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Introduction / History
The Zerma are often included in a larger cluster of people living in West Africa known as the Songhai. The Zerma and Songhai treat each other as cousins and frequently intermarry. They may have originated from of Mali, emigrating southward centuries ago. They speak Zarma, a dialect of the Songhai from the Nilo-Saharan language family. Some of the Zerma live in the southwestern part of Niger, while others occupy northern Nigeria, along the Niger River Valley. 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.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Zerma are known as honest and hard-working. Most are 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 on Zerma owned farms. They also grow vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, okra, and potatoes on smaller plots or in gardens. Because each family works their own individual farm, they need many children. The head of the household assigns fields to each individual to grow crops. The Zerma also raise chickens and some cattle. The cattle are usually only slaughtered and eaten during religious ceremonies and festivals. Some Zerma men travel south each year to distant towns where they trade along the coast of Guinea. In those towns, the word Zerma has become synonymous with "cloth trader. "The household is the basic social unit among the Zerma, because it combines 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 herself and her children. Zerma children are basically timid and they are expected to have a shameful expression when they are conversing with superiors; they tend to look down when called. By age six, 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. Basketry is the most notable art in their 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. The Zerma believe these priests 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, along with the other Songhai peoples, need the chance to respond to the gospel. They have few if any chances to hear that they must depend on Jesus Christ for abundant life and salvation.
Pray for workers to go to the Zerma people. Pray that the Zerma people, especially their elders and decision-makers, will be open to Christ's ambassadors and the gospel. Pray for a movement to Christ among the Zerma people this decade.
Scripture Prayers for the Zarma in Nigeria.