Zarma people

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 Sudan.[2][3] In Niger, the Zarma are often considered by outsiders to be of the same ethnicity as the neighboring Songhai proper, although the two groups claim differences, having different histories and speaking different dialects. They are sometimes lumped together as the Zarma-Songhay or Songhay-Zarma[4]

Zarma people
Habillement traditionnelle.jpg
Young girls wearing traditional Zarma dress
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Burkina Faso1,100
Zarma (native language), French, English (colonial languages)
Related ethnic groups
Songhay, Fulani, Hausa

The Zarma people are predominantly Muslims of the Maliki-Sunni school,[5][6] 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.[2] Relatively prosperous, they own cattle, sheep, goats and dromedaries, renting them out to the Fulani people or Tuareg people for tending.[7] The Zarma people have had a history of slave and caste systems, like many West African ethnic groups.[8][9][10] Like them, they also have had a historical musical tradition.[11]

The Zarma people are alternatively referred to as Zerma, Zaberma, Zabarma Zabermawa, Djerma, Dyerma,[3] Jerma, or other terms.[12] Zarma is the term used by the Zarma people themselves.

Demographics and languageEdit

The estimates for the total population of Zarma people as of 2013 has been generally placed over 3 million,[13] 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.[14] Groups usually referred to as part of the Zarma or Songhay, but who have traceable historical distinctions include the Gabda, Tinga, Sorko, Kalles, Golles, Loqas and Kurtey peoples.[5]

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").[13]


The geographic distribution of Zarma people (approx.).

The Zarma people are an African ethnic group with unrecorded history and no ancient texts. Like other ethnic groups of the region, much of their known history comes from Islamic records after the 8th century, particularly from the medieval accounts of Arabs and North African historians, states Margari Aziza Hill – a professor of humanities.[15] The Islamic conquest was motivated and facilitated by the pre-existing trade between West Africa and the Mediterranean before Islam arrived, and in turn the arrival of Islam influenced the history of all people including the Zarma. North African Muslims increased the trans-Saharan trade, becoming of growing importance to the fortunes of ethnic groups and their chiefs. The Muslim traders were major actors in introducing Islam. The Sahel, which forms the origins and historic home of the Zarma people, has been the economic and ecological transition zone and travel route strategically located between the inhospitable Sahara desert and dense sub-Saharan forest zone of Africa.[15]

The Niger delta region already had major settlements of people before Islam arrived. Early Arab documents from the eighth century suggest that Muslims went into West Africa for trade, exchanging salt, horses, dates, and camels they had from the North and Arabian lands with gold, timber, and food from Niger river valley and nearby regions controlled by Songhay-Zarma people. This trade and commerce also ultimately led to cultural and religious conversion.[15] Various theories have been proposed as to how, when and why Zarma people converted to Islam. According to Arabic records, the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence became the predominant system of rule in Niger river region and West Africa by the 11th-century, after the Almoravid conquest of North Africa, Niger river, Ghanaian Koumbi Saleh and Senegal river regions.[16] Muslim scholars dispute if these early Islamic documents are reliable, with some disputing the "conquest" language, insisting that it was a peaceful, willing conversion from the old Islamic system to the new Maliki school. For example, Ahmad Baba in 1615 CE stated that black African Muslims willingly adopted Islam, not because of military threat.[16]

The Zarma people migrated south-eastward from Niger Bend region of Mali where Songhay people are found in high concentration, into their current geographic concentration around the Niger river valley during the Songhai Empire period, settling in many towns, and particularly what is now Southwest Niger near the capital Niamey.[17] Their migration to their present homeland was led by Mali Bero, a legendary king of the Zarma.[18] According to oral tradition, Mali Bero decided to migrate with his people following a fight between the Zarma and a neighboring Tuareg village. They first settled in the Zarmaganda, later expanding south into the Dallol Bosso valley and Dosso.[19][20][21]

