Niger is a landlocked country in West Africa. It covers a land area of over 1,270,000 sq km, making it around the same size as France, or twice the size of Texas. However, over 80% of this area is part of the Sahara desert.
Niger’s population of around 16 million people mostly live in the non-desert areas along the southern borders. Though more fertile than the desert region, these areas still suffer regular drought. Although the climate is very hot and dry, the majority of people are subsistence farmers – families that try to work to produce enough to support themselves. However, food shortages have been consistently regular in recent years, and the state of the annual harvest is of national importance.
Niger gained independence from France in 1960. Like many countries in the region, French remains the official language, and other remnants of the colonial regime can be seen in the legal and educational institutions.
Niger is made up of up to thirty different tribal groups, each with its own distinctive cultural hallmarks. Unlike some other parts of Africa, these different groups share a largely peaceful existence, mingling well alongside each other.
Belief in Niger
At least 4,000 years ago, Niger was home to a highly developed civilization. Islam took root among the country’s leaders a thousand years ago but became the religion of the rural people only in the 19th century.
Although Niger is predominantly Muslim, there is a surprising openness—albeit general unresponsiveness—to the Christian message. Many Muslims are willing to listen. Radio Station ELWA and the new Radio Espoir in Niger’s capital, Niamey, have helped prepare the hearts of many nomadic Tamajaq and Fulani. Some Fulani, feeling the effects of famine, are opening up to the message of Jesus due to the response of Christians who brought relief to them. Encouraging progress is also being made among the Tamajaq.
Christianity first touched Niger in the seventh century when Berber Christians migrated south after being driven from North Africa by emerging Islam. Isolated from other Christians, the faith gradually weakened and Christianity disappeared from Niger until the twentieth century.
Protestant missionaries were the first to arrive in Niger. In 1924, SIM began work at Zinder and now serves in 15 locations. Out of this work emerged L’Eglise Evangélique de la République du Niger (EERN).
In 1929 African Christian Missions, Inc. (which became Evangelical Baptist Mission) opened work, until 2011 when its mission in Niger was taken over by Faith Baptist Mission (FBM). The Union des Eglises Evangéliques Baptists (UEEB), started by this mission, today comprises four churches, a missionary branch supporting three missionaries, and approximately 700 members.
Roman Catholicism spread from Benin to Niger in 1931. The Roman Catholic Church currently has over 15,000 affiliates, although approximately 95% of these are expatriates.
In the past decades, other Protestant missions have arrived. These include Baptist International Mission, Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist, Fellowship of Independent Missions (now called Fellowship International Mission), YWAM (now called JEMED – Jeunesse en Mission et Dévéloppement), Horizons (includes Frontiers), Calvary Ministries, Portes Ouvertes, Sahara Desert Mission and SIL.
The church in Niger is small and faces tremendous pressure from Islam. Nevertheless, national believers have a growing vision for church planting and evangelism. Challenges include a shortage of pastors, educated Christian women, and mature, well-trained leadership.
There are perhaps thirty different people groups in Niger, each with their own unique culture and heritage. SIM Niger is privileged to have worked amongst many of them. Below are brief profiles of the major cultures we currently engage with.
The Hausa speaking people are a group of tribes from south-central Niger and northern Niger, and are the largest people group in Niger. They are extremely community-driven, and day-to-day life is usually concerned with caring for the family. Hausa people are also well known from their wide ranging trade. Their society is very hierarchal.
When SIM’s founders came to Nigeria in 1893, it was with the expressed goal of bring the gospel to Hausa people. Since the first mission amongst Hausa speakers was established at Kano in 1933, the Hausa church has grown and grown.
The Fulani people can be found in several areas across Africa, from Senegal to Ethiopia. (Fulani is from Hausa; they themselves use the word Fulbe.) Traditionally, Fulani people are nomadic shepherds or cattle herders, but increasingly many have settled down, harkening back to an age when the Fulani people had large kingdoms across West Africa.
It was Fulani rulers who brought Islam to much of West Africa. In recent times, SIM are finding this traditionally resistant group are increasingly open to the gospel.
Over-population, lack of grazing lands, drought, livestock disease, encroaching farm lands and government restrictions on nomadic movement are all putting pressure on the traditional ways of life. Nevertheless, this dignified people group take pride in their distinctive culture.
The Manga people are a subgroup of the Kanuri. The are often distinctively tall, and are known for their hospitality and openness, particularly to those who show respect for their language. They are proud of their history as rulers of an Empire, and can be found across the Sahel desert region of Niger and Nigeria where they are dominant.
Today, they exist largely as subsistence farmers but many also raise livestock. Horses are seen as a symbol of prestige. Those who work in cities in politics are religion are seen as having very high social status; the majority, however, are farmers, craftsmen and merchants. The household is the cornerstone of society.
SIM currently work amongst the Manga in Bible translation, and there is a great desire for more missionaries to join in bringing the gospel to this people group. Christian workers have found that, contrary to outside reports, Manga people are open to the gospel.
Songhai is a general term for West African people groups descended from the great Songhai Empire, which existed from the 13th to the 17th century. Several of these groups now live in Niger.
Many Songhai people live in and around Niamey and other towns in the west. They will usually be seen wearing styles of dress more familiar to Westerners, including shirts and trousers.
SIM’s involvement includes translation and church planting. Songhai society is traditionally very close-knit, and so there is a certain degree of pressure to conform. However, SIM have worked specifically amongst the Songhai of Niger since 1989, and much encouraging progress has been made along the way.
The Tamajaq are a nomadic people who historically migrated from northern Africa into the Sahel regions. Tall and regal, they vary from dark to very light-skinned, and are distinguished in dress by their veils, as well as their tradition for finely crafted jewellery.
Tamajaq society is matrilineal, meaning that the family of the wife is important. Women traditionally enjoy more social freedom than in neighbouring societies. There is also a strong class structure, and separation by clans.
SIM have worked amongst Tamajaq people since coming to Niger in 1924. The mission is involved in evangelism, discipling and translation work. Many Tamajaq are willing to discuss issues relating to Jesus. However, due to the sheer size and breadth of the area Tamajaq people live across, there are many regions and dialects remaining where no significant gospel witness has been made.
With thanks to SIM UK for supplementary information and image editing.
One of the most important facets of mission life in Niger is that of language learning. If you decide to join the mission field, whether short or long term, learning one or more new languages may prove essential to the success of your ministry.
For long-termers (i.e. all missionaries except Associates) SIM Niger strongly recommends a level of competency in French, as it is the national language, and generally spoken in the capital Niamey. Therefore, all members are strongly encouraged to undertake a period of French study as they prepare to transfer to life in Niger.
Outside Niamey French is the language of education and business. This means that even in areas such as Galmi, where the Hausa language is dominant, French is crucial to permit the missionary to communicate with governmental people and those outside the primary ethnic group.
Nigerien Languages and Language Learning
For those outside Niamey, either Hausa (east) or Zarma/Djerma (west) are widely spoken, both by the people groups of the same name, and as a trade language amongst other people groups. However, many projects and missionaries also work amongst smaller language groups such as Fulfude and Tamajaq. Each of these languages can be studied in-field by a combination of methods, and typically all mission staff will engage in some form of language study (often with an agreed block of time set aside for study, to help development.)
Learning techniques include group study, tutoring by another missionary or local teacher, working with a language helper, and immersion. There are several books and courses on language study which are also frequently used and recommended for personal and/or formal study.
You can find out more about language learning by contacting your nearest SIM sending office, or visiting our ‘Contact Us’ page above to enquire directly.