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POPULATION: 13.3 million
LANGUAGE: Hausa; Zarma; Songhay; Fulfulde; Tamasheq; Kanuri;Arabic,Tubu;Gourmantche; French
RELIGION: Islam; small numbers of Catholics and Protestants; indigenous religious practices
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Fulani; Hausa; Songhay; Tuaregs


Niger was one of the world's least known countries until the severe drought of the 1970s brought the terrible predicament of Sahelian rural populations to the attention of Europe and North America. Today, still, a commonly made assumption is that “Niger” is simply a misspelled term for “Nigeria,” the powerful, oil-producing southern neighbor of this thinly populated Sahelian nation. A landlocked, drought-ridden country in the heart of West Africa, Niger is composed of a variety of ethnically diverse populations who, despite their shared Sahelian traits, struggle to survive as a nation and to find common values and goals. Though this former French colony is presently situated in one of the globe's harshest ecological regions, it was not always so. When early inhabitants established themselves in the area 60,000 years ago, the northern territories of what is now the Republic of Niger were blessed with relatively abundant rainfall, and extensive human settlements were founded. People first relied on agriculture, and later engaged in cattle herding, besides developing complex stone tools.

As ecological conditions changed and the northern regions became drier, people were forced to relocate south and to develop mixed economies based on agriculture, farming, and long-distance trade. By the 7th century ad, the Western area was controlled by the powerful Songhay state, while the eastern regions were under the influence of the Kanem-Bornu Empire. As the authority of these states gradually waned in the 16th century, the Hausa states emerged as significant political and economic centers, thanks to their location at one of the terminus of trans-Saharan trade routes.

Meanwhile, the pastoralist Tuareg, always quick to impose their domination on sedentary communities whenever possible, were making incursions into southern territories and were becoming increasingly involved in trade and agriculture. By the 19th century, the dominant Hausa power in the eastern regions was Damagaram. Most of the central Hausa states were tributaries of the Sokoto caliphate, whose holy war against the un-Islamic practices of its neighbors had resulted in the creation of a vast Fulani empire. The French conquest of Niger culminated in the creation of the colony of Niger in 1922, after the Tuareg resistance was crushed.

Niger was granted independence from France in 1960. Except for a brief boom in the 1970s, however, the end of colonial rule has not translated into prosperity for this already economically marginal West African nation. Niger was governed by a single party civilian regime until 1974, when then-President Hamani Diori was ousted in a military coup led by Col. Seyni Kountché. Kountché's death in 1987 marked the beginning of a 12-year period in which power frequently changed hands between civilian and military governments. From 1990–1995 there was an armed rebellion by Tuareg peoples from northern Niger, who sought an autonomous desert region and greater control over the country's uranium revenues. In 1999 Mama-dou Tandja was elected president in a democratic election. He was reelected in 2004. In May 2007 a second Tuareg rebellion began.


The territory of Niger, two-thirds of which is located in the central Sahara, lies between 11°37' and 23°23'n. Surrounded by Algeria and Libya to the north, Chad to the east, Nigeria and Benin to the south, and Burkina Faso and Mali to the west, Niger is primarily desert. The southern part of the country, where the vast majority of the population lives, is semi-arid Sahel and receives between six and twenty inches of rain per year. In the Sahelian region, most people grow millet, sorghum, peanuts and peppers or herd cattle, goats, sheep or camels. Niger is a predominately rural country, and villages generally incorporate people of different ethnic identities. Over the last 50 years, dwindling resources and opportunities in the rural areas have forced many to migrate to the cities. Niamey, the capital, has thus grown with the influx of migrants from all parts of the country.


To downplay ethnic differences and prevent divisiveness, the people of Niger are usually classified according to ethno-linguistic categories. Though over 30 distinct groups and 21 languages have been identified, the population is nevertheless divided into five major groups:

the Hausa, who speak Hausa, constitute the largest group, with over 56% of the total population;

the Zarma/Songhay/Dendi, who speak Zarma or closely related Songhay, make up about 21% of the population;

the Fulani or Peul, who speak Fulfulde, are 8.5% of the population;

the Tuareg, who speak Tamasheq, represent 9.3 % of the population;

the Kanuri, who speak Kanuri, make up 4.7% of the population;

Arabs, Tubus, or Gourmantches, unrelated groups who speak Arab, Tubu, and Gourmantche, make up the remaining 1.2% of the total population.

