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Femmes en mouvement

 | 
Fenneke Reysoo
, 
Christine Verschuur

Stratégies de survie en situation de migration

Akuba & Kasmoni. Surinamese women in a traditional banking system in Amsterdam

Aspha Bijnaar

Note de l’auteur

A revised version of this article (in Dutch) was published in Tijdschrift Lover, March 2004, Amsterdam.

Texte intégral

  • 1 From 1995 to 1999 I conducted a research about kasmonis in Suriname and the Netherlands at the Univ (...)
  • 2 ROSCAs predominantly exist in non-western societies and among migrants in western cities. These ass (...)

1As all other Creoles living in Suriname and in the Netherlands, my female neighbour Akuba participates in a kasmoni, an informal savings and credit arrangement regarded as a typical female activity.1 In this arrangement Akuba plays a central role as an informal banker. The kasmoni system probably stems from the period of slavery when slaves did not have access to formal banking systems. Informal financial arrangements as kasmoni are worldwide. In literature they are referred to as Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs).2

2In its most basic form the kasmoni is an association in which a group of 10 to 12 people set a fixed amount of money aside each month to one of the participants whose turn is decided beforehand by lottery or mutual consultation. The distribution continues for 10 to 12 months, until each participant has had a turn at the monthly receipts. Rotation determines when each participant will receive the monthly distribution: whoever has the earliest turn receives credit, while the participant with the last turn has been saving. The position of each participant depends on his or her turn in the cycle.

3After every participant has had a turn, the kasmoni association is dissolved, but a similar group (with the same or different participants) is usually reformed to continue its activities under similar conditions. Since the total sum is distributed monthly on a fixed date to one of the participants, everyone feels the pressure to contribute on time. Interim withdrawal is therefore almost impossible as it would violate the financial plans of the other participants. Moreover, interim withdrawal will immediately lead the other participants to decide an exclusion and social condemnation.

4The banker sees to it that no one causes financial damage to the kasmoni. Since she is totally responsible for the success of the kasmoni, she can ask the contributors compensational costs, usually not more than 5% of the total amount.

5Kasmonis are quite widespread. Creoles form these networks with relatives, friends or colleagues. Most of the kasmoni members belong to lower and middle classes: an estimated more than 30% participate in kasmoni networks, which is also true for Creoles who live in the Netherlands. My research shows that every month in Suriname and in the Netherlands at least 4 to 8 million euro run through these networks.

Migration

6Suriname, a small country in the Caribbean north of Brazil, was a Dutch colony until 1975. After its independence many Surinamese migrated to the Netherlands, especially during the 70s and 80s. They were searching for a better life. Shortly after its independence Suriname entered an economic crisis. The economic situation of the country is still far from stable. Nowadays half of the Surinamese population (circa 300.000) live in the Netherlands, where they are part of a multicultural society in which 120 different nationalities live together. 10% of all the 15 million inhabitants have a non-western background.

7The first Surinamese migrants faced many problems of unemployment, poverty and discrimination. But over the years they have achieved a tremendous social upgrade. At the moment they are the most successfully integrated ethnic minority. They are very present on the labour market and in the area of education. The financial position of the Surinamese is stable and they are not really poor.

8In the decades of Creole migration to the Netherlands the immigrants brought kasmonis along with them. They state that the kasmoni helped them a lot in creating a new living in the Netherlands. The life of immigrants is usually very hard. While they try to make ends meet, they are under constant pressure to fulfil moral obligations towards relatives in the homeland by sending them money. As a consequence the household budget faces double pressure. One strategy to meet this double pressure is to employ informal economic activities, like kasmonis. These activities seem to facilitate the process of migration. They are therefore regarded as a vehicle to reach upward social mobility.

The power of kasmonis

9The economic utility of the kasmoni can be best explained by comparing its economic functions with the financial services of formal institutions. Its strongest economic advantage lies in extending credit. Credit from a kasmoni is easier to get and less expensive than the credit extended by banks. By contrast, saving in a kasmoni is economically less advantageous since it does not provide any interest. The only savings advantage is social-psychological, i. e., the disciplined mechanism of forced monthly contributions. This element of constraint is an advantage as it forces participants to set money aside, a social obligation they fulfil voluntarily. When a participant encounters an unexpected emergency she can appeal for insurance. The money may than be distributed to that participant immediately so she can solve her problems. However, a kasmoni will never distribute more than the total sum in the fund to the participant. In fact appeals for insurance are very unusual. One extraordinary advantage of the kasmoni in general is that all three functions are combined in a single institution. In practice these functions are often overlapping and interchangeable, according to the varying interests of the participants.

10While the kasmoni has strong economic and psychological benefits, its weakness lies in its informality. Any participant or the banker can remain unpunished for embezzling the money as there is no effective legal device to sanction fraud. The kasmoni arrangement is merely based on trust and social control. To meet this requirement, the banker carefully selects only creditworthy candidates from her relevant networks.

Women in kasmonis

  • 3 Nevertheless, this male participation of 30% is striking. In my dissertation I have paid close atte (...)
  • 4 A large number of households in Caribbean societies have a matrifocal structure. A single mother is (...)

