The Current

How an old tradition is helping people weather the pandemic's financial storm

As Canadians look to weather the financial storm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, some are turning to a tried-and-true tradition called susu to save money — and help one another.

Susu groups offer support and sense of community, participants say

Some people are turning to susu groups, a kind of informal savings club, amid the financial pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

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As Canadians look to weather the financial storm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, some are turning to a tried-and-true tradition called susu to save money — and help one another.

"It's a mutual support group. It's a social group. It's a way that we can meet our goals, financially, as a community," said Ginelle Skerritt, an Adinkra Farm banker lady for eight susu groups and a vice president at The Neighbourhood Group, a social service agency in Toronto.

"It really has many different ways of manifesting positive things for our communities."

A susu is an informal club of people that get together on a regular basis to contribute an allotted amount of money, called a hand. That money is pooled together and usually collected by the banker lady. Then, it gets paid out to a different member of the group each time the susu meets.

For example, Skerritt was part of a susu that ran from May to October of this year, and she received the first hand. The funds helped her purchase lawn furniture she'd been planning to buy for years. Then, she paid the money back through the susu over time, she said.

"For some, it's like a loan. For some it's just a way of supporting other people to get money when they need it," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. "And for some, they just want to save for a particular goal."

Ginelle Skerritt says she's seen a growing demand for susu groups since the onset of the pandemic. (Submitted by Ginelle Skerritt)

Susu is a well-known tradition in Africa and the Caribbean. In the past, it was a way for women to empower themselves financially, without the help of their husbands.

"At the time that my mom was looking to put together a mortgage for the house, you had to have your husband sign with you or you couldn't," Skerritt explained.

"Then there is, of course, the spectre of racism that was experienced in the banking system. And so this was a way of empowering our communities to move and to do things with money," she added.

"It's a form of resilience and resistance as well."

Spike in demand for susu groups

Skerritt said she's seen a growing interest in susu since COVID-19 struck. She started by opening up four groups, but soon heard from mothers who wanted their children to learn the tradition, and so she started more, she said.

"I think people really got the sense that we needed to be independent. We needed to do things for each other, build trust in our community and savings in these times because the future was uncertain," she said.

Debbie Nicholls-Skerritt grew up watching her mom participate in susu groups. She says the groups reinforce importance of community. (Submitted by Debbie Nicholls-Skerritt)

Debbie Nicholls-Skerritt (no relation to Ginelle Skerritt), an artist and wellness professional who is part of Skerritt's susu, grew up watching her mom participate in them. She was always making stops to drop a hand off somewhere, she said.

In times like these, she sees a heightened need for susu and the support it offers.

"[It] really dispels of myths that circulate sometimes in our community that we cannot work together, we cannot trust each other — which is totally a lie," said Nicholls-Skerritt.

It ultimately reinforces the fact that it's the community that we fall back on to help us all propel where we need to go, as opposed to just kind of navigating these waters by ourselves.- Debbie Nicholls-Skerritt

The susu she participates in is always done with "love" and "encouragement," she said.

"It ultimately reinforces the fact that it's the community that we fall back on to help us all propel where we need to go, as opposed to just kind of navigating these waters by ourselves."

Susu is a powerful concept to Floydeen Charles-Fridal as well, because it emphasizes the importance of community and "the village," she said.

Floydeen Charles-Fridal says susu groups help build trust and support. (Submitted by Floydeen Charles-Fridal)

"When somebody is in the susu who has a need for a specific thing, to be part of helping them accomplish that is very much parallel to how I choose to live my life," said Charles-Fridal, another member of Skerritt's susu who works in social services and has a business called Purethentic, where she sells African cloth, jewlery, oils and shea butters. She is also part of other susu groups.

"And the whole idea of building trust and support for each other is a natural outcome or benefit from being part of this."

If more people and non-profit organizations used a concept like susu during the pandemic, Charles-Frida says she believes they may be better positioned to support their clients.

Skerritt agrees people can learn a lot about trusting and encouraging one another through susu — and now is a critical time for trust, she said. 

"I think that's been the lesson of COVID: that we are not independent bodies out there. We need each other," Skerritt said. 

"[Through susu] we are here to support each other, to reach each other's goals or to reach goals together. And money is just a way to get there."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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