Zarma - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Zarma religious beliefs are syncretic, combining some elements of Islam, which are most manifest in public life (in prayers, fasting, sacrifices, the hajj), with pre-Islamic beliefs that have strong ties to nature (e.g., earth and sky, thunder and lightning, water, and the bush). Among the latter, spirits, spirit cults, and spirit worship, as well as healing, magic, and sorcery, figure prominently. The major spirit "families" consist of those that control the sky and the forces of the Niger River; "cold" spirits, which are often ghosts; white, pure spirits; those that are responsible for misfortune and illness; those that control the forces of the soil; and the spirits of colonization and modernization. They manifest themselves through trances and the possession of individuals who thus become spirit priests and healers.

Religious Practitioners. Marabouts, Islamic leaders who have studied the Quran, lead Islamic observances. The priests of spirit-possession cults are often individuals who have been possessed by particular spirits and given healing powers thereby.

Ceremonies. Most Zarma participate both in Muslim ceremonies (daily and weekly prayer, Ramadan fast and prayer, and Tabaski) and in spirit-cult ceremonies, the most important of which is yenendi ("cooling off"), held toward the end of the long hot season (May/June). This a time of dancing and music, when the spirits are asked to provide good rains and ample harvests.

Arts. The most notable arts among the Zarma are their basketry (particularly the colorful, hand-dyed mats, covers, and hangers of storage containers, which are made by women from Doum-palm leaves); their pottery; and their woven blankets.

Medicine. Sickness can be somatic or behavioral. The former is treated by traditional and/or modern remedies. The latter has spiritual causes and must be treated by a healer or a marabout.

Death and Afterlife. The living person consists of three elements: the body ( ga ); the invisible double ( biya ), which gives each person his or her singularity; and the life force ( fundi). These elements break up at death, which may be looked upon as having "natural" causes, or as having been caused by the actions of "cold" spirits.

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