Many Nigeriens speak more than one language. For instance, in Niamey, the capital, most native Zarma speakers also speak Hausa, which has become the lingua franca (common language) of Niger. Nigeriens who have attended Western-style schools (approximately one-third of the population) also speak French, the primary language of government and education.


The people of Niger believe they are surrounded by spiritual forces that regularly intervene, for better or for worse, in the lives of humans. In the pre-colonial era, some of these spirits protected communities from enemy attacks and were regularly propitiated to ensure the prosperity of one's land or herd. Today, spirits allegedly grant health, fame, protection, or fortune to those who obey their requests for sacrificial offerings or who become their mediums. Among the Zarma-Songhay, the Hausa, the Fulani, and the Tuareg, for instance, some individuals are chosen by the spirits to become their human vessels. A family strife, declining prosperity, or lengthy illnesses that cannot be cured by Western medicine, Islamic medicine, or herbal remedies alone may be diagnosed as being caused by spirits who are reminding their victims of their powers.

Among Hausa-speaking populations, a myth explains the presence of these powerful, but invisible, creatures as follows. Adamu, the first man, and Hawa, the first woman, had given birth to 50 sets of twins. One day, the supreme being and their creator told them that he wanted to see the children. Afraid that he would keep them for himself, the cunning Hawa told her husband they would hide the more beautiful siblings of each 50 pair of twins in a cave, and only show the supreme being the remaining ones. Seeing how they had deceived him, the omniscient god decided he would punish Adamu and Hawa by making the hidden twins invisible forever. The spirits who plague humans and are dependent on them for subsistence are nothing but the descendants of the beautiful twins condemned by God to remain invisible.

Witchcraft, experienced and expressed in various forms, is also thought to be a major cause of pain, illness, and misfortune. Mothers, for instance, cover their young children's bodies with amulets in the hope of warding off the nefarious influence of human agents as much as the destructive powers of spiritual forces.


Islam first came to Niger through traders involved in trans-Saharan commerce in the 9th century. For nearly 1,000 years, Islam was primarily a religion of the governing elite, traders, and the educated. Widespread conversation to Islam began in the 19th century. Today, 95% of the Nigerien population is said to be Muslim, though in many cases being a follower of the prophet Muhammad is not antithetical to the propitiation of spirits or the use of divination. Thus, anyone may enlist the help of the spirits to pass an exam, to ensure one's safe return from a trip, or to protect oneself from jealous kin. Wherever it has taken roots in Niger, Islam has been influenced by local beliefs and practices. Today, children are given Muslim names, while most men (especially in the rural areas) wear Muslim flowing gowns and pray conspicuously five times a day.

Of late, reformist religious groups such as Izala, an anti-Sufimovement, have made numerous converts among the youth by preaching against an Islam that they see as tainted by local traditions. Izala members advocate frugality and Islamic education for all, challenge the authority of elders, and condemn the use of amulets.

During the colonial period, Christian missions were established throughout Niger. Today, they are still active but Catholics and Protestants make up less than 5% of Niger's population.


In Niger, a variety of Christian, Muslim and national holidays are celebrated. Legal holidays include January 1 (New Year's Day), April 24 (Concord Day, commemorating the coup that ousted Hamani Diori in 1974), May 1 (Labor Day), August 3 (Independence Day), December 18 (Republic Day), and December 25 (Christmas Day). Most Nigeriens celebrate also celebrate Muslim holidays, which fall on a different day each year because they are determined by the lunar calendar. Muslim holidays include Tabaski (a feast commemorating the sacrifices of Abraham), Mouloud (the prophet Muhammad 's birthday), and Eid al-Fitr (a feast marking the end of Ramadan, a holy month of fasting). Nigeriens celebrate the Tabaski by slaughtering a ram, which they cook on an open fire and eat with friends and family. During Eid al-Fitr and Mouloud, people wear new clothes, enjoy feasts of meat, rice, and fruit, and men go to the mosque to pray.


