Niamey – What Is Its Context for Christian Service? Part Two

 The purpose of this two-part article is to study the various elements that influenced the context for Christian service in Niger and more specifically in Niamey, its capital city. In part one, we looked at the historical context—namely, the origin of the dichotomy of the presence of Muslims and Christians in this part of West Africa. Here, we discover some of the characteristics specific to the worldviews prevalent in Niger, and more specifically, in Niamey. We also examine the different elements that can affect Christian service in Niamey.

A superimposition of various worldviews is prevalent in Niger, due to both past and present influences. These worldviews greatly affect the context in which church leaders operate. In order to better understand these worldviews, we will look at their characteristic stories, at their fundamental symbols, at their associated habitual behaviors, and at how they answer the deepest questions of life.

The Traditional African Context
Historically, African people and tribes were fairly self-sufficient and lived in isolation from each other. Each people group’s history and values were passed from one generation to the next through the stories of their elders. The village played, and continues to play, a role similar to that of the family unit in the Western world. Extended family members and the village community are strongly bound to each other and will generally support each other in times of need. Finally, African villages are marked by extraordinary hospitality, regardless of their visitors’ home countries or regions.

The two largest people groups in Niamey, the Yoruba and the Zarma, each have their traditional stories of a great ancient past, telling of battles between groups under control of the Malian empire. The cola nut was their symbol of both commercial and covenantal transactions. The size of a man’s herd of cattle indicated his wealth. Time was non-essential. The position of the sun or the length of a shadow told the time of day. People observed nature very closely and could thus tell when it was time to take the cattle for a month or more to find water and grazing land.

Social rituals varied from tribe to tribe, but some of their values remained constant, such as utmost respect for elders or a chief who may also be the spiritual leader of the community. People lived with the continual awareness of omnipresent spirits, with no dichotomy between the material and the spiritual worlds. The physical and spiritual aspects of their lives were completely integrated, and nature was a dynamic part of their spiritual world. Their lives were in the hands of their gods (i.e., the forces of nature that controlled their lives). Nowadays, this is still very much the case, especially in Nigérien villages, where spiritual life is inseparable from physical and emotional life.

Something else to note is that children are seen as one’s only security for the future. Therefore, families tend to have many children, which leads to other challenges when these families move to the city. The typical African framework of thought is geared toward the present, the challenge of daily survival, leaving little room for planning for the future.

The Islamic Context
Coming from the north of Africa in the eleventh century, first to the rich Sahelan traders, and later to the poorer sections of the population, Islam offers the security of a strong, tight community and a life governed by rituals. The main stories passed on from generation to generation are those of Mohamed’s life and struggles, and of some of the major prophets mentioned in the Qu’ran.

The prayer mat and the beads (collier) are symbols of Islamic faith, as is the minaret from which the prayer call cries forth five times daily. Modesty has led women to cover their bodies as much as possible, as well as to veil themselves, and in some reformed Islamic circles, even hide their faces. The level of modesty varies significantly around Niger and is generally more prevalent in the cities. In some rural areas more traditional clothes are worn, often leaving the breasts exposed. In contrast to this, strict Muslim women in the city of Abalak, for instance, wrap themselves in large plastic mats when they walk down the street to prevent men from seeing even the form of their bodies!

Life in Islamic communities is enhanced by shared acts of worship that set the pace of the day and draw together Muslims from various backgrounds. Young boys are trained in the Islamic faith in Qu’ranic schools where they, under the supervision of an imam, learn the basics of their faith and memorize large sections of the Qu’ran. Girls’ education in their faith is minimal, although some groups of women do study the Qu’ran.

In Muslim thinking, God is in control of everything and one can do very little to change his or her circumstances. “En sh’Allah” (“if it is God’s will) is a common phrase that can be heard throughout the day. Submission to God’s will, or that of supernatural forces, is therefore part of the typical Nigérien’s response to the major questions in life. Therefore, as David Shenk explains, “Islam is the faith for the oppressed, the people at the margins, in contrast to the Western Christian movement that has become the faith of the oppressors.”1

The Nigérien people have adopted somewhat of a superimposition of both their animistic and Islamic worldviews. On the outside, Nigérien life is dictated by calls to prayer and food-related rituals. Alongside these practices, the spiritual world is very much present to the Nigérien person who will be aware of both malevolent and positive spirits affecting his or her life through various events like sicknesses, unplanned blessings, and accidents. This has made the Nigérien people fairly subdued, submitted to the fate of the spirits and to the all-mighty power of God.

