Customs and Cuisine of Niger
By Vinola V. Munyon
For Niger, the name has ties to a famous river (The Niger River), a history of colonial influences, and frequently a case of mistaken identity, wherein Niger gets confused for her neighbor, Nigeria. Located in West Africa, straddling the Sahara and Sahel climate zones, The Republic of Niger is the largest country in West Africa with a multiethnic population that has one of the fastest population growth rates in the world. If you read Niger as “NYE-jur”, you’d be among the majority. Unfortunately, the majority pronounces it in the Anglicized style. Among the locals, Niger is actually pronounced “knee-SZEHR” with emphasis on the second syllable (watch and listen). This harkens back to its colonial past, a past that is fairly recent. Until 1960, Niger was a French colony and the official language, even post-independence, remains French. The pronunciation, therefore, is the French pronunciation. While French is used in official communications for daily social interactions, the local languages are preferred. Among her nicknames are “Frying pan of the World,” a reference to how hot the weather in Niger can get.
The Nigeriens (knee-ZHER-yens) are made up of several ethnic groups. Chief among them are the Hausa, the Djerma-Songhai (also known as Zarma-Songhai), Kanuri and the Tuareg. The way of life among these ethnic groups reflects the story of human settlements the world over, pre-industrialization. Some are nomads (wanderer-gatherers) and some are agriculturists (sedentary, “rooted” to the land), two ways of life that are completely opposed to each other. It also tells the story of how natural resources, their availability and access, dictate what life is like for those who inhabit these regions. Niger is landlocked and less than 20 percent of the land is arable, limiting what kind and quantity of agricultural crops can be grown. Climate change is expected to reduce that even further. Almost 80 percent of settlements in Niger are rural. The vast majority of Nigeriens are of the Islamic faith (80 – 99 percent, depending on overlap between faiths). Christianity, Bahá’í Faith and Animism or traditional indigenous religious beliefs are other religions practiced in Niger.
The Family Unit
A large family size is not just the norm but the desired ideal in Niger. Consequently, Niger has the world’s highest birthrate (7.24 births per woman, 2016). Girls get married young, on reaching puberty, and start having children soon after. The role of women in society is viewed primarily as wives and mothers. Marriage and motherhood confer safety and status on the female. For these reasons, child marriage is not unusual. The population is skewed toward the young, 70 percent of the population is under 20 years of age. Polygamy is legal and practiced. The literacy rate is among the lowest in the world at 19.1 percent (estimated, 2015). While there are some variations within the major ethnic groups, extended families typically live together in compounds. Among the Hausa, for instance, the compound is organized around a married father, his sons and their wives.
Food Insecurity and Poverty in Niger
“Water is life,” say the Nigeriens, and it is no more evident than in how water dictates the variety and accessibility (or lack thereof) in their daily cuisine; the “hungry season” being the season before the rains where there is fewer variety and “the season of surplus” being post the rainy season. Over 20 percent of the population cannot meet their daily food needs, a figure that is put into perspective when one considers that 20 percent equals 5.4 million Nigeriens. When the rains fail, the percentage of those who are food insecure increases to 30 percent. A confluence of factors, including the lack of cultivable land, the location (land-locked), dependence on seasonal rainfall for irrigation, climate change and decrease in rainfall, low agricultural yield, rapid increase in population and conflicts, all act together to create food insecurity in Niger. Consequently, malnutrition rates are high, affecting about 40 percent of the children. While the 2017 harvest was relatively good, Niger’s status as one of the poorest nations in the world and as a region in the midst of a conflict make it vulnerable to continuing food insecurity and increasing poverty. In 2018, Niger ranked 189 out of 189 nations on the United Nations Human Development Index with 73.9 percent being classified as the working poor (proportion of people living on less than $3.10 a day, adjusted for purchasing power parity). These facts provide a glimpse into the challenges facing the people of Niger.
The Food of Niger
Millet remains the staple grain, followed by sorghum. They account for the main source of calories in the Nigerien diet. Maize, beans, cowpeas, cassava, and yam are part of the general diet. Rice, being water-intensive, is cultivated near the Niger River and is somewhat of a “status” grain, to be consumed at special occasions. Animal-based proteins (goat meat is the most common) are usually seasoned with spices and grilled. Fish from the River Niger such as carp, catfish, and Nile perch are other sources of protein and frequently prepared as stews with a starch as a side. Tropical fruits are available year around.