When a Nigerien woman delivers her first child, she becomes an adult by virtue of having demonstrated that she is capable of giving life. Among the Tuareg, the new mother's coming of age is celebrated by a blessing of the mother's tent and a lively display of wrestling by the wealthiest and most prestigious women. On the sixth day after her baby's birth, female relatives perform the kishakish ritual, during which the newborn is brought out of the tent for the first time and later given a name. The Tuareg naming ceremony bears similarities to rituals performed among the Hausa and other populations of Niger. A ram is usually killed and the baby's head is shaved to signify the change of status.

Membership into the spirit possession troupe usually requires the holding of an initiation ritual, during which the medium's new status is officially recognized.

Marriage, especially to a first spouse, involves an important change of status for both men and women (in Hausa, for instance, there is no word for a woman who had reached adulthood but has never been married). But “tying the knot” involves more than anything the union between two lineages, and this is why it is so important to know the background of the person one marries.

Death, since the advent of Islam, no longer involves specific rituals intended to separate, once and for all, the dead from the living. Burial is a simple affair. The deceased is buried immediately after death. Kin, friends, and neighbors come to offer their condolences to the grieving family, but in most cases tears should not be part of the picture. Restraint and dignity are expected of everyone; women who visit a grieving mother, for example, should chat as if nothing special was going on so as to distract the mourner from her pain.


Nigeriens are warm and friendly, but, because of the influence of Islam on local life, there exists a strong segregation between the sexes. Muslim women are, by and large, constrained by their domestic duties, while men have access to more public spaces such as the market or the court. What goes on between men and women in public or in private varies, of course, with education, social status, and ethnic identity. Younger women are more daring, and they usually have a say in the choice of a husband. They must remain modest, and once married, it is improper for a Muslim wife to look at her husband directly in the eye or to confront him.

Proper behavior is characterized by restraint and modesty to such an extent that it is considered inappropriate, for instance, to complain about pain or to advertise one's hunger. Greetings, in Hausa for instance, involve asking about one's health, the health of one's children, and whether one has had a good night, morning, etc. 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.

Nigeriens are highly hospitable people who always have food available for guests and visitors. Generosity is valued regardless of one's degree of wealth. Among the Hausa, it is, in fact, primarily by redistributing one's wealth that one achieves prestige, visibility, and respectability.


Niger remains a very impoverished country struggling to become, with the aid of international partners, a stronger and more self-sufficient nation. Most rural communities have no electricity, and in many villages women still draw water daily from the communal well. With the spread of conservative Islam, an increasing number of wives are living in seclusion, which means that their mobility during the day is severely curtailed. Men who seclude their wives usually pay another woman to bring water to the household, while they themselves purchase the necessary ingredients for the family meals.

While free healthcare is available in towns and cities, most people in rural areas do not have access to a hospital or dispensary. Malnutrition among young children is prevalent, which explains the high rate of child mortality. In Niger, one third of children born do not reach the age of five.

Nigeriens travel a great deal to visit relatives or to search for seasonal work. While they may walk or ride a horse to visit a nearby village, they often use bush-taxis to cover large distances.


The concept of family among sedentary populations usually includes a host of extended kin who may or may not live in the same household. This has long meant that members of extended families pooled their resources together under the authority of the head of the household. Under the post-colonial pressures of increasingly individualist modes of farming, the extended family has splintered. Young men have become largely responsible for raising the money for bride-price and for paying taxes—expenses that had traditionally been the responsibility of the household head.

Women spend most of the day taking care of the children and preparing meals. According to Islam, men can marry up to four wives at a time; there is no limit to how many 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' homes until they remarry. Tension and competition between co-wives is not infrequent, but husbands are encouraged by Islam to minimize jealousy by not privileging one wife at the expense of another.