The Christian Context
Christianity and missions have influenced the lives and worldview of the Nigérien people in the past century as we have already seen in the historical section. Most of this influence can be noticed in cities where Christian missions have concentrated their efforts. The Christian Nigérien worldview has been heavily influenced by missionaries serving in Niger.

The Christian Nigérien worldview has been
heavily influenced by missionaries serving in Niger.

Christian missionaries have told the stories of Christ and salvation. In more recent years, there has been an emphasis on telling the Old Testament stories, which are not offensive to Muslims, as a means to first establish the need for salvation before presenting the Savior. In order to better “connect” with people’s lives, many missions have developed humanitarian projects, such as the construction of wells, medical facilities, and agricultural projects. Education has not always been at the top of their list of priorities. However, Catholic missions have developed a fairly extensive network of schools.

Missionaries have frequently imported a great deal of their Western lifestyle, which they have taught (either formally or informally) to Nigérien Christians. Having church buildings, singing Western hymns, and eating three meals a day at specific times, for instance, have become part of the habitual rituals of Nigérien Christians. Furthermore, missionaries made decisions on their own regarding their faith communities, without developing dialogue and partnerships with Nigérien believers. The missionaries were in charge.

Unfortunately, expatriate missionaries have generally not acknowledged the omnipresence of the spirit world in the traditional Nigérien worldview. Consequently, although Christianity has influenced people toward certain values like honesty and accountability, it has failed to integrate its spiritual worldview into a rational and reasonable interpretation of faith. This lack of a holistic approach to the Christian faith has engendered a superimposition of the Christian worldview over the traditional and/or Islamic one. Thus there is confusion and misunderstanding as to how a genuine commitment to Christ is to be integrated holistically in daily life. Christianity therefore has had little impact on the transformation of communities, except perhaps in small towns and cities where missionary influence is more evident (including a change to a more Western lifestyle, as Barbara Cooper2 has vividly pointed out in the introduction of her text).

The Colonial Context
Niger became a French colony in the early 1920s and was administered, along with Burkina Faso, through the French regional Governor in Dakar. Although World War II did not greatly affect Niger, the colonial era in general left its mark and influenced the way the country is administered. Stories of slave traders or of dictatorial local governors are still in the minds of many.

The colonial influence has been felt especially in cities which foreign governors organized according to Western models. Identification cards were introduced, as well as drivers and commercial licenses, and a fairly extensive educational system. In government offices, it is not unusual to hear the pounding of the old-fashioned typewriter, a symbol of the francophone bureaucracy that characterizes administrative relationships, in which governmental positions may often overlap with traditional leadership positions. Thus, for example, a local chief may also be the local administrator or governor who settles administrative issues.

The colonial worldview taught Nigérien people that they have very little value in themselves, are not capable of making wise decisions on their own, and are only valuable to be sold as slaves. It taught them that the white person has authority, power, intelligence, and resources. This has affected the way Nigérien people look at themselves. Their sense of self-worth is fairly low. Coupled with Islamic fatalism, people hold little hope for their future.

The French dichotomy between spiritual and physical life has influenced the relationship between the government and religious entities. Although the government wants its population to be educated, it has also been fairly reluctant to authorize missions, either Catholic or Protestant, to set up extensive educational institutions. But the lack of spiritual emphasis of the French colonial worldview has also enabled Niger to resist pressure to become an Islamic state.

The Urban Context
Niger is primarily a rural country, but substantial recent migrations to major cities have changed this demographic, especially in Niamey, the capital city. With its 863,000 inhabitants, Niamey is located on the banks of the wide Niger River. Filled with water during the rainy season, but running low much of the year, the river is Niamey’s primary water source. It is the raison d’être for the city, which was an important commercial center during the Songhai/Malian Empire of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Niger is primarily a rural country, but substantial
recent migrations to major cities have changed this
demographic, especially in Niamey, the capital city.

There are several stories about the origins of Niamey, two of which will be mentioned here. In one of them, a Maouri (one of the local tribes), new to the region, was authorized to build his hut at the place where his mother used to fetch water, i.e., at Nia (“mother”) (“access”). Others are convinced that the newcomer established his camp under a Nia (“tree”), close to the river. These linguistic terms have since evolved into the name Niamey. This story emphasizes how language was used to locate places and thus give deeper meaning to them. Obtaining water is perhaps the most important task for people in the Sahel.