A typical meal consists of pounded millet (Tuwo) served with vegetable stew made of okra, baobab leaves, peanuts, and tomatoes. In certain regions, the millet is prepared as porridge with goats’ milk.
Egusi, the protein and fat-rich seeds from gourds, are used to prepare a stew, Egusi soup, that contain ground up egusi seeds, leafy vegetables, and occasionally meat. Lyan and Egusi refers to an Egusi and pounded yam dish. Peanuts feature prominently in the cuisine, while palm oil is the cooking medium of choice.
Common street foods are fried dough, grilled meat on skewers/kebabs (brochette), spiced beef jerky (kilshi), fermented milk with hot pepper (hura), and sandwiches served wrapped in newspaper.
Tea is consumed widely. On special occasions, a special beverage called eghajira or eghale made with millet paste, dates, and goat cheese blended with water is prepared among the Tuareg.
The prevailing religious faith in the country informs some of the taboos associated with food. Drinking alcohol and eating pork is generally eschewed.
The Nigerien Way of Life
A mix of formality and friendliness, a nod to hierarchy, and positive small talk form the basis of Nigerien social interactions. Greeting someone is mandatory and typically includes an inquiry after their health, the family, work etc. while paying heed to time of day and season. In Hausa, for instance, “Ina kwana?” (“How did you sleep?”) would be an appropriate greeting in the morning, whilst in the afternoon the inquiry would be “Ina wuni?” (“How did you pass the day?”). Responses are to always start in the positive before any bad news is to be shared. In this instance the common response to either question would be “Lahiya lau” (“In health”).
The younger member is expected to take the lead in extending greetings to the elder. In a group, the order of greetings would proceed from youngest toward the eldest. Bluntness or forthrightness in forms of address are frowned upon, as are outright refusals or contradictions. The guiding rule is to make all manner of discussions amicable. To this end, voices are not raised in conversation, and when greeting and starting a conversation, Nigeriens stand close to each other to be able to talk softly. It isn’t uncommon for Nigerians to take hold of each other’s hand to signal friendliness when the conversation starts. Once greetings are established, they might step back a little and continue the conversation and shake hands again before taking their leave.
As a sign of respect, one touches the right hand to the chest and then extends the hand for a handshake.
Among the Kanuri, a closed fist is shaken at head level while exclaiming “Wooshay, Wooshay” (“Hello! Hello!”).
Men of the Muslim faith do not shake hands of women.
Formal invitations to visit are rarely extended as the cultural norm is to just “drop in.” Guests are treated like royalty, assigned the best seat in the house, and served refreshments. When tea is served to visitors, it is customary to have three rounds of progressively weaker and progressively sweeter tea with more mint and sugar being added to each round. Brewed in small blue pots over coal and served in little cups, Nigeriens refer to the three rounds of tea as being “strong like life, subtle like friendship, and sweet like love.” Visiting and having tea is a traditional ritual and it is the polite thing to stay and partake in all three rounds.
Footwear is not worn indoors.
At ceremonial occasions or religious holidays, neighboring extended families dine together on meat slaughtered by a male head of household or an Islamic elder. Men, women and children typically dine apart.
Meals are served in a communal bowl and eaten using the hand (only the right hand) or occasionally, spoons.
Children in Nigerien families are cherished, to be seen and heard and very much a part of the community. Breastfeeding, baby-wearing (mothers carry them in a cloth sling or goat-hide sling), and co-sleeping are the norm. Cultural values that are emphasized are generosity, kindness, and respect to elders and authority figures. Some of the important rites of passage are “name days” (referred to by the French term bapteme) observed a week after a birth when a Koranic name is given to the child. The child’s head is tonsured to mark the severing of ties with the spirit world. Male circumcision is practiced in the rural areas when the child is between 3 – 7 years old.
Despite the many challenges that the people of this region face, Nigeriens are warm, effusive people who believe in sharing what little one owns and being respectful and kind to each other.
Photo Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Niger_in_the_world_(W3).svg
CIA World Factbook: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ng.html
World Food Programme, Niger.
United Nations Human Development Reports, 2018.
View Recipes from Niger