Among the Hausa, relations of avoidance prevent a woman from publicly showing her affection for the first two or three children she gives birth to. She cannot utter their names, nor can she call her husband by his name, tease him, or contradict him. A good wife should be humble and obedient. Grandparents, on the other hand, enjoy a joking relationship with their grandchildren, which means that they can be affectionate towards them, tease them, or be teased by them.


Through the style, lavishness, and color of their clothes, Nigeriens communicate a great deal about their ethnicity, religious identity, and educational and social status. While most Zarma, Songhay, and Hausa women wear gay, cotton, custom-made blouses with flounces, pleats, elaborate collars, and short-sleeves together with wrappers of the same fabric, women among the Tuareg or Fulani wear dark indigo-dyed clothes. In urban areas, professional women may wear Western clothes, but many are pressured by reformist Muslims to give up their revealing garments in favor of the more modest local attire that often includes a type of head-covering. While many women wear a small scarf or even a large veil that shrouds their shoulders, female Izala members are covered from head to ankle by a voluminous tent-like veil, the hijabi, whose bright color matches the rest of their outfit.

For many Nigerien men, the flowing, sleeveless gown of heavy brocade that is worn over a matching shirt and draw-string pants has become the garment of choice. Despite its cumbersomeness, it gives respectability to its wearer by advertising his or her Islamic status. When they do not wear a turban, men often sport an embroidered rimless hat. Among the Tuareg, it is not the women but the men who cover their faces with a veil. Among Bororo Fulani, men make up their faces and compete in beauty pageants, during which women designate the most handsome participants. Educated civil servants characteristically wear tight-fitting European pants and tailored shirts in dull colors and go hatless.


In Niger, where drought is a constant threat to human survival, the staple food is millet. Millet is the main ingredient in the traditional midday meal of fura, a porridge of water, spices, sometimes milk or sugar, and cooked flour. Pastoral Tuareg, who rely heavily on the consumption of dates, add crushed dates to their fura. Millet can be consumed during the evening meal as a thick paste having the consistency of polenta, onto which is spooned a spicy sauce that may contain tomato paste, onion, okra, sorel, squash, pumpkin, eggplant, or meat. Along the Niger River, the Songhay prepare a thick paste of corn with a sauce made of baobab leaves, to which is added meat or smoked fish. When they do not eat millet or sorghum, Nigeriens enjoy beans or rice. For breakfast, they usually eat the leftovers of the previous meal, though in town, coffee and bread are becoming increasingly appreciated by those who can afford the expense. All enjoy snacks made of skewered meat, grilled tripe, fried bean meal beignets, or ground peanut cakes. The mango season brings ample supplies of these sweet delicacies to rural communities that have otherwise little opportunity to sample fruits. During the cricket season, women fry the insects for snacks.

Observant Muslims do not eat pork or consume alcohol; they eat only meat that has been slaughtered by a Muslim man in the proper Muslim fashion.


In Niger, where schooling is free but compulsory between the ages of 7 and 15, students can attend a Western-style school where all instruction is in French, or they can acquire an Islamic education in Arabic. Only a small minority of Nigeriens are literate and can read either in French or Arabic. Even fewer finish secondary school to later pursue a higher education. An increasing number of children are attending Quranic schools thanks to the renewed Islamic fervor the country has been experiencing. There, they first learn by rote the entire Quran before moving on to the second stage of learning, which consists of understanding and interpreting each of the verses they have memorized.

In French private or public schools, the curriculum as established by the Ministry of National Education is designed to impart strictly secular knowledge. Local languages such as Hausa or Zarma are banished from the curriculum, and all instruction is in French. Children learn French grammar, math, science, civics, history, geography, drawing, music, and physical education.

Many parents believe that government schools are dangerous places because their children will forget their traditions and will be lost to their parents. Pious Muslims may send their sons, but keep their daughters home for fear of sexual promiscuity.