Forming a number of small communities, each led by a chief or ruler called Zarmakoy, these polities were in conflict for economically and agriculturally attractive lands with the Tuareg people, the Fula people and other ethnic groups in the area. This medieval era migration is attested by the legends and mythologies within the Zarma community, with some mentioning their historic origins to be Malinke and Sarakholle, one driven by persecution by local Muslim rulers or inter-ethnic rivalries.[17]

Clothing of an aristocratic Zarma

According to Abdourahmane Idrissa and Samuel Decalo, the Zarma people had settled the Dallol Bosso valley, called Boboye in Zarma language, by the 17th-century. In 18th-century, they came under sustained violence from the Fulani people and Tuareg people who attempted to impose their version of Jihads in West Africa.[22] The violence against the Zarma people settlements included raids for grain stocks, burning down standing crop, forced collection or seizure of surplus or wealth from homes, capture, enslavement and forced migration of the people.[23]


Slavery has been a historic practice in West Africa long before the arrival of colonialism. In Niger and Mali, where the largest population of Zarma people has historically lived and have their origins, there is textual evidence of a series of annual campaigns during the rules of Sunni 'Ali and Askiya Muhammad (Turé) to capture people as slaves, both for domestic use as well to export them to North Africa mainly Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.[8] The 15th-century ruler Sunni Ali is an integral part of the legends revered by the Zarma people.[24][25]

The slavery system was a large part of the society and political arrangement. According to Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, the slave population accounted for nearly two-thirds to three-quarters of the total population of Songhay-Zarma people. These numbers are similar to the high percentages of slavery in other ethnic groups that prevailed in pre-colonial West Africa, according to Martin Klein.[26][27][28] However, Bruce Hall cautions that while it is "certainly true that the majority of population" had a servile status, these colonial era estimates for "slaves" in Niger river area ethnic groups are exaggerations because there is difference between servile status and slavery status.[29]

The ethnic groups including the Songhay-Zarma people, states Benedetta Rossi, stretching over the Sahelo-Sudanese have shared a political and economic system based on slavery from a pre-colonial period. The slaves were an economic asset, and they were used for farming, herding and for domestic work. The slavery system has been well developed and complex, according to Rossi, where a system of social stratification developed within the slaves and a master-slave status system survived even after slavery was officially abolished during the French colonial rule.[26][30] The slave communities remain a part of memories of the Zarma people, states Alice Bellagamba.[31]

Colonial eraEdit

The French colonial rulers came to regions inhabited by the Zarma people at the end of the 1890s, when the chiefs and warlords within the Zarma society were in an intra-ethnic conflict. The French picked the Zarmakoy Aouta of Dosso as their partner, and established a military post in what was then the village of Dosso in November 1898.[32] The period that followed brought several natural disasters such as famines and locust attacks from 1901 to 1903. The French increased their presence during this period.[33]

The French relied on the Dosso military post and Niger river valleys for replenishing their supplies, as they attempted to establish a much larger colonial zone in Sahel all the way to Chad. This led to conflicts and violence against the Zarma people, in a manner that repeated the violence and tribute system imposed on Zarma from "at least the early nineteenth century", state Dennis Cordell and Joel Gregory.[32]

The French colonial rule established mines for resources in West Africa such as along the Gold Coast, and these mines were staffed with African labor that relied in large part with migrant Zarma people. Thousands of Zarma people travelled to various French mines, as well as to build roads and railroads to connect major sites of importance to the French rule.[34][35] This migrant labor followed the pre-colonial tradition of Zarma warriors heading to Gold coast for booty, but colonial mines provided economic adventurism, however in many cases the migration was a means to "escape French economic exploitation".[35]

Of the various ethnic groups in Niger, the early cooperation of the Zarma elite led to a legacy where Zarma interests have been promoted and they have continued to be a dominating part of the political elite after its complete independence in 1960.[36]