Another story goes this way: A long time ago, Yédji Kouri of Sargan, accompanied by his seven slaves, came to settle his camp in the area of the present sous-préfecture. He was authorized by the inhabitants of Goudel (a nearby village) to cultivate the surrounding area. In directing his slaves to clear the fields, he said to them, “Oua niamma né, oua niamma né!” (“Go over here, go over there!”). According to tradition, the area was called “Niamma,” and then Niamey. This second story gives a glimpse into the role of slavery in the agricultural tradition in the area.

Under French domination, it wasn’t until 1926 that the village of Niamey became the capital of the Niger territory. In 1931, it had only 1,730 inhabitants, compared to 30,000 in 1959 before independence. Little by little the surrounding villages were incorporated into the city as its administrative role developed.

People of several different ethnic groups call Niamey home. The Hausa have traditionally been involved in commerce and trade as part of a larger ethnic tradition throughout West Africa. The Zarma came from the former Songhai/Malian Empire and have been living in the city for centuries. It is primarily Zarma who were trained by French colonists for governmental and bureaucratic positions. With the expansion of the Sahara Desert and subsequent diminishing of their herds, the traditionally nomadic Tuareg and Fulani peoples are moving to the city in search of subsistence. With the increase in urban migration, Niamey is presently welcoming more people than its infrastructures and economic structures can handle.

The only bridge crossing the Niger River and leading south and west to other West-African countries has become the symbol of the city’s connectivity with the wider West-African and more modern culture. The bridge is becoming more and more crowded as camels, donkeys, and cattle (as well as an increasing number of cars, trucks, and buses) move back and forth between the city center and neighborhoods to the south. Interactions with countries to the south (especially Benin and Togo) are on the increase, as are attempts to modernize life in the city.

Niamey boasts a great variety of mosques, ranging from small grass structures to the impressive Grand Mosque financed by the government of Libya. No community is without a mosque. These constant reminders of the omnipresence of Islam are reinforced by the prayer calls beginning before sunrise each morning, and ending around 8 p.m. Gathering mostly men, these prayers seem to dictate the pace of city life. Other symbolic reminders of Islam’s presence are the prayer beads that the men often carry with them as they go about their daily business or sit and drink Arab tea while swapping stories with their friends.

Tuareg men are easily recognized by their famous cotton turbans, a length of which can cover their faces as protection from the sun or biting, windswept sand. Most Nigérien women, whether Christian or Muslim, wear light, colorful veils. These, like the men’s turbans, were traditionally worn to block the sun and the sand. However, Muslims have adopted the veil, giving it additional meaning as a symbol of modesty. Reformist groups have traded the colorful veils for black ones, completely covering the head, leaving only an opening for the eyes.

The homes of wealthier people are alongside the river gardens, while poorer people generally live further away and need to cover some distance in order to reach local markets. Adobe mud houses, and clay or grass huts with thatched roofs, are frequently seen beside modern houses of brick and cement. The city’s poor struggle for survival, many by trying to set up micro-enterprises, but always hoping for a better job.

The streets are crowded with pedestrians, including itinerant businessmen carrying their wares on their heads. Women sit on small stools outside their houses, selling vegetables, grain, or other low-cost staples. Tin shacks are transformed into “shops” which house more extensive goods, ranging from plastic containers to various food items. More permanent small stores will offer electrical supplies or hairdressing services. Relationships are priority, and people stop and talk, paying little attention to motorbikes and cars buzzing past.

Younger children walk around, often without supervision, but seem to know where they are going. Cattle, goats, and sheep share the public space with people, cars, and trucks, giving the city a rural feel. Niamey’s pace is fairly slow compared to that of other African capitals. It completely shuts down for a siesta break between 12:30 and 4:00 p.m., due to the heat. It is somewhat peaceful and subdued atmosphere makes it an enjoyable place to live, when the electricity and water are not cut off!

When people move to the city, family communities loosen up, as do their traditions. Families are less tightly knit and people are more prone to taking on the Western habits they see around them. They are also influenced by television. Although most people do not own a television, those who do share them with the neighborhood. People spend their evenings outside, gathered around a community television with their neighbors. The traditional structures set up to deal with difficulties in the village are weakened by the modernizing influences of the city. However, city dwellers quickly develop their own networks, which include traditional spiritual leaders next to the Islamic ones.

