“Banker Ladies” of Canada Organize Banking Coops to Combat Exclusion
I was born in Nalerigu village in northeastern Ghana. For most of my life, I watched as my mother, Mariama, worked as a trader and used Susu to meet her financial needs. My mother used money from susu to pay my school fees and to carry out her trade business. Ghana’s Susu system is widely used by the people. Susu means “small small” in the Twi language (Amankwah et al. 2019:2). I only knew about Susu as a banking tradition in Ghana. I did not know that I would come to learn of its activity in a ‘developed’ country when I moved to Toronto, Canada to carry out my doctoral studies in anthropology.
In the Spring 2022 I was hired as a research assistant to work on a project to understand rotating savings and credit associations – known as ROSCAs. ROSCAs are defined as voluntary mutual aid financial groups whose members distribute a lump sum of savings in turn to members of the group (Ardener and Burman 1996; Ardener, 1964). ROSCAs have long been practiced in countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific; and are culturally embedded in communal values of self-help, solidarity and reciprocity.
In my research, I learned that the ROSCAs that the “Banker Ladies” organize are often their main mode of banking. For more than a decade, University of Toronto Professor Caroline Shenaz Hossein (2018; 2013) has examined financial cooperatives in the Americas, such as Susu among the diasporas. In her work, she affectionately uses the term, “Banker Ladies” for the women who run and manage ROSCAs and holds that what they do is not simply a coping mechanism, but these women are taking a stand on how business is conducted – they are opting for collective finance. The documentary film, “The Banker Ladies,” (Mondesir 2021) spotlights the ROSCA system among Black women in Canadian society, and this is when I learned that Susu is helping the African diaspora1 . It seems that the “Banker Ladies” of African heritage, from the Caribbean and Africa, use Susu-like systems out of desperation and by way of cultural affinities.
Canadian Women Turn to Susu-Like Banks
In a meeting with “Banker Ladies” in Toronto I learned how Black diaspora women depend on the Susu system for banking because they have limited access to formal commercial banks. Commercial banks exist near them, but the racial and gender discrimination they endure to carry out mundane tasks make them less interested in going to those banks.
I listened to Banker Lady “Lorraine,” almost in tears, recount how women are invasively questioned, and even refused the right to withdraw their money from the bank. Another woman, “Laylah,” explained that she is stared at in a rude manner, as if to say she does not belong in this bank. As a newcomer to Canada, I listened to these painful narrations, but I could not help but ponder: why does a multicultural city like Toronto marginalize low-income Black women in such a way that they self-exclude from using commercial banks? Why does Canada offer financial exclusion expertise to countries like Ghana when they have an issue of reaching Black women in their own backyard? To be sure, financial exclusion of African Canadian women is acute and this is why Susu banks help them. Women in Ghana also use Susu because they too are excluded from commercial banks for a host of reasons.
Women Feel that they Must Hide the Susu System in Canada
As a Ghanaian it was strange for me to hear and take note that people hide their Susu system. My mother and women in Ghana are proud of Susu because it allows them to help themselves as well as others. Susu is built around trust and reciprocity, and it is not viewed as something that is bad, or that should bring shame. However, in the meeting I listened with great difficulty to the fears and traumas that Black Canadian “Banker Ladies” endure when they organize Susu.
The “Banker Ladies” explained that they fear the police and those neighbours who never heard about Susu. The women clarified that people can report them and cause trouble for them when they meet and this is why they make great efforts to conceal what they do. A young Banker Lady “Maymoun”, wearing a hijab, recounted that the women in her Ayuuto, a Somali name for a Susu, are labelled as scammers or terrorists for organizing a cooperative. Two other “Banker Ladies” (names withheld) shared how during police raids for drugs in an apartment block their Susu was confused with drug money. The ROSCA monies accumulated by hard working women is deemed ‘illegal’ by authorities who have never heard of a Susu system.
The “Banker Ladies” held a council meeting to figure out how they can make sure that there is education around ROSCA systems. A Banker Lady lamented: “Hmmm! We help the society and Canadian people a lot, and some of we organize housing and care co-ops, we organize Susu, and we support many people…but the government does not appreciate us!” Despite the work being done to inform society about the work of the “Banker Ladies,” policy makers are still confused how these women can be incorporated into economic development efforts.