Society and cultureEdit

The language, society and culture of the Zarma people is barely distinguishable from the Songhai people.[22] Some scholars consider the Zarma people to be a part of and the largest ethnic sub-group of the Songhai – a group that includes nomads of Mali speaking the same language as the Zarma.[37] Some study the group together as Zarma-Songhai people.[38][39] However, both groups see themselves as two different people.[22]

Social stratificationEdit

A Zarma woman

Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, Tal Tamari and other scholars have stated that the Zarma people have traditionally been a socially stratified society, like the Songhai people at large, with their society featuring castes.[9][40][41] According to the medieval and colonial era descriptions, their vocation is hereditary, and each stratified group has been endogamous.[42] The social stratification has been unusual in two ways; one it embedded slavery, wherein the lowest strata of the population inherited slavery, and second the Zima or priests and Islamic clerics had to be initiated but did not automatically inherit that profession, making the cleric strata a pseudo-caste.[22] According to Ralph Austen, a professor emeritus of African history, the caste system among the Zarma people was not as well developed as the caste system historically found in the African ethnic groups further west to them.[43][44]

Louis Dumont, the 20th-century author famous for his classic Homo Hierarchicus, recognized the social stratification among Zarma-Songhai people as well as other ethnic groups in West Africa, but suggested that sociologists should invent a new term for West African social stratification system.[41] Other scholars consider this a bias and isolationist because the West African system shares all elements in Dumont's system, including economic, ritual, spiritual, endogamous, elements of pollution, segregative and spread over a large region.[41][45][46] According to Anne Haour – a professor of African Studies, some scholars consider the historic caste-like social stratification in Zarma-Songhai people to be a pre-Islam feature while some consider it derived from the Arab influence.[41]

Caste-based servitude
The traditional form of caste-based servitude was still practiced by the Tuareg, Zarma and Arab ethnic minorities.

—Country Report: Niger (2008)
US State Department[10]

The different strata of the Zarma-Songhai people have included the kings and warriors, the scribes, the artisans, the weavers, the hunters, the fishermen, the leather workers and hairdressers (Wanzam), and the domestic slaves (Horso, Bannye). Each caste reveres its own guardian spirit.[40][41] Some scholars such as John Shoup list these strata in three categories: free (chiefs, farmers and herders), servile (artists, musicians and griots), and the slave class.[47] The servile group were socially required to be endogamous, while the slaves could be emancipated over four generations. The traditionally free strata of the Zerma people have owned property and herds, and these have dominated the political system and governments during and after the French colonial rule.[47] Within the stratified social system, the Islamic system of polygynous marriages is a part of the Zarma people tradition, with preferred partners being cross cousins,[2] and a system of ritualistic acceptance between co-wives.[48] This endogamy is similar to other ethnic groups in West Africa.[49]

Female genital mutilationEdit

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.[50] 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.[50] The operation has been ritually done by the traditional barbers called wanzam.[50]

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[51]), compared to east-North Africa (Egypt to Somalia) where the FGM rates are very high.[52]


The traditional round Zarma hut near Niamey, Niger.[53]

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.[54] The huts are traditionally roundhouses, or circular shaped structures made of mud walls with a thatched straw conical roof.[53]

The Zarma people grow corn, millet, sorghum, rice, tobacco, cotton and peanuts during the rainy season (June to November).[2] 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.[2] Zarma people also grow guavas, mangoes, bananas, and citrus fruits.[55]


