The Republic of Niger, is a landlocked country in Western Africa, named after the Niger River.
It borders Nigeria and Benin to the south, Burkina Faso and Mali to the west, Algeria and Libya to the north and Chad to the east. Niger covers a land area of almost 1,270,000 km2, making it the largest nation in West Africa, with over 80 percent of its land area covered by the Sahara desert. The country’s predominantly Islamic population of just above 15,000,000 is mostly clustered in the far south and west of the nation. The capital city is Niamey, located in the far southwest corner of Niger.
A developing country, Niger consistently has one of the lowest ranks of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI), 186th of 187 countries in 2011. Much of the non-desert portions of the country are threatened by periodic drought and desertification.
Niger is also about 95% Muslim. The continent of Africa is home to a wide variety of Islam. The Islam in the northern countries is typically very strict and sometimes gives rise to extremists. The Islam along the western coast and into the central countries is typically more cultural and is often blended with traditional, animistic beliefs. Niger finds itself on the spectrum somewhere between these two extremes. To be Nigerien is to be Islamic, and to be Islamic is to be Nigerien. The people of Niger actively participate in most of the Islamic holidays and use these occassions as a communal experience to rekindle old relationships and build new friendships. Most Muslims in Niger pray at least once each day with a certain percentage performing the prescribed 5 daily prayers facing Mecca.
In Niger, as with many countries in West Africa, the average annual income per person is very low. Wikipedia lists the annual purchasing power at about $750 per person. This number is, of course, very low. However, there is no real middle class in Niger. If the income of the wealthy 5% of the population is removed, the average income for the common person drops even lower. Thus, the average annual income for a common person in Niger is about $300. However, due to the primitive nature of village life, many people have never actually used tangible money before. This extreme poverty also provides furtile soil for greed. When an individual attains a small amount of money, he wishes for more. This escalation can lead to discontent, corrupt politics, and dishonesty. Men are expected to seek out possibilities of new revenue in an effort to help the family or tribe. If the attainment of additional wealth is possible, few means to this end are considered immoral.
Individuals look to the extended family unit as a source for food and shelter. Money or goods earned by individuals are pooled collectively, and usually the oldest matriarch prepares meals for the family unit. Women typically procure food and water and often labor extensively for the good of the family. Nevertheless, women are generally held to be subservient to men. It is not uncommon for men to labor and hold jobs, though the traditional role of the man also requires him to keep tabs on the social and religious atmosphere of the community. A family group can include anyone who is related by blood or marriage or even close friendship, and these family groups compose tribes. The size of family units often depends upon available funds and physical space in the compound. A family compound consists of huts located around a central area. Life for the vast majority of people in Niger has changed very little over the past several hundred years. Village life in West Africa provides an incredible microcosm of the way humanity existed a millennium ago.
The grand majority of people in Niger survive by subsistance agriculture which is dependant each year on whether or not the rains come. Niger’s location near the Sahara Desert ensures that drought strikes some part of the country every year. The main crop is millet, a small grain that grows on the end of a woody, open stalk. The rainy season usually only lasts about 2 to 3 months. Therefore, life itself depends upon rainfall that is accumulated over one quarter of the year. The country sits on the edge of the Sahara, and droughts are common. City life is slightly more modern though the only semi-modern city is Niamey, and circumstances there vary little from those in the village. Access to electricity and water are found in the larger towns but these services can be irratic.
In Niger, freedom of religion is fully guaranteed by law. However, compliance to the tenets of the family is expected from every member, and leaving Islam is a very serious decision. The person who contradicts Islam, contradicts and dishonors the family. The individual is rarely killed for leaving Islam, though I have heard of fathers beating their sons as a rite of exit from the family. If one is not a member of the family, one does not eat with the family. Islam and its traditions are deeply ingrained in the culture of Niger. The comparison is not perfect, but consider what would happen in a conservative American family if one of its members decided to become a Muslim. Perhaps the reaction would not be as violent, but the reaction would certainly be severe in its own way.
Drought and harsh living conditions have conferred upon the Nigerien people a sort of defeated, passive demeanor. They have become very familiar with death, and calmly accept it as simply the end result of all things. However, this mindset also leads to a general sense of patience and kindness. “The sun is hot, food is scarce, but we are all in this together.” I was living in Niger when a military junta attacked certain capitol buildings and kidnapped the president. Tanks were used, shots were fired, and a few men lost their lives, but the president was not killed and open war was never a possibility. In fact, affairs returned to normal in about 3 days. The overarching mood among the people was one of disconnected concern.
Marriage and child-rearing occurr in the context of the larger family unit, and most decisions of this nature are communal. Men usually marry a younger women. Arranged marriages are common though the individual does have considerable say in the matter. The individual and the family as a whole come to an agreement on who the individual should marry. Children, especially sons, are seen as a blessing and often allowed to freely roam. All members of the family are expected to guide the children and administer discipline.
Niger is a country that is vastly different from Western cultures. Camels, cattle, and various other livestock take free range of roads and open pastures. It is very bad to kill a cow or goat as this destroys a valuable source of food. If you are driving and a bull wanders into the road, the animal has the right-of-way. As a friend once said, “Cows were on earth before cars.” Though the differences are vast, one common need remains. The people of Niger need to be told that God loves them.