POPULATION: 8.8 million (1994)
LANGUAGE: Hausa; Zarma; Songhay; Fulfulde; Tamasheq; Manga or Boudouma; Arabic, Tubu, or Gourmantche; French
RELIGION: Islam; small numbers of Catholics and Protestants; spirit possession; indigenous religious practices
Niger is a landlocked, drought-ridden country in the heart of West Africa. Its population is made up of distinct ethnic groups. Niger is located in one of Earth's harshest ecological regions. Historically, groups that have wielded power in the area of presentday Niger include the Songhay, Hausa, and Tuareg. Some Fulani live in the southwest. After conquering the region, the French created the colony of Niger in 1922.
Niger was granted independence from France in 1960. However, the end of colonial rule has not brought economic success to this West African nation. The severe drought of the 1970s focused the world's attention on the plight of this people and other rural peoples of the Sahel region. In January 1996, Nigeriens saw their country return to military rule.
Niger has a flat and monotonous landscape. Two-thirds of its territory is located in the central Sahara Desert. In 1994, the population of Niger was estimated to be 8.8 million.
Over the last fifty years, dwindling resources in the rural areas have forced many people to migrate to the cities to look for work. Niamey, the capital, has grown as people have arrived from all parts of the country.
Altogether, over twenty-one languages are spoken in Niger. Hausa, which is spoken by over half the population, has become the lingua franca (common language) of the country. Other major languages include Zarma, Songhay, Fulfulde, and Tamasheq. Many Nigeriens speak more than one language. Nigeriens who have attended Western-style schools also speak French. Recently, the government has recognized ten languages as national languages.
The people of Niger believe they are surrounded by spirits that regularly act in the lives of humans. These spirits are thought to grant health, protection, or good luck to people who obey their requests. Other spirits may cause family conflicts, money problems, or lengthy illnesses. Hausa-speaking peoples explain the origin of these harmful spirits with the following myth.
Adamu, the first man, and Hawa, the first woman, had given birth to fifty sets of twins. One day, their creator told them that he wanted to see the children. They were afraid that he would keep them for himself. So the cunning Hawa told her husband that they would hide the more beautiful twin of each pair in a cave. They would then show the supreme being only the remaining twins. The powerful god saw that they had deceived him. He decided to punish Adamu and Hawa by making the hidden twins invisible forever. It is believed that the spirits who plague people are the descendants of the beautiful twins who are condemned to remain invisible.
Today, about 95 percent of the Nigerien population is Muslim (followers of Islam). However, many followers of the prophet Muhammad still believe in pleasing the spirits of the traditional religions. Thus, Nigeriens enlist the help of the spirits to pass an examination, to ensure safe return from a trip, or to receive protection from jealous relatives. Children are given Muslim names. Most Nigerien men observe the Islamic practice of praying five times a day.
Recently, reformist religious groups, such as Izala , have made many converts among Nigerien young people. Izala advocates simple living and Islamic education for all. It condemns traditional customs such as the use of amulets ( magic charms).
Catholics and Protestants make up less than 1 percent of Niger's population.
Salaried workers do not work on January 1. However, most of the people, being Muslim, do note celebrate the secular (non-religious) new year, but celebrate the Muslim holiday accoring to the lunar calendar. Labor Day (May 1) and Proclamation of the Republic (December 1) are also national holidays. On April 15, Nigeriens celebrate the coup (takeover of the government) that ousted Diori, the first president of independent Niger. Nigerien independence is celebrated on August 3. The anniversary of the Republic is December 18.
As Muslims, most Nigeriens celebrate Muslim holidays such as the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting). For the birthday of Muhammad and the Muslim New Year, men go to the mosque to pray. Nigeriens also celebrate the holiday known as Tabaski , which commemorates the story of the sacrifice of Abraham and the saving of the life of Isaac. On this day, families slaughter a ram and then cook it on an open fire and feast with friends and relatives.