11Although 70% of the participants are female, many men are attracted to kasmonis as well, participating in groups that include women or in exclusively male groups.3 Women are strongly represented in the kasmonis because, as managers of households, they face many different financial needs simultaneously. The matrifocality4 of the Creole society leads these women to use the kasmoni regularly. Besides, there is much distrust and disrespect, even hostility between the sexes, which is reflected in the ways men and women participate in the kasmoni and spend the distributions. Most of the time partners who are part of the same household keep their participation hidden form one another in order to spend the money without their partner having any say.

  • 5 This is also true for the male participants.

12Thanks to the kasmoni women can be quite independent economically. They generally use the money to maintain or improve their social position. They buy houses, vehicles, tickets, or expensive jewellery. They also pay for education, celebrations, invest in small businesses, or purchase durable goods. It is worth mentioning that 50% of the women in my research use kasmoni to pay for yards or houses.5

Banker Akuba

13It is quite risky to run a kasmoni business. But the way bankers like Akuba manage to keep the business going deserves a lot of respect. Their only assets are intuition and insight into human nature. How do these women operate in the field?

14First of all not anyone can become a banker. The job requires courage. Akuba is totally responsible for the process: in case anything goes wrong she is the one who will have to compensate for the financial damage. One precondition is that she has certain personal qualities such as leadership and entrepreneurial skills. Besides she must be able to inspire others to make something out of their lives. She usually plays a crucial role in cultural clubs or friendly societies. Apart from their regular jobs, female bankers as Akuba are very active in the hustling circuit: they earn money with informal activities like preparing meals for parties, setting up traditional costumes or designing creative hairdos. As a result these bankers have a huge network in which they find many potential candidates for the kasmoni.

15Within this network Akuba has a very good reputation for being trustworthy and rational. This provides her a lot of respect. Characteristic for female bankers is their stable lifestyle and decent behaviour. Besides, the banker feels empathy for others, is a good listener and gives good advice on life issues. One of her strongest points is that she does not gossip about other participants and never reveals their secrets.

16A second precondition for the success of a banker lies in her social network. This provides her access to useful information about the trustworthiness of the candidates: does Jacoba has a stable income, can I really trust Martha, is Dolly not living her life too fickly and what is my impression of Clyde?

17But no matter how accurate this pre-selection, it does not completely exclude the risk of financial fraud. The worst crime a member can commit is to stop contributing after she has received the kitty. Akuba and some of the participants would then lose a part of their money. Since bankers know that the risk does exist, Akuba uses different strategies to reduce it.

  • 6 But the participants themselves need to put these strategies into practice as well for the banker c (...)

18Firstly, during the cycle she exerts indirect pressure on the participants by telling them moralistic tales about how defaulters have come full circle in a hard way. Another strategy is to ask middlemen to keep an eye for her. In case a participant does not fulfil her financial obligations towards Akuba, she might resort to public scandal by shouting loud in the market place that her kasmoni should be paid now. If then the defaulter still does not pay up, Akuba can threaten her or use violence.6

19But Akuba will only do that when the defaulter has crossed her line, like when that participant has embezzled the kitty. This is considered theft. At this point the emotions of all involved run high: they call names at each other or even fight. At this stage the victims seem very determined to get their money back, no matter how. But at a certain point, when Akuba’s attempts to get the money back have failed three times, she has to let go. Because if she keeps on trying a fourth or a fifth time she will, according to the values and norms of Surinamese Creole culture, lose her self-respect. Unfortunately this cultural code gives the defaulter space to go scot-free and start a new career in an environment where the rumours have not yet damaged her reputation. But fortunately this kind of kasmoni fraud is quite rare.

20But what about the banker? She has of course suffered a serious loss, but she is not defeated. She will continue her kasmoni business imperturbably, in the belief that the defaulter will come full circle one day. Because as ye sow, so shall ye reap! There is an old and famous song that Akuba loves to sing:

  • 7 Couplet from Mi Switi Switi Sranan [My Sweet Sweet Suriname], J. Kamperveen, zj. Translated by A. B (...)

When you meet a woman who laughs funny,
Then you know she keeps
kasmoni,
She will tell you strong stories and lies,
That is to keep you under her thumb!
7

Notes

1 From 1995 to 1999 I conducted a research about kasmonis in Suriname and the Netherlands at the University of Amsterdam. Dissertation: Aspha Bijnaar. Kasmoni. Een spaartraditie in Suriname en Nederland. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2002.

2 ROSCAs predominantly exist in non-western societies and among migrants in western cities. These associations help them to maintain themselves in a new environment. In London Nigerian migrants put money aside in susu. In Amsterdam Ghanese save in esusu, Antillians in sam, Ethiopian in iqub, Turkish in gun, Morroccans in nouba. In Paris and in Geneva Senegalese migrants organise themselves in tontines.

3 Nevertheless, this male participation of 30% is striking. In my dissertation I have paid close attention to their role in kasmoni.

4 A large number of households in Caribbean societies have a matrifocal structure. A single mother is economically and emotionally responsible for the children and the household, due to the structural absence of a male partner.

5 This is also true for the male participants.

6 But the participants themselves need to put these strategies into practice as well for the banker can also commit default or fraud.

7 Couplet from Mi Switi Switi Sranan [My Sweet Sweet Suriname], J. Kamperveen, zj. Translated by A. Bijnaar.

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