The Islamic presence in Niamey formally gives the city its answer to life’s big questions: “Allah’s will” publicly accounts for everything that happens, whether positive or negative. But many city dwellers have not forgotten their animistic roots and often go in secret to visit the traditional fetishist, seeking quicker and more effective answers to their problems and questions. It is interesting to note that some of the Muslim leaders are also recognized to have spiritual powers through the use of fetishes, or special potions they prepare. Another example of this superimposition of the traditional and Muslim worldviews is the amulets frequently worn by Muslim babies, believed to protect them from harm.

Modernity has come into the city through foreign communities, both African and non-African. A handful of grocery stores run by the Lebanese community provide the city with Western-style food and goods imported from elsewhere in Africa, as well as the United Arab Emirates, and Europe. Many of the younger generation have adopted Western-style clothing and it is not unusual to see a teenage boy walking with his cap and Walkman. However, in times of trouble, young people will readily return to their traditional beliefs and resources.

As seen above, Christianity does not seem to have had a major impact on the city of Niamey. However, the number of churches in the city is growing, as is people’s exposure to Christianity. A major event that raised a lot of questions in people’s minds early in 2007 was a revival and healing campaign organized by the American evangelist Richard Roberts. The campaign was heavily promoted on local media and supported by some well-known government officials. The event shook both Muslim and Christian communities out of their lethargy and opened people’s eyes to other spiritual perspectives, giving churches opportunities for follow up and further dialog. Another outcome of the campaign is that of showing Niamey that the Christian faith is allowed to be practiced in this country. It is now seen by many as a viable option that answers the big questions about life and eternity.

The Worldviews I Have Attempted to Influence
The first set of worldviews and assumptions this study is attempting to correct is regarding the concept of leadership. According to traditional and colonial worldviews, for many Nigériens, being in a position of leadership means to be in power, to have undisputed authority over a certain group of people, and to be wealthy. A leader remains a leader for life and does not seem to be held accountable by anyone.

Therefore, a traditional leader always strives to guard his (because a leader is generally a male) area and territory of leadership and authority. His focus is mainly on himself and on his extended family, who usually benefit significantly from his leadership position and try to take advantage of it as much as possible. Therefore, I feel that it is of utmost importance that Christian leaders understand the biblical principles and values that sustain a leadership position. Christian leadership is not undertaken because of natural human values. Christian leadership is given by God, often recognized through the Christian community, to serve and transform communities, to seek to give instead of seeking to take, without favoring certain groups of people because of their family or ethnic affiliations. The focus of Christian leadership needs to shift from self to Christ.

Closely related to the previous statements is the observation that church leadership training is a matter that may be seen as important to missionary agencies, but not to national churches. This belief may result from the colonial mindset that the Nigérien people have observed and lived with for decades. They have seen the French government make decisions as to whom to send for further education and leadership training while providing for the needed funding and opportunities.

The Nigérien Church has transposed this worldview to their situation. Mission agencies have been identified with colonial powers. They are the decision makers and funding providers. If they want to train church leaders, they need to make those decisions and provide the means and the funding accordingly. This is well documented in Cooper’s text, in which she shows that church elders were chosen by missionaries unilaterally without seeking input from congregations or setting up a collaborative decision-making process regarding the choice of elders.

Two other aspects of current Nigérien worldviews also need to be addressed. Both are consequences of the prevalent traditional or Islamic worldviews, and both are related to powerlessness in leadership.

The first one assumes that being a Christian means being powerless. Somehow, because of the overwhelming influence of Islam, Christians feel outnumbered and therefore powerless. The fact that numbers are low means that power is negligible. However, this is not a biblical concept. Throughout scripture we see that God generally does not operate with big numbers. On the contrary, he tends to operate with small numbers in order for men and women to bring glory to him instead of drawing glory for themselves.

The second assumption regarding powerlessness in the church concerns women. Many Nigérien Christians believe that women have no role or responsibility in the leadership of the Church, nor are they expected to have such roles. Women do much of the physical work to sustain the life of the family, but are generally not consulted in decision-making processes.