Marriage, especially to a first spouse, is considered a major change of status for both men and women. In the Hausa language, for instance, there is no word for a woman who has reached adulthood but has never been married. Marriage is mainly considered the union of two family groups, rather than two individuals.
A Nigerien woman is considered to be an adult when she bears her first child. The Tuareg celebrate this event by blessing the mother's tent. There is also a lively display of wrestling by the wealthiest and most prestigious women. On the sixth day after a baby's birth, female relatives perform the kishakish ritual. The newborn is brought out of the tent for the first time and given a name. A ram is usually killed and the baby's head is shaved.
Under Islam, burial of the dead is a simple matter. The body is buried immediately after death. Relatives, friends, and neighbors come to offer their condolences to the grieving family. In most cases, there is no crying. Restraint and dignity (meaning no showing of emotion) are expected of everyone.
Nigeriens are hospitable people who always have food available for guests and visitors. Because of the influence of Islam in daily life, there is a strong segregation (separation or division) between the sexes. Once she has married, it is considered improper for a Muslim wife to look her husband directly in the eye or to confront him.
Greetings in the Hausa language are complex. They involve asking about the other person's health, the health of that person's children, and whether that person has had a good day, night, morning, and so forth. But to the question Ina kwana? (How was the night?) it is appropriate to answer Lahiya lau (Fine) even if one is at death's door.
Among the rural people, there are traditional youth associations, the Samarya , that provide opportunities for recreation and for group work that benefits the community.
Niger remains a very poor country, struggling to become stronger and more self-sufficient. Most rural communities have no electricity. In many villages, women still draw water daily from the same shared well.
Most people in rural areas cannot go to to a hospital or clinic. Almost one-third of Niger's children do not reach the age of five.
Traditionally, members of extended families put their money together and used it for the needs of the family group. Today, though, the economic unity of the extended family has broken down. Young men are now responsible for raising money on their own when they are ready to marry.
Women spend most of the day taking care of the children and preparing meals. According to Islam, men can have up to four wives at the same time. There is no limit to how many wives they can marry in their lifetime, as long as they keep divorcing their previous wives. Women who are divorced usually go back to their parents' home and live there until they remarry.
Among the Hausa, a woman cannot show affection for her eldest children in public. She cannot even speak their names. Nor can she call her husband by his name, joke with him, or contradict him. Grandparents, on the other hand, enjoy an affectionate, teasing relationship with their grandchildren.
Most Zarma, Songhay, and Hausa women wear colorful custom-made cotton blouses and wraparound dresses of the same fabric. Tuareg and Fulani women wear dark clothes dyed with indigo. In cities and towns, professional women may wear Western clothes. Many women wear a small head scarf or even a large veil that covers their shoulders. Female members of the Izala religious Muslim sect are covered from head to ankle by a large, tent-like veil, the hijabi .
Many Nigerien men wear a flowing, sleeveless brocade gown over a matching shirt and drawstring pants. When they do not wear a turban, men often wear an embroidered rimless hat. Among the Tuareg, it is not the women, but the men, who cover their faces with a veil.
The staple food in Niger is the grain millet. Millet is the main ingredient in the traditional midday meal of fura . It is a porridge consisting of millet flour, water, spices, and sometimes milk or sugar. Millet is eaten in the evening meal as a thick paste. This paste is covered with a spicy sauce made with meat, tomato paste, or other ingredients such as onions, squash, or eggplant. Along the Niger River, the Songhay prepare a thick paste of corn, to which they add meat or smoked fish. In addition to millet and sorghum, Nigeriens eat beans or rice. They also enjoy snacks of skewered meat, grilled tripe (the lining of an animal's stomach), fried bean meal, or ground peanut cakes. During the cricket season, women fry the insects for snacks.
Observant Muslims do not eat pork or drink alcohol.
Schooling in Niger is free and compulsory (required) between the ages of seven and fifteen. Students can attend either a Western-style school, with instruction in French, or an Islamic school, where they are taught in Arabic. Only a small number of Nigeriens are literate (can read and write) either in French or in Arabic. Even fewer finish high school or go to college.
