance
This video is part of Jean Rouch film titled "Yenendi, les hommes qui font la pluie" (Yenendi, the men who make rain) made in 1951. Yenendi or yeenandi is a ritual ceremony, the celebration of rain. The film was shot in the Songhay village Simiri in Niger. The length of the original film is 29 minutes, the video shows one and a half minute.
By the summons of the drummers of the calabashes and the player of the violin the dance of the possession begins. One by one the spirits "mount their horses": Moussa the spirit of the wind, Niabri goddess of the earth, Sadyara the rainbow, Tyirey master of lightning, Hausakoy master of divine inspiration, and Dongo master of the thunder and rain. Next the priest and the faithful consult the "hampi", a ritual clay pot filled with water and millet grains that represents the firmament of the coming rainy season put on earth. During a new possession, Dongo knocks over the pot of the firmament, the rains of the coming rainy season fall on the earth of Simiri . Based on the pattern of lines of water and the distribution of the grains, the men know whether the season will be good and the harvest abundant [source: Africiné].




The Zarma-Songhai believe, as is true with most African peoples, that all living things have a knowable and knowing spirit and that as human spirits people can directly and deeply communi­cate with the spirit realm. Spirit work and reunions (often misunderstood as spirit posses­sion) are common practices that are believed to have healing powers. The Zarma, like other African peoples, know that humans live among the diverse forces of the environment and the energy of the earth completes human society. In effect, the traditional beliefs of the Zarma utilize and channel the collective life force to recognize that these "forces and waves" are God in motion. The Zarma-Songhai believe that the different con­centration of spiritual energy have different pur­pose and effects. There are, for instance, "cold" spirits that control the forces of nature and there are spirits that control illness.

The Zarma believe that a living person consists of the body (ga), the invisible double (biya), which gives each person his or her singularity and the life force (fundi). These elements are believed to breakup at death.
                        Beautiful Zarma girl from Niger carrying fresh green onion seedlings


The Zarma make fine basketry in particular the colorful, hand-dyed mats, covers, and hangers of storage containers, which are made by women from Doum-palm leaves. They are well known for their pottery and their woven blankets.

The staple crop of the Zarma is millet which is inter-cropped with cowpeas, sorrel, and Bambara and other groundnuts. Sorghum and manioc are also cultivated in areas with heavier soils. Agriculture relies on household labor and use of simple hand tools and very limited use of animal traction. The Zarma raise small ruminants and poultry that provide meat for religious ceremonies, baptisms and other special occasions. 

                                                     Zarma farmers

Zarma women make plain and brightly colored mats, round covers and hangers for storage containers from Doum-palm leaves and engage in petty trading within Niger, while Zarma men use the leaves to make rope and engage in long distant trading.

Tonkassare, Niger, West Africa. Shy Nigerien Woman, Djerma (Zarma) Ethnic Group.

DailyMotion Zarma culture clips


Zarma - Songhay culture:  Waffa braiding (part 1)
Waffa turuyaη, Waffa braiding, part 1
Hair style is one way to distinguish oneself from other, just like clothing and customs.  The style of hair braiding is an important aspect of the identity of the Wogo. Djamo is a traditional braider of hair and in this episode she does shopping for her work on the local market. Thereafter, she takes the boat to her village Sawani and sails the Niger river. The market is the main meeting and trading place and the river is an essential transport route; this becomes very clear while looking the video.

DailyMotion Zarma culture clips
Zarma - Songhay culture:  Waffa braiding (part 2)
Waffa turuyaη, Waffa braiding, part 2
Hair braiding starts with combing and washing of the hair. After combing, Djamo washed the hair with a sticky liquid. This liquid is made of water and leafs and roots of a plant named ganda foy or sauce of the earth. Thereafter, she removes this sticky liquid with a washing soda solution. Djamo finishes the pre-treatment with a massage of the hair with savon biyo (black soap). While the hair gets the time to dry, the camera shows us how the women of the village take care of the maintenance of the walls that due to weathering and erosion need a fresh layer of mud. Back to braiding, the Comal (Tchomal) is considered as the architectural pillar of the Waffa hair style. The Comal is made of piece of cloth and is folded in the presence of the customer. The Comal is placed in the middle on the head. Sometimes the hairdresser places amulets under the Comal, which contain Koran verses. Djamo uses butter of cows to make the hairs supple and charcoal powder to prevent slipping of the fingers during braiding. Of course, Djamo  complains the the youngsters do braid their hair, but they do not know how to really braid the Waffa hair style.