The history and tradition of Nigerien people is often evoked at social gatherings and celebrations by the griots, bards (most often male) who are simultaneously praise-singers, messengers, and historians. Men sing in Tuareg society, while in Hausa society women often use the medium of song to express themselves, whether they sing lullabies to their babies, work songs, or verses mocking their husbands.

Nigeriens are very fond of listening to and reciting tales that explore traditional themes and values of the local culture and history, such as marital relations, virtue, generosity, or religious piety. Storytelling, like the recitation of song poems, praise-singing, or theater plays, is an important form of entertainment among children and adults alike. Today, the stories are often told by women, while men concentrate more on Islamic narratives and poems.

The Nigerien theater, in its present form, was introduced by French colonial administrators through schools and cultural associations. Nearly all comic, the plays, which reflect and promote popular concerns and aspirations, are improvised from a scenic outline arranged from a chosen theme. Performed in schools, village cultural centers, and on national radio and television, plays enjoy a wide popularity and are often performed in Hausa (the most widely understood language in Niger).

Nigerien writers and poets are not well-known outside of Niger, except perhaps for Boubou Hama, the former president of the National Assembly, whose wonderfully rich autobiography, Kotia Nima, received the main literary prize of Sub-Saharan Africa in 1970.


A majority of Nigeriens remain farmers. They grow millet, sorghum, and beans as primary crops, but almost all of them are involved in secondary occupations such as petty trade, smithing, dyeing, tailoring, etc. Land is unfortunately becoming an increasingly scarce resource as parcels divided up between male children keep getting smaller. One-sixth of the work force is engaged in livestock production. Tuareg and Fulani, who were traditionally pastoralists, are progressively abandoning a precarious existence to settle in urban or semi-urban areas. Employed civil servants who are fortunate enough to receive a monthly salary are often faced with the predicament of having to support more relatives than their meager resources can bear.


Traditional wrestling has been promoted by the government as an activity that is distinctly part of the cultural heritage of Nigeriens. Wrestling tournaments draw large crowds. Each city now has a wrestling arena where people can come to follow the careers of their champions. Soccer is a popular source of entertainment for young boys and men. Given the fondness of Hausa and other Nigeriens for horses, horse races are also events that attract numerous onlookers.

Among pastoral Fulani, young men regularly engage in soro, a competitive game in which a man violently hits his partner with a large stick on the chest. The receiver pretends not to be hurt and simply smiles at the audience to demonstrate his control over pain.


Spirit possession ceremonies are public performances that can draw large crowds of onlookers in search of entertainment. Despite the Muslim prohibition on dancing and mixed-sex gatherings, many men and women enjoy stomping their feet to the sounds of the drums (calabashes) and the one-stringed violin during these events. The birth of a child is an occasion to rejoice and eat food. Wedding celebrations in urban areas also involve an evening of dancing to the sound of African pop music.

Though it remains a luxury that only salaried workers or wealthy traders can afford, television is becoming increasingly popular among Nigeriens. Parents and children enjoy American televisions series when they are not watching a Nigerian or Indian video at the house of a neighbor who is charging entrance fees to increase his earnings. In some rural communities, villagers can watch television even though they have no electricity. Thanks to solar-powered batteries, some neighborhoods share a television that is turned on every night after the evening meal.

Hausa and Hindu melodramas or karate films are popular among the younger generation who, in urban areas, can watch their idols on the big screen in open air cinemas. In the rural areas, market days are occasions to meet friends or relatives and catch up on the latest news. The market is often the place to hear gossip, to learn about new fashions, or to discuss marriage plans.


Nigeriens are skilled craftsmen. Zarma women, for instance, are deft potters, known for their large earthenware water jars decorated with white geometrical motifs. Songhay pottery is decorated with ochre, black, or white triangular motifs. Hausa earthenware jars have a characteristically large opening.

Tuareg and Hausa craftsmen are famous for their elaborate leather work—beautiful boots, colorful sandals, and multi-pocketed bags in goatskin. Tuareg men manufacture leather boxes with intricate geometrical designs, as well as horse and camel saddles, sword sheaths, and multi-colored, fringed cushions and pouches.

