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.