Many parents believe that if children attend government schools, they will forget their traditions.
The history and traditions of Nigerien people are often recalled at social gatherings and celebrations by the griots , who are singers, messengers, and historians. Their praise-singing is accompanied by a variety of percussion instruments. These include the ganga , a medium-size drum, and the kalangu , an hourglass-shaped drum held under the armpit. Among the Tuareg, three women are needed to play the tinde , a type of drum, which is often accompanied by a flute ( tassinsack ).
The Nigerien theater, in its present form, was introduced by the French colonists. Plays are performed in schools, in village cultural centers, and on national radio and television. The plays are mostly comedies. They are improvised (made up on the spot) around a chosen theme. They are often performed in Hausa, the language most widely understood in Niger.
A well-known Nigerien writer is Boubou Hama, a former president of the National Assembly. His autobiography, Kotia Nima , received the major literary prize of Sub-Saharan Africa in 1970.
Most Nigeriens are farmers. They grow millet, sorghum, and beans as primary crops. In addition, almost all of them are involved in secondary work such as trade, smithing (working with metals), or tailoring. One-sixth of the workforce is engaged in livestock production. The pay for civil servants (government workers) is low, and some do not even receive a monthly salary.
Wrestling tournaments draw large crowds, and every city now has a wrestling arena. Soccer is a popular source of entertainment for young boys and men. Horse races also attract many spectators.
Among Fulani herders, young men engage in soro , a competitive game in which a man violently hits his partner on the chest with a large stick. The receiver of the blow pretends not to be hurt; he simply smiles at the audience to demonstrate his self-control in the face of great pain.
The people of Niger enjoy music, whether they listen to Islamic chanting on the radio or attend a concert honoring local authorities. Storytelling is an important form of entertainment for children and adults alike. Spirit possession ceremonies are public performances that can draw large crowds. At these events, men and women stomp their feet to the sounds of the drums (calabashes) and a one-stringed violin.
Wedding celebrations in cities and towns provide an evening of dancing to the sound of African pop music.
Although it is still a luxury, television is becoming more and more popular among Nigeriens. Parents and children enjoy American TV series like Dynasty or Columbo. Some Nigeriens with televisions in their homes charge their neighbors entrance fees to view programs or videos. In some rural communities, villagers can watch television using equipment powered by solar batteries.
In the cities, young people attend open-air movie theaters. There they can view melodramas from India or karate films.
In rural areas, market days are opportunities to meet friends or relatives and catch up on the latest news.
Nigeriens are skilled craftspeople. Zarma craftwomen, for example, are known for their large earthenware water jars decorated with white geometric motifs. Songhay pottery is decorated with ocher (yellowish), black, or white triangular motifs. Hausa earthenware jars have a wide opening at the top.
Tuareg and Hausa craftsmen are famous for their fancy leather work—beautiful boots, colorful sandals, and goatskin bags.
Multicolored, hand-woven cotton blankets are among a woman's most treasured possessions.
The Tuareg manufacture a wide range of jewelry. They produce rings, necklaces, and wrist and ankle bracelets made of braided strands of silver or copper.
Widespread migration from rural areas to cities and towns has brought a variety of social ills. Violent crime, juvenile delinquency, and alcoholism have increased significantly. Drug use among workers is reported to be increasing. Growing numbers of unemployed young men become involved in smuggling and other crimes. Infanticide (the killing of babies), the rape of young girls, and teenage prostitution are happening more often.
Charlick, Robert B. Niger: Personal Rule and Survival in the Sahel . Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991.
Coles, Catherine, and Beverly Mack, ed. Hausa Women in the Twentieth Century . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
Miles, William F. S. Hausaland Divided: Colonialism and Independence in Nigeria and Niger. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.
World Travel Guide, Niger, 1998. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/ne/gen.html , 1998.