Hand-woven, multi-colored cotton blankets made of thin bands that are sown together are part of women's most treasured possessions. Hausa women, for instance, keep their blankets in trunks and only display them on the day that their newborn child is given a name. The embroidery that enlivens the collars of the large Islamic robes worn by so many Nigerien men is also a local craft.

Smithing is a traditional activity among the Tuareg, who manufacture a wide range of jewelry: Agadez or Iférouane silver crosses, rings, wrist and ankle bracelets made of braided silver or copper strands, necklaces made of beads or agate set in silver, amulets, and locks worn around the neck. Fulani women wear numerous large silver earrings and heavy brass anklets.

The people of Niger enjoy music, whether they listen to Islamic chanting on the radio or attend a formal musical event honoring local authorities. They listen with great pleasure to the griots, the professional bards whose praise-singing is accompanied by drumming from a whole series of instruments, including the ganga, a medium size drum, and the kalangu, an hourglass drum held under the armpit. On formal occasions, one may hear the sound of the algaïta, a reed instrument that requires of its player an elaborate breathing technique. Among the Tuareg, three women are needed to play the tinde, a type of drum that is often accompanied by a flute (tassinsack). Tuareg men enjoy singing about their exploits as warriors or lovers while women perform instrumental music.


When Niger gained its independence in 1960, only 5% of the population lived in cities. Since the 1984–85 drought that displaced so many pastoralists, Niamey, the capital, has expanded by over 10% every year. This dramatic urbanization has introduced a variety of social ills that the successive regimes have failed to address seriously. There has been, for instance, a significant increase in violent crime, juvenile delinquency, and alcoholism. Drug use among workers is reportedly on the increase. Growing numbers of partially educated youths who cannot find work in the public or industrial sector either remain unemployed or are absorbed by the informal sector in petty trade, hustling, and smuggling when they do not turn to crime. Another drought and locust infestation in 2005 led to food shortages for as many as 2.5 million Nigeriens.

Infanticide, rape of young girls, forced early marriage, and teenage prostitution are becoming increasingly common. Faced with Niamey's demographic explosion, the state has been unable to supply the most basic services. This is why postal service, sewage system, and water supply are nonexistent in many neighborhoods of the capital.


Because of the influence of Islam on local life, there exists a strong segregation between the sexes. Muslim women are, by and large, constrained by their domestic duties, while men have access to more public spaces such as the market or the court. What goes on between men and women in public or in private varies, of course, with education, social status, and ethnic identity. Younger women are more daring, and they usually have a say in the choice of a husband. They must nonetheless remain modest. Once married, it is improper for a Muslim wife to look at her husband directly in the eye or to confront him.

Gender strongly affects access to education in Niger. While 43% of men are literate, only 15% of women can read and write. Many women are unable to attend school because of responsibilities within the home and early marriage (often between the ages of 14 and 20). The average Nigerien woman will have between seven and eight children in her lifetime, one of the highest fertility rates in the world.


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Charlick, Robert B. Niger: Personal Rule and Survival in the Sahel. San Francisco: Westview Press, 1991.

Coles, Catherine, and Beverly Mack, ed. Hausa Women in the Twentieth Century. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Cooper, Barbara M. Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2006

Masquelier, Adeline. “Identity, Alterity and Ambiguity in a Nigerien Community: Competing Definitions of ‘True' Islam.” In Postcolonial Identities in Africa. Ed. Richard Werbner. London: Zed Books, 1996.

“Mediating Threads: Clothing and the Texture of Spirit/Medium Relations in Bori.” In Clothing and Difference: Embodied Identities in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa. Ed. Anne A. Hendrickson. Raleigh-Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

Miles, William. “Islam and Development in the Western Sahel: Engine or Break?” Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 7, no. 2 (1986): 439–463.

Stoller, Paul. Embodying Colonial Memories: Spirit Possession, Power, and the Hauka in West Africa. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Worley, Barbara. “Where All the Women are Strong.” Natural History 101, no. 11 (1992): 54–63.

—revised by C. Breedlove

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