Recognize the Widespread use of Susu in the Black Diaspora
The “Banker Ladies'' in Canada have different names for Susu, depending on where they come from. For example, there is Somalian Hagbad, Jamaican Partner, Indian Chit, Chinese Hui and so forth. The “Banker Ladies' ' said that they bring Susu-like systems from their respective homelands in Somalia, Sierra Leone, Jamaica, Guyana, Nigeria, India and other places, where they practiced with their mothers before. It seems from the little I know, that these ROSCAs which are practiced in Canada are happening among various diaspora groups. Yet the state is ambivalent to learning about these systems.
And just as Susu is beneficial to southern countries where they are common, they help make Canada a better place. ROSCAs do not only fill the exclusionary void created by formal banking institutions by inspiring financial inclusion for all in Canada – their embeddedness in self-help based on moral economies (economies privileging social relations over profit) has strengthened peace, collectivity and cooperation, which make Canada a better place.
What do the “Banker Ladies” of Canada want? The “Banker Ladies” stated: “We need financial freedom!” and others forthrightly stressed, “We need recognition by the state to practice our ROSCAs…and co-ops.” And as stated above, ROSCAs which are rooted in mutual aid and cooperativism, are lifelines to socio-economic inclusion and progress in society.
Collectivism and mutual aid are sine qua non for progress in all society, this is even more of a necessity in a neo-liberal capitalist state like Canada. More so, we haven’t even talked of their role in uncertain times such as life under the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Russian-Ukrainian war with a high influx of forced refugees to Canada. Collectivity and self-help groups are needed in these times to support one another. Innovative co-ops such as Cooperative Cleaners of Ontario, Kuumba Childcare Co-op, Ebony Care Cooperative, Interpreters and Translators Platform Cooperative, and other cooperatives led by Black Canadian women care for society. This is what Canada’s “Banker Ladies” have been doing. They have been working together despite the erasure, negative labels, and indignities meted out to them by the state, and Canadians in general.
For now, the “Banker Ladies” need a change, they need recognition via educating the public and the government about ROSCAs. By recognition they are not saying the government should formalize and ensure licensing of ROSCAs in Canada (which in itself is not bad, especially in the distant future). But they implore that the state should simply allow them some space to practice and spread these solidarity economies that both repair the brunt of racism, and inspire social inclusivity. The state should see the “Banker Ladies” as legitimate and culturally distinct financial practitioners, who have the good intentions to promote progress through collectivity, cohesion, cooperation, and mutual aid. In refusing to allow for the peace of the “Banker Ladies”, the state is then being complicit in erasing their contributions to social and economic development.
Amankwah, E; G. F., Augustine & O. Eric, 2019. Pareto Superior dimension of Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs) in Ghana: Evidence from Asunafo North Municipality of Ghana. https://mpra.ub.ubalenaEtcherni-muenchen.de/96308/
Ardener, S. (1964). “The comparative study of rotating credit Associations.” Journal of The Royal Anthropological Institute, 94(2), 201–229.
Ardener, S., and S. Burman, eds. 1996. Money-Go-Rounds: The Importance of Rotating Savings and Credit Associations for Women. Oxford, UK: Berg.
Hossein, C. S. 2018. The Black Social Economy in the Americas: Exploring Diverse Community-Based Alternative Markets. Edited collection. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hossein, C.S. 2013. “The Black social economy: Perseverance of Banker Ladies in the slums.” Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, 84(1): 423-442.
Mondesir, E., Director. 2021. The Banker Ladies. Hosted on Films for Action.
Photos by Arushi Dahiya.
- 1You can watch the open access film on Films for Action: https://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/the-banker-ladies/
Amidu Mutaru (2022). How the Ghana Susu System Helps the African Diaspora: “Banker Ladies” of Canada Organize Banking Coops to Combat Exclusion. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/articles/how-ghana-susu-system-helps-african-diaspora