The Zarma people are an ethnic group predominantly found in westernmost Niger. They are also found in significant numbers in the adjacent areas of Nigeria and Benin, along with smaller numbers in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, and Cameroon.
The Zarma people are predominantly Muslims of the Maliki-Sunni school, and they live in the arid Sahel lands, along the Niger River valley which is a source of irrigation, forage for cattle herds, and drinking water. Relatively prosperous, they own cattle, sheep, goats and dromedaries, renting them out to the Fulani people or Tuareg people for tending. The Zarma people have had a history of slave and caste systems, like many West African ethnic groups. Like them, they also have had a historical musical tradition.
The estimates for the total population of Zarma people as of 2013 has been generally placed over 3 million, but it varies. They constitute several smaller ethnic sub-groups, who were either indigenous to the era prior to the Songhai Empire and have assimilated into the Zarma people, or else are people of Zarma origins who have differentiated themselves some time in the precolonial period (through dialect, political structure, or religion), but these are difficult to differentiate according to Fuglestad. Groups usually referred to as part of the Zarma or Songhay, but who have traceable historical distinctions include the Gabda, Kado, Tinga, Sorko, Kalles, Golles, Loqas and Kourteys peoples.
The Zarma language is one of the southern Songhai languages, a branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family. Because of the common language and culture, they are sometimes referred to as "Zarma Songhay" (also spelled "Djerma-Songhai").
Zarma villages are typically nucleated settlements made up of round mud or thatched dwellings with straw roofs and and also of occasional rectangular houses built of dried-mud bricks.
The Zarma villages traditionally consist of walled off compounds where a family group called windi lives. Each compound has a head male and a compound may have several separate huts, each hut with the different wives of the head male. The huts are traditionally roundhouses, or circular shaped structures made of mud walls with a thatched straw conical roof.
The Zarma people grow corn, millet, sorghum, rice, tobacco, cotton and peanuts during the rainy season (June to November). They have traditionally owned herds of animals, which they rent out to others till they are ready to be sold for meat. Some own horses, a legacy of those Zerma people who historically belonged to the warrior class and were skilled cavalrymen in Islamic armies. Living along the River Niger, some Zarma people rely on fishing. The property inheritance and occupational descent is patrilineal. Many Zarma people, like Songhai, have migrated into coastal and prospering cities of West Africa, especially Ghana.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Zarma are dryland farmers who cultivate varieties of millet as their principal subsistence crop. Only small amounts of the grain are sold following the harvest, but poorer families may have to sell grain at low prices shortly after the harvest to obtain needed cash. Typically, millet is intercropped with cowpeas, sorrel, and Bambara and other groundnuts. Sorghum and manioc are also widely cultivated in areas with heavier soils. Some dry-season gardening is also practiced in low-lying areas where the groundwater table is sufficiently shallow. Garden production is varied and includes a range of tree crops (such as mangoes, guavas, citrus fruits, papayas, dates, bananas, and nitta trees [ Parkia africana ]), together with vegetables, (tomatoes, carrots, peppers, lettuce, cabbages, squashes, sorrel, and okra), root crops (manioc, sweet potatoes), and some grains and pulses (rice and cowpeas).
Zarma agriculture is characterized by its heavy reliance on household labor, its widespread use of simple hand tools and very limited use of animal traction, and a production system that combines extensive annual cultivation of crops in nearby infields (which are fertilized with animal manure and domestic refuse) with cultivation for periods of from three to five years of unfertilized distant bush fields, which are then fallowed.
Household fields are divided between those fields that are managed by the household head ( windi koy ), in which all household members are required to do some communal work, and the fields that are allocated by the household head to family members to farm individually. Women cultivate sesame, tiger nuts, Bambara and other groundnuts, sorrel, and okra on their plots and often sell some of their produce.
The Zarma frequently raise small ruminants and poultry; they raise cattle less frequently. Livestock are left to multiply and are occasionally sold to raise cash; they are slaughtered but rarely, to provide meat for religious ceremonies, baptisms, and the like.