The Zarma people, like their neighboring ethnic groups in West Africa, have a rich tradition of music, group dance known as Bitti Harey 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.[11]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Africa: Niger - The World Factbook - Central Intelligence Agency". 27 April 2021. Retrieved 1 May 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e Zarma people, Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. ^ a b Anthony Appiah; Henry Louis Gates (2010). "Zerma". Encyclopedia of Africa: Kimbangu, Simon – Zulu. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-533770-9.
  4. ^ Idrissa, Abdourahmane; Decalo, Samuel (2012), Historical Dictionary of Niger by Abdourahmane Idrissa, Samuel Decalo, p. 474, ISBN 9780810870901, retrieved 2021-12-16
  5. ^ a b James Stuart Olson (1996). The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 612. ISBN 978-0-313-27918-8.
  6. ^ Toyin Falola; Daniel Jean-Jacques (2015). Africa: An Encyclopedia of Culture and Society. ABC-CLIO. p. 916. ISBN 978-1-59884-666-9.
  7. ^ James R. Lee (2009). Climate Change and Armed Conflict: Hot and Cold Wars. Routledge. pp. 54–55. ISBN 978-1-135-21163-9.
  8. ^ a b David Eltis; Keith Bradley; Paul Cartledge (2011). The Cambridge World History of Slavery: Volume 3, AD 1420-AD 1804. Cambridge University Press. pp. 62–64. ISBN 978-0-521-84068-2.
  9. ^ a b Tal Tamari (1991). "The Development of Caste Systems in West Africa". The Journal of African History. Cambridge University Press. 32 (2): 221–250. doi:10.1017/s0021853700025718. JSTOR 182616. S2CID 162509491.
  10. ^ a b Committee on Foreign Relations, US House of Representatives (2010). Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2008 Vol.1. Department of State, US Government Printing Office. p. 430. ISBN 978-0-16-087515-1.
  11. ^ a b Toyin Falola; Daniel Jean-Jacques (2015). Africa: An Encyclopedia of Culture and Society. ABC-CLIO. pp. 927–928. ISBN 978-1-59884-666-9.
  12. ^ "Zarma (peuple d'Afrique)". BnF. Retrieved 4 April 2022.
  13. ^ a b Zarma, Ethnologue: The Languages of the World
  14. ^ Fuglestad, F. (1983) A History of Niger: 1850–1960, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-25268-7
  15. ^ a b c Margari Hill (2009), The Spread of Islam in West Africa: Containment, Mixing, and Reform from the Eighth to the Twentieth Century, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University
  16. ^ a b Zachary Valentine Wright (2015). Living Knowledge in West African Islam: The Sufi Community of Ibrāhīm Niasse. BRILL Academic. pp. 36–39. ISBN 978-90-04-28946-8.
  17. ^ a b Stephen Paterson Belcher (1999). Epic Traditions of Africa. Indiana University Press. pp. 164–173. ISBN 0-253-21281-2.
  18. ^ Johnson, Sir, John (1997), Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent, Indiana University Press, ISBN 0253211107, retrieved 2021-03-17
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  20. ^ Lange, Dierk (2004), Ancient Kingdoms of West Africa: African-centred and Canaanite-Israelite, p. 473, ISBN 9783897541153, retrieved 2021-04-14
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  23. ^ Dennis D. Cordell; Joel W. Gregory (1994). African Population and Capitalism: Historical Perspectives. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 127–128. ISBN 978-0-299-14274-2.
  24. ^ John William Johnson; Thomas Albert Hale (1997). Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent. Indiana University Press. pp. 124–125. ISBN 0-253-21110-7.
  25. ^ Amanda Cushman (2010). Zarma Folktales of Niger. Quale. pp. xiv–xv. ISBN 978-0-9792999-8-8.
  26. ^ a b Jean-Pierra Olivier de Sardan (1983). Claire C. Robertson and Martin A Klein (ed.). Women and slavery in Africa. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 130–143. ISBN 978-0299094607.
  27. ^ Bruce S. Hall (2011). A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960. Cambridge University Press. pp. 214 with footnote. ISBN 978-1-139-49908-8.
