Book reviews

Songhay-Kaado The storyteller Speak Zarma Zarma proverbs Sorcery's Shadow
Speak Zarma. A language of Niger

Written by Sandra Bornand


Photo of front page of Sandra Bornand's book; click left mouse button to view enlarged.


This book certainly is the most readable book about the Zarma language and culture published to this day. This is compulsory stuff for those who want to stay in the western part of Niger for some time and don't want to be a complete stranger.

Nevertheless, this book is not a language course. It rather resembles the TravelTalk paperbacks. It provides a quit comprehensive overview of Zarma grammar in a simple way and always illustrated with examples. The cultural aspects discussed in the third part of the book are, as it is, sufficient ground to read this book. Also from this part you will learns about both language and culture. The expression « Hala abada hayni si bunga sorro gu ga dake care ga » (Never, truly never, millet will produce five consecutive years) and a list of all major famines since 1890 illustrate, for example, the importance of rain in this region. You will see that beauty is something that is culturally determined: « The first sign of beauty and the most important is  stoutness. A meagre wife can't be beautiful and she will be mocked, sometimes cruelly. ». A topical subject probably is Bornand discusses the peaceful coexistence of traditional religion and Islam in the Zarma region, and examples are given of a civil servant and even a marabou, though true-born Muslims, practicing rituals of traditional religion.

This book is written for those who want to be more than a transient, and Bornand really succeeded. The French language doesn't have to be a problem for all with a basic knowledge of French.


Structure of the book

The first part of the book entails grammar and, including the general introduction of the language, this part consist of 70 pages. The book also contains a vocabulary Zarma - French (about 40 pages) and French -Zarma (about 60 pages).

The contemporary conversation chapter (32 pages) covers twelve topics ranging from greeting people in different situations to bargaining over a price on the market. Each time Zarma phrases are given with their meaning and literal translation. Sometimes tables are provided, e.g. for the numbers, or text boxes are used as illustration, e.g. about a sacrifice to cure illnesses.  Other topics discussed are how to respond to a question, how to thank someone, how to apologize, how to ask for direction, how to talk about time, how to talk about food and drinks, how to congratulate and to bid, how to talk about illness, how to talk about emotions, and how to offer one's condolences.

The cultural aspects are discussed in the third part of the book (almost 90 pages). Bornand describes the Zarma culture in six sections. Important Zarma words, names and phrases are given in bold. Special topics or examples are discussed in text blocks. The first section "Landmarks of live" discusses the control of the land, the main crops grown, the division of the work between the sexes and the influence of rain of lack of it on live in the Sahel. The section "From bush to the house of the spirits" discusses, amongst others, the different type of settlements and political units as well as the structure of and different types of buildings in a settlement. "The social groups" is a section that focuses on the social structure, including the importance of heritage, the political organisation, the (extended) family and marriage relationship. "The individual" is the section discussing the representation of the person, the traditional education and the development of boy to man and girl to woman. The last section but one is about "the ceremonies that give live rhythm". Topics are of course marriage, initiation and funeral, but also, pregnancy, birth, abortion and baptism. The concluding section deals with religion.  

The CD-ROM contains pronunciation examples and a series of photograph illustrating daily live. The  pronunciation examples are ordered in seven topics, (1) articles, nouns, and adjectives, (2) the predicate, (3) adverbs, (4) vocabulary, (5) the structure of a sentence, (6) speech act, and (7) the story about the warrior Kuurayize Kalleykoy. For the topics one to six first Sandra Bornand reads out loud the text in French and next Tahirou Boubacar presents the text in Zarma. The story, the last topic, is also included in the book. With respect to the six other items, it is –in my opinion– a missed opportunity not to include the possibility to select the text you want to practice. As listener you have to listen the all recorded text (for several minutes) without even the possibility to wind forward  or backward. The photo's of Gustave Deghilage and Sandra Bornand, both black and white and coloured ones, differ in quality, but give a good impression of the different aspects of  rural live  (agriculture, cooking, water, villages, markets, stock breeding, landscape) and man (dressing, music instruments, religion, children, body-guards) in Niger .


The author

Arts doctors at the university of Lausanne (Vice-chancellorship award 2003), Sandra Bornand, of Swiss nationality, inquires into oral traditions of the Zarma of Niger since 1994. Her training in literature and analyses of the discourse incited her to accentuate the relationship between word and power in her research. She is the author of several articles on the Zarma society, and currently she has a fellowship of the Swiss National Funds (FNS).


Text on back flap

As the picture of Zélika, the little girl on the cover, who is looking with a curious glance through the window at what is happening inside the house, this book proposes to discover the Zarma people of Niger through their language and their culture.

You will discover the major themes of daily live, but also the less perceptible aspects for a travelling visitor. Although the offered view tries to show the reader the most « traditional » aspects of this culture, it pays attention to the occurring changes as well.

Likewise you may discover the language through its grammar, the ingredients of the contemporary conversation ordered per theme and a bilingual vocabulary with a multiple entry.

This work is accompanied by a CD-ROM that contains pronunciation examples and a series of photograph illustrating daily live. You will find also a tale in the tradition of  the great Zarma storytellers.


Book in a nutshell
original title: Parlons Zarma. Une Langue du Niger
author: Sandra Bornand
ISBN : 2-296-00497-0
size: 343 pages (135 mm * 215 mm)
published: April 2006, in French, with vocabulary Zarma - French and French - Zarma
publisher: L' Harmattan
5-7 rue de l' Ecole Polytechnique
75005 Paris, Frankrijk
on internet:

A CD-ROM containing pronunciation examples and a series of photograph illustrating daily live can be ordered separately (ISBN : 2-296-00587-X). This CD-ROM also contains a tale in the tradition of  the great Zarma-Songhay storytellers.

Errata,  read about some corrections provided by the author


Last updated: 11 februari 2012