Sou Sou Things: My Queer Caribbean Community Saves Money & Each Other

As I get older, one of my main preoccupations of surviving in a capitalist, colonialist world has been the need for community. Relationships are messy, and many of us didn’t learn conflict resolution skills in our childhoods, so navigating community building has been rocky — especially for an autistic person like me who already has a tendency to miss social cues and can find communication a complex labyrinth. But the more I read of the writers and activists of the previous generations, particularly those from the Caribbean like Kwame Ture, Walter Rodney, and Maurice Bishop; the more I felt that the only chance to withstand the onslaught of capitalism, was through learning how to foster strong community bonds, and to rediscover different ways of living than what had been presented to us as the model for success.

My little group of friends — most of us queer, Neurodivergent activists — began making a concerted effort to become more present in each other’s lives. The stress of being broke was doing a number on all of us, and sometimes all we could do was share some of the little money we had to make sure someone was able to pay a bill and avoid their electricity being cut off, or get cat food for their furbabies. The hardest part was accepting help, especially in the form of money, and not letting pride get in the way of our survival. I remember sitting with a friend in distress and assuring them that, “As long as one of us has, all of us will have.” We had to find ways to regain the communal intimacy that had been stripped away from us by the individualistic nature of our society.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. We were all nursing our own wounds, and many of us had learned that self-isolation was the safest way to cope with times of distress. But we tried to show up for each other however we could. There wasn’t much money between us either, many working in creative fields, freelancing, running small businesses, and otherwise trying to avoid the soul-sucking 9-5. As the pandemic hit, and opportunities shrunk, medical issues began to arise and then the sudden loss of a dear friend had us all gasping for air.

As we processed overwhelming grief and tried to continue forward, we had to find a system to keep us together. Not everyone had the support of family, an unfortunately common experience in the queer community, but we had each other. We ran a Discord, where we would save little notes on our ideas for communal living and garden planting, food, art, and music. Organising events where we would come together and meal prep for the month or just spend time together. There were also pictures of our pets and a space to drop the heavy stuff when we needed to. A few months ago, a friend added a new thread to the Discord — “Sou-Sou Things”.

Sou Sou comes from the Yoruba word Esusu, and has its origins in West Africa, with similar savings systems in Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba culture, then making its way to the Caribbean during the period of African enslavement. Later, in Indentured Indian communities, a similar system known as Chaiteyi was also practiced. It was a way to circumvent the limitations of colonialist economics — those who were excluded from the flow of money found their own way to connect and make ends meet.

I myself had no personal experience with being part of a Sou Sou, but my family has had a long history with it. I sat down with my mother and grandmother one evening, both of whom had used Sou Sou as a means to survive when times were hard. My grandmother shared that her mother had put TT$2 a week into a Sou Sou when they were children (in the 1950s), at a time when women were not able to work and their access to money was limited by whatever their husband saw fit to give them for running the house. At the time, many of them would, without their husband’s knowledge, take a portion of that money and “throw a hand” in a Sou Sou made up of family members and friends in order to make purchases like new curtains. At the time, these networks were primarily, if not all, working-class women.

How it works is on a rotational savings basis. Each person contributes an agreed-upon amount of money weekly, fortnightly, or monthly, and then the full amount would be paid to one member each payout on a rotating basis until everyone had received a lump sum. Often, the person organizing the Sou Sou would receive a small amount per payout for handling logistics. For my grandmother, it was a savings method she turned to at many junctures in her life. She bought bricks to build her family home, and paid off her father’s debt in a timely fashion. When my mother was a teenager, in between jobs and writing exams on her own after dropping out of school, my grandmother encouraged her to start running a Sou Sou as a way to make a little extra money. With a collection of cousins around the same age, she organised a group and ran the Sou Sou herself, being paid one portion or “hand” for each payout as the person who functioned essentially as the treasurer.

Years later, as my friends decided on how we wanted to try out this system, I ended up volunteering to run the cycle. We decided that the treasurer, or as we called it “The Sou Sou Master” (because we all play way too much Dungeons and Dragons) would run one cycle and then the responsibility would move to someone else. That way, even the payment for the administrative aspects would work on a rotational basis.

Of course, trying to get my group of friends to collectively agree on logistics is like trying not to spook a herd of wild horses. Some in the group have an ease with the gentleness and patience needed to ensure everyone feels heard and can work within the limitations of their mental health and energy. I’m not necessarily an expert at that. I’m the one who sends walls of text in the group chat when trying to get something done, which admittedly can be a bit intimidating. But finally, we were able to come together and make a plan, with the help of a handy Google Spreadsheet that I am mercifully not in charge of populating.

Interestingly, there are a number of apps available now to help with the technical side of running a Sou Sou, making notes of how much money is collected and distributed, who gets what and when, etc. Many of them run through some sort of banking institution though, so we decided for our test cycle we would stick to good ol’ cash under the mattress to keep things simple and avoid any extra bank fees creeping up on us.

So far, our little experiment is still on its first legs and it remains to be seen if it will become a mainstay of our group — but it’s worthwhile to have another tool in our arsenal as we continue on our journey of divesting away from capitalistic ideas of how to make it in this strange world, and learn how to trust that there are people out there that we can depend on.

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Amy Li Baksh

Amy has written 2 articles for us.


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