of The Gift Economy
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In this paper, I write about the experiences of women in Senegal and the Economy
and Solidarity Network. These experiences have to do with banking, in particu-
lar women’s banking networks, one of the initiatives that women developed to
fight the impact of structural adjustment policies on our country, on our lives.
This was a terrible experience for people in Senegal and all West Africa because
we woke up one morning and the value of our currency had been cut by half,
drastically reducing our capacity to purchase or sell products for our subsistence.
This devaluation was a very big violence against our people so the women started
coming together to see if they could find a way to deal with the impoverishment
caused by structural adjustment.
Women’s Banking Networks in Senegal
When I learned about women’s banking networks they had been in existence for
about ten years. I read many evaluation reports on the banking networks written by
“experts” and economists from the academe, and sometimes also by feminists, that
said the model had to change. These evaluations, by so-called experts, compared
the success of women’s banking networks to formal banking institutions, using
the same indicators to measure “success:” the amount of money in the bank to
the amount of money generated by the women in the banking networks. These
“experts” all recommended training to improve women’s management abilities.
My disagreement with this kind of approach is that, as usual, it prefers to focus
on “teaching” women how to do things, rather than attempting to understand
the skills these women, who are not part of the dominant economic discourse,
bring to the initiative. I decided to see for myself how the networks worked, so I
joined a group and went there to learn and to listen the women in these networks.
And I am going to share their views and their way of thinking and their way of
analyzing the results, because for them, the banking networks have been a great
success, not only in their daily lives, but also at the level of community.
These networks are about the mutuality of saving and credit. To be part of the
network each woman is required to deposit very small amounts of money with
the network. The rule is that the access to the funds must be absolutely open to
each woman, even if what they can manage to contribute is only 25 cents of the
dollar. This is the first rule. The second rule is that the network is a space for
women, by women. No men. I asked them, “Why don’t you accept a poor man
or men?” They told me, “Rabia, you are a feminist. We are not feminists but we
know that there is a problem of power. If we accept only one man and we are 300
women, all the rules are going to be changed.” They started with 100 women and
now these networks have connected over 30,000 women.
The words that they used to evaluate their success did not refer to money. They
measured their success in terms of values. They said, “We are not richer, we are
not bourgeoisie, we don’t have a lot of money, but we have won our dignity. We
have won the right to speak, to participate in decision-making, and we are very
proud because our success at the community level is absolutely recognized. We
do not accept men inside our space, but we train them and they learn from our
experience.” Their analysis of the network’s success thus focused on values such as
the dignity they felt operating as a collective that could ensure women’s equitable
access to credit. I asked if their success was also due to being able to generate the
money needed for the network to extend credit, wondering whether the “banking”
networks were actually working or not. They told me, “yes, it works well but it
is only about relationships, it is not about money.”
I was surprised by this response because to be able to acquire material things
you need to have money. What did they mean about relationships? They told me
there is no guarantee of capital accumulation or profit in the network; the success
of the network is based only the relationships between the women themselves.
“Our success is not only measured by our rate of repayment. We have the high-
est rate of repayment because of our women’s honour [which in Woluf is kersa].
For instance, men do not have kersa. If they are in debt, they are not ashamed.
That’s why even when they are learning from our experiences, their networks of
credit fail.” The women never want to remain in debt to the other women. And
thus success comes as a result of the relationships between them, and not in the
exchange, or circulation, of money. The starting point is the relationship among
the women, which they emphasize with a ceremony dedicated to relationship
In the ceremony the women come together and each one will propose to an-
other, and ask, “Would you like to become my friend?” And in Woluf, the word
for friend is xaarit, which means “you are part of me.” It is a simple ceremony in
which they give each other little gifts. If you have nothing that you can give, you
can give a piece of wood. The gifts are not given for the value they have, they are
given at the symbolic level. So these women mobilized all their knowledge and
the experiences they have had to help each other, and what they value is their
solidarity. The networks are not based on a market economy model. The women
do not try to change the scale of their intervention, they do not want to change
the rules they have put in place, they do not want or need to accumulate more
money. They simply need enough money to solve the concrete problems of daily
life. The women told me they need to have time if they are going to run after more
money, and this would mean they would lose their social time for ceremonies,
for friendship, and for families. What is also important then is their perception
of the value of money.
They said they don’t even have a lot of money in the so-called “bank.” “The
women’s bank is poor,” they tell me laughing. It is a joke between them. They said
that in the Woluf language there is a saying that money that is sleeping, not mov-
ing, kept in the bank, is like a dead body. They prefer that the money is circulating
and moving, and if the money is shared it will make the relationships grow.
The heart of the economy of women is their social relationship and they don’t
want to lose the capacity of circulation of the gift. I have learned about the gift
economy and gift giving and I talked to the women about this when they spoke
about the economy. From this experience I can say that theirs is “an economy for
life, an economy of life against the model of the war economy,” in which values
other than money, such as dignity and solidarity, are primary.
We have to link economy for life with the gift economy and challenge the global
market economy, which has forced many countries, like those on the African
continent, into debt, so that we must fight for debt relief.
Maybe, instead, it is the world market economy, concentrated in the hands of
the white, male, anglo-saxon Protestants, the dominant economy, that has con-
tracted a huge debt vis-a-vis the women of the world, and the African countries.
I hope we will change this paradigm.
Rabia Abdelkarim-Chikh is an Algerian, living and working in Senegal as a researcher
in social sciences for the international NGO, Environment Development Actions
Third World. She is a feminist activist involved with the African Women Forum for
Economy in Solidarity (FAMES) and has facilitated a number of different workshops
and panels at World Social Forums.