Industrial Arts. Women make both plain and brightly colored mats and round covers and hangers for storage containers from Doum-palm leaves; men use the leaves to make rope. Blacksmithing, leatherwork, and some woodworking (manufacture of mortars, pestles, and tool handles) is done by descendants of the servile Tuareg caste. Blanket weaving is done by descendants of domestic captives and, occasionally, by Fulbe (Rimaibe). The Zarma also make pottery.
Trade. Zarma men are well known throughout Sudano-Sahelian West Africa for their practice of migrating south each year to distant towns and cities in the forest areas along the Guinea Coast, where they engage in ambulant petty trade and where "Zarma" has become synonymous with "cloth trader." The Zarma refer to these migrants as "children of the forest" or "children of the south." Women are also active in trade, largely within Niger, where they often specialize in sale of condiments and palm-leaf mats.
Division of Labor. In the household fields, 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.
Land Tenure. Almost all of the rural land in Zarma country is owned and managed by a corporate body consisting of the males who claim descent from the first settlers in the area. Household members gain usufruct rights to lineage land by virtue of their consanguineal or affinal ties with the patrilineage. Outsiders obtain access to community land through long-term loans, occasional rental, gifts, pawning, or, more rarely, purchase. The Zarma are adamant that, unlike their Hausa neighbors to the east, they do not sell their land. Whereas land sales in the countryside are scarce, some do occur in areas where shallow water tables make commercial gardening possible or in areas adjoining the main feeder roads and highways that connect with larger towns.
Marriage. Polygyny is highly valued among Zarma men, but monogamy is more common statistically, accounting for 70 to 80 percent of all households. The incidence of polygyny is higher among older and wealthier men; it is considered evidence of social success. Residence is patrilocal.
Domestic Unit. The basic domestic social unit is the household ( windi ), which combines the functions of coresidence, production and consumption, and reproduction. It is headed by a male, who also heads one or more of the conjugal families within the household. Wives in polygynous households have individual dwellings within the household compound for themselves and their children. Households clustered together within larger compounds may embrace as many as three generations: the household head, his father's family, and his son's families.
Inheritance. Inheritance is patrilineal among the Zarma. Fathers bequeath their land to their male children, but the absence of primogeniture and the influence of Islamic law contribute to a parceling up of land across generations. A woman inherits land only if she is the sole survivor of a deceased husband or older brother.
Socialization. Zarma parents indulge their children through early childhood, although they do discipline them occasionally. Relations between firstborns and their parents are tempered by a degree of avoidance, an expression of a sense of shame or timidity ( hawi ), which is also expected of the young in their relations with their elders and superiors. This expression is manifest in social interaction as a looking away or down on the part of the younger person who is being addressed. From about 6 years of age, when their potential for using reason and good judgment ( hkkal ) begins to show itself, children are initiated through play and light work into their future gender roles as adults. Children accompany their parents to the fields at sowing time to watch, and they follow along, learn the movements, and help carry seed. Boys are assigned to watch after goats and sheep and to cut grass and branches for fodder. Girls care for younger children, often carrying them on their backs as older women do; they play at pounding millet and sell cola nuts or prepared foods in the village for their mothers. Boys are circumcised at an early age, but circumcision is not a rite of passage, and little is made of it. Girls do not undergo clitoridectomy.
Social Organization. Significant social units beyond the household include the village quarter ( kurey ), whose households are headed by members of a lineage segment and who elect a quarter chief ( kurey koy ), and the village ( kwara ) itself, whose chief ( kwara koy ) is elected by the council of quarter chiefs. Village chiefs are accorded deference, but they occupy a status of first among equals and have little power to enforce decisions for the community. Age classes are not significant social categories among the Zarma, owing to the lack of emphasis given to coming-of-age. Cooperative endeavors are most frequently but not exclusively organized on the basis of agnatic or affinal ties. The most common form of community cooperation is the boogu, a short-lived collective-labor group that is organized to assist kin or neighbors with a variety of tasks ranging from clearing, planting, or weeding fields to building houses.
Precolonial Zarma society was divided into two classes: freemen, consisting of nobles (who were members of ruling families) and commoners, and captives. Captives were of two kinds: domestic captives, who were considered semikin, and captives who were seized in war and could be sold or traded. Slavery has been legally abolished in Niger, but the social distinction between the descendants of freemen and captives persists. Descendants of freemen and captives do not marry; some artisanal activities are practiced solely by descendants of captives or servile castes.