Furthermore, they are generally banned from church leadership positions, and will hardly ever be called upon to be a church elder, to preach, or to contribute to church decisions. This seems to be a consequence of prevailing traditional and Muslim worldviews. But this thinking, until recently, has also been strongly supported by the conservative Christian views of SIM missionaries. On the other hand, Christian women have been like the cement that has held believers together, maintaining relationships in spite of the various splits within the SIM churches. Even nowadays, women from various and conflicting church denominations come together for annual gatherings.

We have thus briefly reviewed the various worldviews that influence Nigérien Christians. Some statistical data will now provide a more formal picture of the population in Niger.

Statistical Data
According to the National Institute of Statistics in Niger3 there are about 13.5 million people in the country, about half of whom are female. Almost half of the total population is aged 14 and under. The annual population growth rate is estimated at 3.3%, with a birthrate of 46.1 per 1,000. Niamey is estimated to have 863,000 inhabitants. Beside Niamey, there are a handful of cities and towns, mostly in the southern part of the country as the north is desert.

According to various online publications, between eighty and ninety-nine percent of Niger’s population is Muslim. No recent census gives more accurate data. This indicates a heavily Islamized country. However, the present government wants to maintain a free secular state, and has so far resisted pressures from Islamic reformist groups who are striving for an Islamic republic.

As far as church growth is concerned in Niamey, there was only one church in the 1970s. Today, there are about fifty Christian churches in the city. According to Operation World,4 there were about three hundred evangelical churches in the country in 2001—a number which has likely since climbed to about five hundred. The annual growth rate for Muslims is 3.9% versus 5.4% for Christians. The annual growth of Protestants (i.e., evangelicals) seems to average 12%. This shows that Christianity, and more specifically the evangelical churches, has grown significantly lately and is on the rise.

The literacy rate is also interesting to take into consideration for this study as it will give some hints about how education in general and Christian education more specifically is approached by the population. Only about 29% of people aged 15 and over can read or write. About 43% of males are literate, compared to only 15% of females. This shows that females are considered at a lower level than males, with fewer privileges and less access to education. This data explains some of the discrepancies noted above, and heavily influences the approaches and methods for church leadership training.

Girls are often discouraged from pursuing an education beyond primary school, if they are sent to school at all (44% of girls went to school in 2005-2006). Males dominate in secondary and higher education. Among the Tuareg families, many have not sent their children to school, fearing schools as “sources of government control and cultural change.” In lower socio-economic groups, children are often not sent to school for lack of financial means or because they are needed to help supplement family income.

Therefore, one can understand how narrow the pool of potential trained church leaders can be. On the one hand, this data could trigger some church-wide awareness campaign that could, among other things, promote female literacy and foster their access to leadership. Some SIM missionaries have caught this vision, but primarily to provide their young men with Christian wives.5 A broader vision for the education of girls would definitely bring a more dynamic atmosphere into the Church. On the other hand, Catholic missions seem to have had a broader vision for the education of children and have set up several schools where many, if not most, of today’s top government officials have been educated.

We have seen the historical background of Niger, which has just been rated by the United Nations Development Programme as the third poorest country in the world. We have also identified the worldviews that have influenced its people as well as its religious make-up. We have looked at of some statistical data about Niger that will influence and explain approaches to church leadership training.

Although the culture of this country and its background seem to represent a huge challenge for any leader seeking to be an agent of transformation for his or her community, we can note that there is also a huge potential and vast need for community transformation. The possibilities are endless, but the workers are few. This is why this country, and more specifically its capital city, offer an ideal situation for God to deploy his glory in a complex poverty context with a very limited number of workers. Who, then, is ready to respond to this challenge while leaning on God’s powerful arm?


1. 2003. Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church. Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 231.

2. 2006. Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel. Bloomington, Indiana, USA: Indiana University Press.

3. 2007. Le Niger en Chiffres—Edition 2007. Niamey, Niger: Institut National de la Statistique.

4. Johnstone, Patrick and Jason Mandryk. 2001. Operation World. Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Publishing, 485.

5. See Cooper, 203, 269-271.

Martine Audeoud has served for over twenty-five years in Africa and Haiti. She has helped coordinate urban consultations in Abidjan and Haiti and is presently in Niamey (Niger) with her family. Beside her regular teaching job at an American school, she teaches and serves as an administrative consultant at the École Supérieure Privée de Théologie in Niamey. Her vision is to empower francophone African church leaders with contextualized tools that will empower them to respond effectively and creatively to the challenges of the twenty-first century urban francophone African context.