Sunday, January 3, 2010

How to Save Money: Cameroon Tontines


In various parts of Africa, there are informal organizations, called "tontine," in French-speaking Cameroon. I looked up “tontine” in the English-language Wikipedia, and the definition is not the same; however, there is a link to the word “likelamba,” which describes the everyday African tontine.
Two types of tontines
The usual system is that all the members of a tontine—usually tontines are all-male or all-female—contribute a set amount of money every month to a common “pot,” and every month a different person takes the entire sum, usually to take care of a large expense they couldn't otherwise afford: tuition for a child, household equipment, etc. It is very difficult to save money in Sub-Saharan Africa for all but a fortunate few. Everyday needs are pressing, and there is never enough money; even if there is, a family member may have an urgent need, and there goes any money that was left over!
In Cameroon, there is yet another tontine system, called the "Businessman's tontine." In this tontine, the monthly "pot" is auctioned off to the highest bidder, and the members share the payment. The winner of the bid must pay the fee immediately, and repay the loan at the next meeting. The agreement is based on honor; however, everyone knows that woe be to him and his family, if the loan is not repaid. 
I found several articles/studies about the Bamiléké tontines. The Bamilékés are originally from West Cameroon, and are generally known as enterprising and thrifty people.

I was in two different tontines. 
One was a female Bamiléké "regular" tontine, where not only was I the lone "white" woman, but also the only non-Bamiléké. We would meet on one Saturday a month, taking turns at one another's homes; eat grilled chicken and drink beer, and talk about "women's topics"--husbands, money and children. 
The second one was an indirect tontine: we had created an organization of women married to men native of our Douala neighborhood (formerly one of the three villages that formed Douala). We met in order to try to improve life in our part of the city, and organized a fundraiser with a big luncheon; we used the funds we raised to do some renovations in the neighborhood city-owned health center/clinic. We had our "club outfit"-- a mini-kaba* in a fabric we chose, and we all knew how to sing the local anthem, which provided me with my "15 minutes of fame," when we sang it on national television. The anthem was in Duala language, and it was rare to see a "white" singing in any local Cameroonian language. As we met once a month anyway, we decided to create a small tontine of our own.
Both "clubs" gave me a wonderful feeling of female solidarity, and I have very fond memories of these meetings.
The good and the bad
Of course there is a negative side to some of the tontines; people might aim for monthly contributions that are too high, much like in the United States, people committed to mortgages they could not afford; in order to continue participating, some would engage in dishonest activities. Others, unable to pay, might go so far as to commit suicide.  Unfortunately, even then, family members may be liable for payments!
In Alain Henry's account on his experience visiting a tontine, he is met with suspicion. People are usually co-opted into these associations and outsiders are not welcome. The members, in the organizations I had the honor of participating in, were bound by mutual trust.

*Kaba: the Duala traditional dress inspired by the Protestant missionaries' influence, similar to the outfit the missionaries forced the local Hawaiian women to wear, also. A description is found at "Wakuna's Cameroonian Pidgin - English Dictionary." 


Note: Japanese account of the tontine.