DailyMotion Zarma culture clips
Zarma - Songhay culture:  Waffa braiding (part 3)
Waffa turuyaη, Waffa braiding, part 3
The foundations has been laid, what follows is the finishing off of the work of art. Two layers of braids are needed to cover the Comal completely. The first layer is used to keep the Comal in place. The second layer serves to hide the Comal from view. Although Koran verses are used in the amulet, the Marabous claim that the Koran forbids the use of the Comal in braiding and that the Comal will transform into a snake that will kill the wearer. The true reason, according to Djamo, is that the cloth takes op moistures during the ritual washing. She complains women are less interested in the old fashion and customs, and that, therefore, she has to adapt herself to the modern hair styles. This part of the video shows, as an interlude, some domestic activities of the Wogo women. The finishing touch of braiding consist of making two fine thin braids to which decorations can be attached. As decorations coins of former times are used, which are thoroughly cleaned and polished. Each type of coins has its own significance and value. Djamo leaves the attachment of the coins to a younger women, an old apprentice, as Djamo doesn't see that well anymore. At the end, the woman with newly braided hair dresses herself with a traditional garments and she performs a dance. 


Zarma women like to tattoo their body with awesome designs that have been copied by others.


                               Ayorou, Niger, Africa - Zarma (Djerma) Tattoo, done with Henna.

They also have tribal facial and beautification marks.

Belkissa, Niger, Africa - Zarma Girl with Facial Scarification. A Hole for a Nose Ring is in the Nostril.



 Men have the primary responsibility for clearing, sowing, weeding, guarding against pests, and harvesting. In addition to shouldering a full range of demanding domestic tasks, women participate in the sowing and harvesting of the household fields, and they often cultivate small dry-season gardens in river-valley areas. In Zarmaganda, women work alongside their husbands in cultivating millet; in Zarmatarey, they do not.

              Zarma men in a  traditional sitting position enjoying their meal from one bowl.


Baŋawi, Hippopotamus hunt
To hunt a  baŋa, the baŋawi or bangawi in Zarma, is a dangerous adventure. An animal of several tons may attack the hunters. Therefore the hunters  (sorko) built a big boat with thick sides that will resist such an attack. They use wood of the  tokey or tokkay tree. Harpoons (harji) are constructed with a float made of a bundle of light stalks. To kill the hippo they use a spear (yaji or yagui)  Preparations take a long time and include a possession ritual lasting for hours and devoted to Harakoy Dikko, deity of the Niger River and mother of the Tooru spirits. These are the nobles of the spirit world, the deities of nature. The possession ritual finishes with the  Hauka spirits, the spirits of colonization or spirits of force.

Follow the two links below to watch the excerpts of Hippo Hunting
Zarma people just like other warrior African people also have traditional wrestling games which they organized to entertain their communities.

YouTube Zarma culture clips

Short summary of the final of the 33th edition of the traditional wrestling games in Maradi, Niger on 5 March 2012. The final is between Yacouba Adamou from the Niamey region and Laminou Maidaba from Agedez, 27 years and 100 kg. This final lasted for about 13 minutes. Laminou Maidaba wins the sabre for the third time. For the extended video version, see below.
At these games were 80 wrestlers in total, this is 10 per region.
A complete list of finalist is given here.


The Zarma are a people who are proud of their heritage and resist the changes that are occurring around them. Their choice to follow the religion of their ancestors is not respected as the efforts to proselytize them are being stepped up by the Christian missionaries. The Zarma-Songhai are literally under attack by Christian evangelists. It is assumed by the evangelists that the Zarma are a Godless people.

                        Zarma kids happy with a provision of new bore-hole inauguration

Although the Niger government allows freedom of worship, the Zarma have been earmarked for conversion to Christianity. The free­dom of Christian missionaries to preach the word of God overrides the freedom of religious expres­sion on the part of the Zarma people. Not more than 2% of the Zarma people have embraced Christianity. Of these, many are embracing Christianity after feeling the effects of famine. The Zarma are willing to hear the message of Jesus in response to the Christians, who in their "condi­tional" generosity have delivered famine relief to them in exchange for Bible worship .

                                   Zarbarma girls studying
Source;http://www.nalrc.indiana.edu/brochures/Zarma_Niger.pdf
           http://www.djerma.nl/index.html


Zarbarma women serving chilled cow milk


                Zarma kids carrying water to their Homes


           Kids giving their best to win the drag-a-tire game in the Niger desert. 


                                               Zarma woman carrying her baby on her back


Français : Jeunes filles en tenue traditionnel...
Français : Jeunes filles en tenue traditionnelle Djerma, au cours d'une manifestation. Aujourd'hui, la plupart des femmes Djerma portent des vêtements modernes. Habillement décrit dans l'article Djermas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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