Political Organization. The most important chief in Zarma country is the Dosso Zarmakoy. The second level of authority comprises the canton chiefs, who are elected by councils of village chiefs. Village chiefs have tertiary authority; quarter chiefs report to them, and so on.
Social Control. Enculturation and the social pressure that comes from the transparency of personal life are quite effective as social-control mechanisms (see "Religious Beliefs"). Significant deviations and conflicts are handled initially by the village assembly or village elders, and then by the canton chief, who may, if the case warrants, call in government representatives.
Conflict. An essential part of Zarma history and ideology consists of the exploits of Zarma warriors in the precolonial period. Conflict, particularly with the pastoral Fulbe and Tuareg, is an essential element of the Zarma past. Despite the presence of indigenous mechanisms and a civil-court system for adjudicating disputes, conflict with the pastoral Fulbe, and occasionally with other Zarma from nearby villages, remains a part of the Zarma present. Disputes between Zarma villagers over land and with Fulbe over incursions by cattle and crop damage caused by livestock can be violent and occasionally fatal.
Religious Beliefs. Zarma religious beliefs are syncretic, combining some elements of Islam, which are most manifest in public life (in prayers, fasting, sacrifices, the hajj), with pre-Islamic beliefs that have strong ties to nature (e.g., earth and sky, thunder and lightning, water, and the bush). Among the latter, spirits, spirit cults, and spirit worship, as well as healing, magic, and sorcery, figure prominently. The major spirit "families" consist of those that control the sky and the forces of the Niger River; "cold" spirits, which are often ghosts; white, pure spirits; those that are responsible for misfortune and illness; those that control the forces of the soil; and the spirits of colonization and modernization. They manifest themselves through trances and the possession of individuals who thus become spirit priests and healers.
Religious Practitioners. Marabouts, Islamic leaders who have studied the Quran, lead Islamic observances. The priests of spirit-possession cults are often individuals who have been possessed by particular spirits and given healing powers thereby.
Ceremonies. Most Zarma participate both in Muslim ceremonies (daily and weekly prayer, Ramadan fast and prayer, and Tabaski) and in spirit-cult ceremonies, the most important of which is yenendi ("cooling off"), held toward the end of the long hot season (May/June). This a time of dancing and music, when the spirits are asked to provide good rains and ample harvests.
Arts. The most notable arts among the Zarma are their basketry (particularly the colorful, hand-dyed mats, covers, and hangers of storage containers, which are made by women from Doum-palm leaves); their pottery; and their woven blankets. The Zarma people, like their neighboring ethnic groups in West Africa, have a rich tradition of music, group dance and singing. The common musical instruments that accompany these arts include gumbe (big drum), dondon (talking drums), molo or kuntigui (string instruments), goge (violin-like instrument). Some of this music also accompanies with folley, or spirit possession-related rituals.
Medicine. Sickness can be somatic or behavioral. The former is treated by traditional and/or modern remedies. The latter has spiritual causes and must be treated by a healer or a marabout.
Death and Afterlife. The living person consists of three elements: the body ( ga ); the invisible double ( biya ), which gives each person his or her singularity; and the life force ( fundi). These elements break up at death, which may be looked upon as having "natural" causes, or as having been caused by the actions of "cold" spirits.
The women among Zarma people, like other ethnic groups of Sahel and West Africa, have traditionally practiced female genital mutilation (FGM). However, the prevalence rates have been lower and falling. According to UNICEF and the World Health Organization studies, in Zarma culture the female circumcision is called Haabize. It consists of two rituals. One is ritual cutting away the hymen of new born girls, second is clitoridectomy between the ages of 9 and 15 where either her prepuce is cut out or a part to all of clitoris and labia minora is cut then removed. The operation has been ritually done by the traditional barbers called wanzam.
Niger has attempted to end the FGM practice. According to UNICEF, these efforts have successfully and noticeably reduced the practice to a prevalence rate in the single digits (9% in Zarma ethnic group in 2006), compared to east-North Africa (Egypt to Somalia) where the FGM rates are very high.