Introduction / History
The Zerma belong to a larger West African people group known as the Songhai. The two groups treat each other as cousins and frequently intermarry. Some of the Zerma live in the southwestern part of Niger, while others occupy northern Nigeria along the Niger River Valley. They may have originated in the country of Mali, emigrating southward centuries ago. Their language, Zarma, is a Songhai dialect from the Nilo-Saharan linguistic family.
The aggressive, aristocratic Zerma are the second largest group in Niger. They are known as honest and hard-working by the neighboring peoples. The Zerma living in Niger inhabit an area that consists mainly of sandy plateaus and thin soils. It is a savanna region with temperatures around 90ºF for much of the year. This is a sharp contrast to the fertile, lush river valleys occupied by many of the Zerma in Nigeria. In Niger, buffalo, elephants, antelopes, crocodiles, and hippopotamuses can be found throughout the area.
What are their lives like?
The Zerma are primarily farmers, with their staple crop being millet. Cowpeas, sorrel, and nuts are grown in large quantities, as are guavas, mangoes, bananas, and citrus fruits. Vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, okra, and potatoes are also raised on smaller plots or in vegetable gardens. Since individual farms are worked only by family members, many children are desired. The head of the household distributes fields to each of the family members for cultivation. In addition to farming, the Zerma raise chickens and some cattle, although the cattle are usually only slaughtered and eaten during religious ceremonies and festivals.
The windi (household) is the basic social unit among the Zerma, combining reproduction, consumption, and production within itself. A typical village house is either round with mud walls or is rectangular with walls made of sun-dried mud bricks. Most houses have straw thatched roofs. The oldest male is the head of the house. When a man has more than one wife, each wife has a separate dwelling for her and her children.
Zerma children are basically timid. A shameful expression is expected when they are conversing with superiors, and they tend to look down when called. By the age of six, children are expected to know the difference between right and wrong. They begin doing light work in preparation for their future role as adults. Boys' responsibilities include tending to the farm animals. The girls help their mothers care for the younger children, pound millet, and sell food in the villages.
Some of the Zerma have become skilled merchants, frequently traveling to distant markets along the Guinea coast. In those regions, the word Zerma has become synonymous with "cloth trader." Others have become skilled craftsmen, such as potters, weavers, or basket-makers. The women are known for making colorful mats and covers from palm leaves.
What are their beliefs?
Although the majority of the Zerma profess to be Muslim, their Islamic beliefs have been somewhat intermingled with animism (belief that non-human objects have spirits). The Zerma follow the usual Islamic practices of prayer and fasting. Religious ceremonies and the rituals are led by marabouts (Islamic leaders who are knowledgeable in the Koran). However, the Zerma also take part in various cults, which involve spirit-possession, spirit worship, and magic. The cults are headed by priests who have been possessed by evil spirits and are said to have healing powers. Spirit-cult ceremonies include the yenendi ("cooling off"), which is held near the end of the long hot season. It is a time of music and dancing. During this festival, the spirits are asked to bring heavy rains and plentiful harvests for the people.
What are their needs?
The Bible has already been translated into the Zarma language. Yet, they remain marginally Christian. Prayer alone has the power to break the strongholds that are keeping the Zerma in spiritual bondage.
* Ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers to work among the Zerma of Niger.
* Ask the Holy Spirit to grant wisdom and favor to missions agencies focusing on the Zerma.
* Pray that God will give the Zerma believers boldness to share the Gospel with their own people.
* Ask God to raise up prayer teams who will begin breaking up the spiritual soil of Niger through worship and intercession.
* Ask the Lord to bring forth a strong and grrowing Zerma church for the glory of His name!