Building the commons may be hard in wealthier countries, where traditions of mutual aid were lost many years ago. But they’re still alive and well in other parts of the world – as this article by Janet of Grassroots Economics / Sarafu Network shows. I interviewed the director of Grassroots Economics, Shaila Agha, who told me about ‘chamas’ in Kenya – mutual savings groups, built on trusted relationships in local communities. We’re partnering with Mutual Credit Services and the Credit Commons Society to revive some of these practices in the UK, in places like Lancaster, Stroud and hopefully, many other places too. They’re going to be essential as the current, damaging economy and banking system continues to fall over. See here for an overview of these ideas. We have a lot to learn from Africa.
Over to Janet:
From way back, prehistory, communities in Kenya have always come together to support each other through groups that were formed on common goals – before money ever existed. The members were mostly neighbors from the same village. Leaders were selected on a sit down to govern the process of the Merry-go-rounds or Rotating Labor Associations. Rules were set to guide the members during a cycle where members would help each other with communal work such as plowing land, building houses, fetching water and firewood, cleaning the compound, farming etc. A full cycle would have all the members visited on a rotational basis.
Different communities referred to merry-go-round in different names i.e. Nyoluoro-Luo, Mwerya-Giriama and Duruma, Chikola-Chonyi, Mwethiya-Kamba and Gubato-Kikuyu. I’ll use Mwerya below because it is the name we use where I live in Kilifi. In all the communities, the practices were the same as members would help the host (who’s turn it was) with work while the host prepared a meal (often with the rest of the group as a potluck) as an appreciation for the work done. This would rotate until all members of a group are visited.
Traditional Mweryas began to disappear during colonialism and were eventually replaced with sharing of shillings instead of labor. Members would contribute a certain amount of money and give it to one member of the group. This modern shilling-merry-go-round has over the years also broken or slowed due to lack of Kenyan Shillings. Members could miss meetings because they didn’t have the amount to be paid. This affected the cycles as some members ended up not receiving their cycle in full or even having nothing at all.
It is due to this that the groups have started to introduce Community Inclusion Currencies (CICs aka Community Vouchers) in chamas as a promise of labor to be used instead of scarce national currency. Three groups in Kinango, Kwale and one in Kilifi shown below have been doing some ispiring work with CIC Mweryas.
CIC Mwerya have several essential advantages in these communities in that;
- It is critical for an increase in the production of locally available resources and can be done without national currency. They can build assets, like homes and farms through a mutual credit.
- It creates bond between community members and builds trust within the community members as a promise of support from the members.
- The digital system builds accountability and the digital vouchers can be used cosmo-locally – both for Mwerya and for markets. The Mwerya can also connect to eachother as villages combine work on larger tasks.
Vitangani C is one of the groups in Kinango, Kwale County that have been trained on using vouchers to run their merry-go-round that they call Mwerya in their local language-Giriama. Yet, on their first round of mwerya, this group proved that it is possible to support each other with labor through the use of CICs. They visit Salama Mwanakombo as the first member in the cycle and help her to fetch water from a nearby dam for her domestic use.
Salama Mwanakombo is a 52-year-old widow who has spent most of her life eking out a living by growing crops and rearing chicken on a tiny piece of land in her Kinango village. Water has been a major issue as she lacked the manpower to help her in fetching water for her kitchen garden. 3 years ago, she joined Vitangani C and registered an account on Sarafu Network that has enabled her to use her vouchers to get basic needs through her group, Vitangani C. She got even more elated to learn that the group is starting up mwerya something that she happily participated in years ago.
What more? Salama shares her excitement with us. “Mwerya was my favorite community activity when I first married into this community. Families came together to support each other through mwerya. It brought families together as people spent their time together each week. Imagine having months’ worth of labor in one day as you share a meal and laughter?”
She lit up.”I’m happy that Grassroots Economics Foundation is reviving a lost glory. Having gone through the training led by Wilfred Chibwara 2 weeks ago, I’m happy that our group of 23 members started our mwerya today and even elated that I’m the first one in the cycle. Mwerya is based entirely on faith. If you are lucky enough to be the first one in the queue,it means you are trusted by the rest of the members. If you are among the last, you are relying on your fellow members to keep their promise to show up and put in the work when it’s finally your turn. My chama members have contributed a total of 600 VITA vouchers and I’ve sent them 15 VITA each as an appreciation for helping me in fetching water and watering my farm. This is equivalent to the value of the labor they put in today.”
But it turns out that people in this village have a lot of trust and faith in each other. Dzeha Nyanje, a member of Vitangani C, says that since they received the training on mwerya and started, he has seen the excitement in chamas as many are looking forward to getting the training and starting their own.
“We didn’t expect that it would mushroom to this extent,” says Dzeha. “Men have joined. Young people have joined. Almost all the recipients that I talk to belong to a group and are looking forward to starting a mwerya.”
Amani Makuluni has also managed to have their mwerya cycle recently. A group consisting of 20 members has their constitution well elaborated that involves, the cycle routine, their vision plan for the year and governance. This was all done after the training they received from Grassroots Economics Foundation. Speaking to Dzeha Njanje who is the first host, he had this to say,” Mwerya is a glue that joins communities together. How will you know how your members are doing if you don’t visit them? I’m happy that mwerya has made this possible. We will visit a different member each week and help them with social work. I can’t believe that my zai pits have been done in a day. This is because my group members helped me to work on them. I’ve also received vouchers as contributions from our members today. I have given them a voucher token for helping me with today’s work. I’ll use the rest of my vouchers to buy basic needs within my network this week. This also means that they have my promise, I have to visit all the other members and help them with work too.”
These #retrad regenerative traditions not only help communities come together for mutual aid, building local farms and other asset development but they are also a way to celebrate. Community members bring food and eat together after a hard day. These communities are inviting others to join their Mwerya and join the communal work and sharing of food. Grassroots Economics’ team has been invited to join these Mwerya. We bring our efforts as well as food to be part of this amazing tradition.
I’m inspired to be in a Mwerya that I can be part of – where my friends and I cook, talk and work on positive community actions.
These photos and support to write this came from Wilfred Chibwara.
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