Identification. The Zarma are, after the Hausa, the second-largest ethnic group in the Niger Republic, in West Africa, and they have close cultural affinities with the Songhay.
Location. Zarma country covers an area of about 60,000 square kilometers in western Niger between the Niger River and the Dallol Mawri, a dry river valley in Dosso Department. The geography consists primarily of plateaus of sandy and poor lateritic soils, covered with Sudanian vegetation. Water is deep beneath the surface and scarce on the plateaus, which are traversed in a north-south direction by two wide valleys (the Dallol Bosso and the Dallol Mawri) of what were once tributaries of the Niger River. The valleys have heavier soils, shallower groundwater tables, widespread thickets of Doum palm ( Hyphaene thebaica ), and large populations of winterthorn ( Acacia albida ), interspersed with semipermanent ponds. During the long dry-season months, these valleys provide an oasislike contrast with the plateaus. The climate is Western Sahelian, with a single rainy season beginning in June and ending in August or September. Average rainfall varies from 50 centimeters in the north to 80 centimeters in the south. The average high temperature is 36° C, with temperatures reaching the mid-40s shortly before the rainy season; the average low temperature is 22° C.
Demography. The Zarma number more than 800,000, and, together with the related Songhay to the west (see "History and Cultural Relations"), they account for about one-fifth of Niger's population of 8.05 million. The Zarma are largely rural village dwellers, but some also live in larger towns in western Niger (e.g., Dosso, Koygolo, Loga, Say, Simiri, Ouallam, Tondikwindi, Tillaberi) and in the capital, Niamey. Population densities in Zarma country range from an average of 14 persons per square kilometer in Niamey Department to 23 persons per square kilometer in adjoining Dosso Department, whereas rural densities in the northern Dallol Bosso may exceed 100 persons per square kilometer. Life expectancy at birth is about 45 years (as of 1988), but an estimated 13 percent of newborn children die before attaining their first year (per 1987 reports).
Linguistic Affiliation. Zarma is a tonal dialect of the Songhay dialect cluster (with Songhay and Dendi) and is generally considered to be unrelated to any other known language or language group. Greenberg (1963) considers it to be a part of the Nilo-Sahelian language family; it has also been classified as Congo-Kordofanian.