A sisterhood of millions: the all-women church groups helping people in Nigeria

<span>The Evangelical Church Winning All branch in Gan Gora village in Kaduna, Nigeria. The zumunta mata, or fellowship of married women, are known for their singing.</span><span>Photograph: Eromo Egbejule</span>
The Evangelical Church Winning All branch in Gan Gora village in Kaduna, Nigeria. The zumunta mata, or fellowship of married women, are known for their singing.Photograph: Eromo Egbejule

On a warm Thursday afternoon in May, the ululation, drumming and singing of a choir of two-dozen women can be heard across Gan Gora, a village so small it barely appears on the Nigerian map.

“We are happy you arrived safely,” they sing in Hausa welcoming the visitors to the community branch of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), hidden in the hilly Zangon Kataf, an area of half a million residents in the state of Kaduna.

A congregation of about 100 women dance and sway alongside the choir, including Rifkatu Dauda Kigbu, 53, their spiritual adviser, hobbling on a fractured knee, a crutch in her left hand.

This is a weekly meeting of zumunta mata (Hausa for “fellowship of married women”), a clan that has banded together for almost a century, sisters in times of surplus and of scarcity. Their visitors are zumunta mata members of an ECWA, one of Nigeria’s largest churches, in Gonin Gora, a suburb of Kaduna city.

The first zumunta mata was formed in 1930 after a woman almost died during childbirth in Miango, a town more than 50 miles away in what is now the neighbouring Plateau state. Women in the ECWA Christian church contributed to buy a bicycle so future patients could be ferried to the nearest medical facility. It began a fellowship that now has millions of members in northern Nigeria, across a multitude of denominations both Christian and Muslim.

For years, outsiders have primarily known the zumunta mata for their colourful abayas, singing, which has garnered millions of YouTube views, and provision of spiritual guidance to young women and mothers.

Godwin Ogli, head of theatre arts at the Federal University, Lokoja, has been researching the group in Plateau state and says the original motive was to “provide a space for women to learn more about the word of God” and to be “an outreach arm of the church” to bring more women in.

That role expanded as Nigeria’s economy has stuttered and pastoralist violence has intensified across Kaduna and Plateau, and throughout the Sahel.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project estimates that at least 2,600 people were killed by conflict in Nigeria in 2021. Villagers and local researchers say the casualty count is higher, as some incidents in Zangon Kataf, one of the hotspots, were undocumented.

Related: ‘They wanted her to confess to witchcraft’: ending the chilling effects of dementia stigma in Nigeria

Tensions over land have led to conflict between nomadic herdsmen and Indigenous farming communities. The herdsmen, mostly Fulani Muslims, have said they are acting in self-defence, stemming from rustling and killing of their cows and kinsmen. The farmers, who are mostly Christian, say they are protecting themselves from ethnic cleansing and land grabbing rooted in British colonial excesses.

Analysts say the climate crisis and overpopulation have exacerbated religious and ethnic differences between neighbours who coexisted peacefully for decades. “The relationship is [now] sour,” says Stella Amako, a local politician and elected chapter head of the visitors from Kaduna.

Conversely the bond within zumunta mata has strengthened. The fellowship is the first responder during crises. They have sleepovers, cook, offer small cash gifts and when necessary, bathe new babies or bodies of the dearly departed. When gifts come from NGOs, distribution is managed by the mama zumunta, who is elected every three years for a maximum of two tenures.

“We are even currently handling two cases of women on the brink of divorce,” says Amako.

While WhatsApp groups have become an important self-help tool in some parts of the global south, in Gan Gora even £5 (10,000 naira) smartphones are a luxury. So women attend meetings in person to listen to gospel lessons and give testimonies.

After the dancing, Kigbu advises the women in a brief lesson. “Any woman with dignity is respected. Her husband is blessed because of her and always boasts about her. Her good habits are contagious,” she says, her crutch resting next to her bible on the table.

Outside, her husband, Rev Luka Kasai Kigbu, shakes hands with local pastors who have come to thank the women for helping them out on a recent farming day. The couple are still recovering from a car jacking by the region’s marauding herdsman that led to Kigbu’s knee injury. They had been returning from a visit to family in a neighbouring state when they were attacked. The reverend managed to escape but the bandits dragged Kigbu out of the car and fractured her right knee. Eventually she was released, and is grateful, despite her injuries.

“I have to give thanks for every situation,” she says.

***

The women are proud of their support system. Mary Bawa, 68, joined as a new bride in 1976. “What gives me peace of mind and joy is knowing Christ and [having] these people around me,” she says.

A widowed mother of seven, Bawa passes on to young widows what she knows about farming soya beans to make tofu to trade.

One is Magdalene Israel, 32. Halfway into recanting how her husband and mother-in-law were killed on the same day, caught up in a firefight between herdsmen and farmers in September 2022, she stops to bend her head and weep.

She escaped from their farm that day by running non-stop to the next village, bullets whizzing past her ear. “I was just screaming holy ghost fire,” says the mother of three.

“Life has not been easy but zumunta mata and God Almighty have been behind me,” says Israel, who is praying for the ability to let go of her abiding anger and forgive the killers.

They look out for one another, supporting one another, sometimes financially or emotionally … this goes beyond the church

Godwin Ogli

For now, conflict has paused and Gan Gora is a picture of serenity. In front of the church, the long tarred road connecting the community to others is flanked on either side by mango, neem and baobab trees and small fields of maize.

Multiple checkpoints dotting the road are held by young soldiers in khaki sitting on sandbags. It is a departure from the scarce government presence for years in an area where people remember other violent episodes, including a 1992 communal clash and a 2011 election crisis that both left hundreds dead.

The checkpoints were introduced after an army general from the region, Christopher Musa, was appointed a service chief last year. A barracks is being built to reinforce security around the hills. At state level, the new governor, Uba Sani, is seen as less divisive than his predecessor, Nasir El-Rufai, who proscribed a community association in Zangon Kataf for being an “unlawful group”.

Still, some are afraid to return to fields and villages.

***

In the relatively safer Gonin Gora suburb of Kaduna, the women enjoy regular sessions like learning how to make homemade liquid detergents to help cushion their households from the effects of Nigeria’s cost-of-living crisis. The choir rehearses songs about subjects such as forgiveness and heaven.

“They look out for one another, supporting one another, sometimes financially or emotionally, psychologically … this goes beyond the church,” says Ogli.

One such session helped Grace Friday, 33, with the art of food presentation that her husband now loves. Afterwards, he overheard her chatting with a friend about a forthcoming wedding as he ate and later told Israel he would buy her an outfit to the ceremony, to show his appreciation for the benefits the fellowship had brought to his family. She was overjoyed.

Eunice Shola, a 47-year-old civil servant who runs the cooperative union’s low-interest loan system, says the fellowship has helped her to try public speaking.

“When I started this, I couldn’t even stand and pray in the presence of two or three people … but this fellowship has really built my self-confidence,” she says.

Those in the city remember their sisters in the countryside. For the past 13 years Lucy Stephen, 48, has led Gonin Gora’s 57-woman choir, whose music helps members to show solidarity with their Zangon Kataf sisters and “build their faith”.

One song references the cry of a prophet in the Bible’s book of Habakkuk. “Oh Lord, how long must I call for help?” the first verse goes. “There is pathos everywhere.”