Introduction / History The Zerma are often included in a larger group of people living in West Africa known as the Songhai. Some of the Zerma live in the southwestern part of Niger, while others occupy northern Nigeria, along the Niger River Valley. The Zerma and Songhai treat each other as cousins and frequently intermarry.
The Zerma may have originated from the country of Mali, emigrating southward centuries ago. They speak Zarma, a dialect of the Songhai from the Nilo-Saharan language family. These aggressive, aristocratic people are the second largest group in Niger. They are known as honest and hard-working by the neighboring countries.
The region the Zerma inhabit consists of sandstone plateaus, dome-shaped hills, and plains that flood easily during the rainy season. In this grassland region, freshwater swamps often give way to tropical rain forests. Animals such as leopards, lions, monkeys, and wild pigs roam about freely.
What are their lives like? The Zerma are primarily dryland farmers, with their staple crop being millet. Cowpeas, sorrel, and other nuts are also grown in large quantities. Guavas, mangoes, bananas, and citrus fruits are abundant. Vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, okra, and potatoes are also raised on smaller plots or in gardens.
Many children are desired because individual farms are worked only by family members. The head of the household distributes fields to each individual for farming purposes. The Zerma also raise chickens and some cattle. The cattle are usually only slaughtered and eaten during religious ceremonies and festivals.
Some of the Zerma men travel South each year to distant towns where they trade along the Guinea coast. In those towns, the word "Zerma" has become synonymous with "cloth trader."
The windi (household) is the basic social unit among the Zerma, because it combines reproduction, consumption, and production within itself. A typical village house is either round and has mud walls, or is rectangular and has walls made of sun-dried mud bricks. The houses usually 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 and a shameful expression is expected when they are conversing with superiors; they tend to look down when called. By age six or so, children are expected to know the difference between right and wrong, and they begin to do light work in preparation for their future role as adults. Boys usually tend to the farm animals, while girls care for the younger children. They also pound millet and sell food in the villages.
Zerma basketry is the most notable art in the culture. Daum-palm leaves have many uses: women make colorful mats and covers from them, and men make ropes. Women also make pottery and woven blankets.
What are their beliefs? Although three-quarters of the Zerma profess to be Muslim, their Islamic beliefs have been intermingled with their traditional animistic beliefs (belief that non-human objects have spirits). The Islamic observances are led by marabouts (religious leaders who studied the Koran).
The Zerma follow the usual Islamic practices of prayer, fasting, and making sacrifices. However, they 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. The Zerma believe that there are several different types of spirits: those that bring illness or death; ghosts or "cold" spirits; and those who control the forces of nature.
What are their needs? The Zerma of Nigeria have the Bible written in their language. However, they remain marginally Christian. Prayer is the key to reaching them with the Gospel.
Prayer Points * Ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers to work among the Zerma of Nigeria.
* Ask the Holy Spirit to grant wisdom and favor to missions agencies focusing on the Zerma.
* Pray that God will give the few known Zerma believers strength and boldness to share Christ with their own people.
* Ask God to raise up prayer teams who will begin breaking up the soil through intercession.
* Ask the Lord to bring forth a triumphant Zerma church for the glory of His name!