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  34. ^ Dennis D. Cordell; Joel W. Gregory (1994). African Population and Capitalism: Historical Perspectives. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 131–133. ISBN 978-0-299-14274-2.
  35. ^ a b Paul Stoller (2014). Embodying Colonial Memories: Spirit Possession, Power, and the Hauka in West Africa. Taylor & Francis. pp. 133–134. ISBN 978-1-136-65266-0.
  36. ^ Peter VonDoepp (2005). The Fate of Africa's Democratic Experiments: Elites and Institutions. Indiana University Press. pp. 35–36. ISBN 0-253-21764-4.
  37. ^ Songhai people, Encyclopædia Britannica
  38. ^ Don Rubin (1997). The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Africa. Taylor & Francis. p. 212. ISBN 978-0-415-05931-2.
  39. ^ Boubou Hama (1967). L'Histoire traditionnelle d'un peuple: les Zarma-Songhay (in French). Paris: Présence Africaine. ISBN 978-2850695513.
  40. ^ a b Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan (1984). Les sociétés Songhay-Zarma (Niger-Mali): chefs, guerriers, esclaves, paysans. Paris: Karthala. pp. 56–57. ISBN 978-2-86537-106-8.
  41. ^ a b c d e Anne Haour (2013). Outsiders and Strangers: An Archaeology of Liminality in West Africa. Oxford University Press. pp. 95–97, 100–101, 90–114. ISBN 978-0-19-969774-8.
  42. ^ I. Diawara (1988), Cultures nigériennes et éducation : Domaine Zarma-Songhay et Hausa, Présence Africaine, Nouvelle série, number 148 (4e TRIMESTRE 1988), pages 9–19 (in French)
  43. ^ Ralph A. Austen (1999). In Search of Sunjata: The Mande Oral Epic as History, Literature and Performance. Indiana University Press. pp. 150, 148–151. ISBN 0-253-21248-0.
  44. ^ Tal Tamari (1995). "Linguistic evidence for the history of west African castes". In David C. Conrad and Barbara E. Frank (ed.). Status and Identity in West Africa: Nyamakalaw of Mande. Indiana University Press. pp. 61–62, 61–80. ISBN 978-0-253-11264-4.
  45. ^ Declan Quigley (2005). The character of kingship. Berg. pp. 20, 49–50, 115–117, 121–134. ISBN 978-1-84520-290-3.
  46. ^ Bruce S. Hall (2011). A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960. Cambridge University Press. pp. 15–18, 71–73, 245–248. ISBN 978-1-139-49908-8.
  47. ^ a b John A. Shoup (2011). Ethnic Groups of Africa and the Middle East: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 265–266. ISBN 978-1-59884-362-0.
  48. ^ Bonnie G. Smith (2008). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. Oxford University Press. pp. 503–504. ISBN 978-0-19-514890-9.
  49. ^ Tal Tamari (1998), Les castes de l'Afrique occidentale: Artisans et musiciens endogames, Nanterre: Société d'ethnologie, ISBN 978-2901161509 (in French)
  50. ^ a b c Priorities in Child survival, education and protection, UNICEF
  51. ^ Legislation and other national provisions: Namibia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Parliamentary Campaign against FGM, IPU (November 2006), Quote: "According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence rate was 5% in 1998. Excision and circumcision are common throughout the departments of Tollabery (Say, Ayerou, Torodi, Kollo), Marady and Diffa and in the urban community of Niamey along the neighbourhoods and other villages bordering on the Niger River, such as Lamordé, Saga and Kirkisoye. The Peul and the Zarma ethnic groups feature the highest proportion of excised women: 30% and 9%, respectively."
  52. ^ Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, UNICEF 2013 Global Report
  53. ^ a b Amanda Cushman (2010). Zarma Folktales of Niger. Quale Press. p. xi. ISBN 978-0-9792999-8-8., Quote: "Huts are typically round with mud walls and straw roofs".
  54. ^ Amanda Cushman (2010). Zarma Folktales of Niger. Quale Press. pp. x–xi. ISBN 978-0-9792999-8-8.
  55. ^ "Zarma |". Retrieved 2022-01-03.


  • Decalo, S. (1979) Historical Dictionary of Niger, Scarecrow Press/Metuchen: London. ISBN 0-8108-1229-0.

External linksEdit