It’s like karmic cash. You get as good as you give. And Marie Lumen Clersaint is Brooklyn’s reigning queen of sou-sous — an informal savings club popular among Caribbean and African immigrants. When anyone in her tight knit circle of savers needs a large sum of money, they come to her.
At any given time, Clersaint runs two sou-sous where people come together and make regular contributions to a common fund, which is then disbursed as a lump sum to one member of the group every cycle. The payouts for her current sou-sous are $20,000 and $10,000. They have 40 and 20 members, respectively. Each member puts in $500 bi-weekly. Every two weeks one member of each sou-sou will receive their group’s entire payout, until each person gets a turn. The $20,000 sou-sou runs or 18 months, the $10,000 saving club lasts 10 months. For the person who gets the first disbursement, it’s an interest-free cash advance and for the last payee it’s a no-interest savings plan. And for those in the middle, it’s a combination of both. There are no checks or money orders involved. It’s all cash all the time.
“When people get their money, many personally thank me. Sometimes they even give me a little bit of their payout as a gift. I like to help people do what they need to do in life,” said Clersaint who has seen members of her sou-sous use their disbursements to put down payments on houses and cars, pay off their debts and send their kids to college.
Clersaint isn’t a banker or an accountant. She’s a Haitian immigrant who works for a chain of five independently-owned money transfer stores in Brooklyn, New York called Caribbean Air Mail or CAM. Since most Haitian immigrants send money back home on a regular basis, it’s a strong probability that those in Brooklyn have come through one of her stores at one time or another. “Everybody knows me,” Clersaint said. They also know she runs among the largest and most consistent sou-sous in her community. She’s also known for deciding the order of the recipients’ payout based on specific requests from people who know they will need the money by a certain date.
Many want to join Clersaint’s unofficial savings club, but the chosen are few. She has to be very selective because it’s all based on the honor system. There is no legal paperwork involved. No credits check or proof of income required. You don’t even have to sign your name. She has to know and trust every participant. There are no laws against sou-sous as long as every member gets exactly what they put into it. However, there is little legal recourse in the event someone is taken advantage of.
As per the unwritten rules of sou-sous, the organizer is responsible for making up the difference if a member defaults on their contributions. Clersaint has been organizing sou-sous for 13 years now within the Haitian community and so far, she says, she has never been stiffed.
Because sou-sous are usually comprised of close friends, family members or co-workers, there is an unspoken pressure to honor the commitment. Failure to do so would be tantamount to defaulting on a loan and the one who dodges payment can expect to be ostracized by the rest of the community.
Sou-sou is a centuries-old practice that originated in West Africa. It gets it’s name from the Yoruban term “esusu” which refers to a fund where several people pool their money. The word is said to be derived from the French word “sou” which means a coin of little value.
This under-the-radar saving system is also known by many other names. Haitians call it a “min”. People from the Dominican Republic call it “sociedad”. On the island of Dominica it’s called a “sub”. Those from Jamaica and Trinidad often refer to it as “partner”. But they all call it a blessing.
Especially Brooklyn resident Carol Smith who has participated in sou-sous since she was a young girl in Trinidad. Before emigrating to America in 1985, she was accepted to Howard University in Washington DC. When she applied for a student visa at the U.S. Embassy in Trinidad she was asked to show proof of tuition. She showed them what, at the time, was the equivalent of almost 6,000 U.S. dollars that she received from a sou-sou and she was on her way to the States.
“It was responsible for me being able to come here,” said Smith who graduated Class of 1989 at the historically black college and earned her degree in Physical Therapy. Today she is the Administrative Director of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at Kings County Hospital Center — a Level 1 Trauma Center serving 2.6 million people in Brooklyn and Staten Island.
Smith is currently in a sou-sou with a $1,200 pot so she can save for Christmas presents. She has a bank account put prefers this method of saving. She says “it just works.”
It also works for Haiti native Marie Lou Iqbal. The 57-year-old receptionist from Elmont, New York was once late on her mortgage payment and used a sou-sou disbursement to stay current on her home loan. Since then, she organizes small sou-sous to help others who may be in a financial bind and have gotten burned by banks.
“At the bank you lose instead of gain. Once I had a hundred dollars in the bank. When I went to withdraw it several months later, there was only $25 left. The less money you have, the more they charge you in fees,” Iqbal said.
Sou-sous allow it’s members to avoid banking fees, loan interest and it’s virtually devoid of paperwork and bureaucracy. It also allows anyone with poor credit or a questionable immigration status to save and borrow money. But most of all, it’s familiar. “It’s more like the way we do things back home,” stated Iqbal who is naturalized U.S. citizen.
It’s an intriguing concept to those who are not accustomed to this financial way of life. According to Iqbal, “The Americans, they do it one time, then they don’t want to do it any more.”
African-American financial expert Michael Hudson of Money Talk International says he was once asked to join a sou-sou but declined. “I do not feel this is a sound financial way of saving,” said Hudson. “An individual would do better to save on their own, but more importantly invest their money in vehicles that would help them reach their desired financial goal. Even if everybody is on the same page, the sou-sou program is still is a huge risk.”
Risk or no risk, this informal way of saving is a staple among America’s black immigrant communities and is widely considered a viable means to an end. Even sou-sou organizers like Clersaint, have their own financial goals. She’s saving her payouts for nursing school tuition and is preparing to take the entrance exam.
It would seem that all you need is a sou-sou and a dream.