Susu Tells a Creation Story — Act 1

Graphic by Aaliyah Lahai

Black and brown communities are disproportionately impacted by environmental racism and other by-products of systemic racism. The susu system helped members of Aaliyah’s community create social programs that helped them survive in the face of unwelcoming financial institutions, environmental injustice, and harsh food deserts.

One step, two steps, oops, no cracks. One step, two steps… jump!

Step by step, amidst a sprawling urban landscape permeated by subterranean fissures that accentuate fractures in the endless concrete — a young hero emerges from unit 18 and embarks on a journey through the arid landscape.

The Project complexes rise like ancient monoliths framing the skyline, their weathered facades bearing witness to the lingering scars etched into the fabric of the community. Within its labyrinthine streets, the faces of its inhabitants form a mosaic of intersecting identities — a tapestry woven from threads of cultures and backgrounds, enveloped by reverberating laughter through the narrow alleyways. Yet a reticent phantom haunts the collective consciousness with each rumble of a passing train and fireworks — piercing sounds trigger memories of battles and the thunderous roar of artillery. Creation stories, varying perspectives of life and hope, often filled the atmosphere. As evening descends, the description of masquerades and Ananse leaping and dancing between the veiled realms illuminate the walls of the buildings as children run from unit to unit chasing the stories.

The arid landscape remains a stark reality, where seeds of ambition often wither beneath the scorching systemic oppression. Giants loom large, roaming freely, feasting in their lair and casting scraps and smoke in our direction, leaving piles of bones encased in green plastic as grim evidence. Outsiders frequently bring water enclosed in barrels branded with the Giants’ signature. The speck of relief manifests a crystal spring, only to dry up once more when the mysterious barrels disappear — citing ‘changes in priorities.’

It is here that the young hero, with a gap in her smile, ventures forth. Grass-stained overalls, afro puffs, and a pink bookbag stuffed with purpose accompany her. Within these walls, a different story is being written — a story of co-creation, resilience and community.

… Yo, Aaliyah, pay attention, girl! Mind the curb!

Oops. Ah, yes, as I was saying, I, the young, slightly uncoordinated hero equipped with $200 stuffed in a pink bookbag, and a tendency to lose myself in my overflowing thoughts, begin my journey to the Susu Ma to defy the Giants.

The term Susu is said to have its roots in the Yoruba word Esu or Èsúsú, denoting an organizational method designed to assist community members with financial matters (Bascom, 1952). As a result of trade and between African tribal lands, as well as interactions between regional cultures, and the enduring impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, variations in the naming of the practice have emerged. Across the diaspora, names such as sou-sou, partner, meeting-turn, box-hand, and sol flourished within Afro-Caribbean communities and predominantly Black neighbourhoods in the United States (Nwoko, 2024). Susu is nestled within a broader cooperative ecosystem practiced within African societies, ranging from credit financing systems to agricultural production.

One example connecting the ecosystem with land and environmental processes is the presence of traditional African cooperative societies in which members would assist one another with farming duties and share knowledge regarding the land on a rotational basis (e.g. Owe, Nnoboa, etc.) (Afriyie, 2015). The persistence of such systems is rooted in a profound interdisciplinary understanding of the potential impact social systems hold on the environment and economic system as they anchor both realms. The means by which we mobilize and interact with collective synergy may translate into resilient, trust-based and multi-generational systems thinking that inspires the co-creation of new systems pertinent to the nuanced needs of the community and ultimately harmonize our economic and environmental systems.

In terms of operation, individuals within the community convene and structure the terms of the Susu (e.g. time frame, amount, frequency). For instance, if there are ten participants in a group, and each person contributes a hand of $100 monthly for ten months – each month, one person will claim a pot of $1000. Susu participation is often collateral-free; however, there is an authoritative yet unspoken rule of respect and trust. The individual introducing a new member cosigns their participation, marking a responsibility to step forward and cover the impact if anything goes awry. The entire system is managed and organized by an individual — the Susu Ma. A single member equipped with a simple pencil and notepad coordinates and maintains the system, serving as the primary point of contact and correspondence.

Growing up, I watched entire Susu groups efficiently conducted through a community grapevine with members stopping periodically to deliver their hand to the Susu Ma without merely a meeting to discuss. Sometimes, depending on variable factors such as the hand and distance of the Susu Ma, youth were enlisted to deliver their family hand. My journey consisted of jumping the cracks of the sidewalk and passing the corner store to the Susu Ma’s unit, where the familiar harmonious blend of West African spices welcomed me. Upon digging through my bookbag for my mother’s hand, she’d quickly jot something on a notepad and reach into her purse to offer me $2 for my return, where I would stop by the local convenience store for a candy bar or slushie.

This cyclical pattern of capital within varying degrees of time, amount, and frequency has empowered communities across the Black diaspora. The persistence of the system across the diaspora, particularly Black communities on Turtle Island impacted by the displacement of chattel enslavement and the subsequent paradigms and institutions marred by White Supremacy to further uphold these systems, manifested marginalization and exclusion of Black communities from economic participation. This perpetuated a narrative that Black communities are not active creators and equal participants but rather viewed as objects of currency or resources from which wealth can be extracted (Nwoko, 2024). The basis of Susu and its collaborative efforts serves not only as a means for co-creation and survival within Black communities but also one of radical hope, wielding the power of storytelling, reimagining worlds and mobilizing resources in the face of an oppressive present.

Across the Black diaspora, Susu maintains an underlying role, enabling a localized community-led economy. While extreme monetary returns are not the primary focus, through the lump sum communal-based support, members would often directly and indirectly reinvest the funds through habits including supporting community-based businesses and initiatives. Throughout my childhood, I witnessed funds contributed to purchasing winter coats for youth in the community, organizing summer events and providing gas money to drive elders to appointments. For those who struggled with literacy, the system served as a shelter from institutions that neglected such intersections.

Running from stoop to stoop of the Project complexes, my friends and I heard stories from elders with messages echoing Creation stories in which there lays a tapestry of energy and intent, weaving infinite realities unfolding and propelling the vision forward. Ananse — the spider stories — danced around our heads, depicting a spider figure carrying a pot of wisdom. In this narrative, the world comes to life when the pot slips from its grasp. Within each creature and system lies the teachings from this pot, emphasizing interconnectedness. The concept of time — past, present and future — emerged, ultimately imparting a philosophical practice that the future is merely a mirror illuminating the present.

This aspect of solution-building is often overlooked by narratives that focus solely on community struggles, claiming to possess solutions rather than the creation and resilience. Through Susu, communities forge bonds of solidarity that transcend the omnipresent forces of the institutional Giants of systemic oppression that rest upon the iceberg of “isms” and “schisms”. Jumping through cracks of endless concrete and conventional paradigms as I journey to the Susu Ma, an oasis of ingenuity and a canvas upon which the colours of community are painted stretched before me. Susu tells a creation story.

About Aaliyah Lahai

Aaliyah is a dynamic community collaborator and co-creator who intertwines her passions for sustainability, storytelling and entrepreneurship through innovative products and programs. Through her work in the non-profit sector, Aaliyah has had the privilege to work on several projects and committees to address community development through interdisciplinary collaboration. With a background in Microbiology & Immunology, Sustainability and non-profit, she adeptly explores wicked problems as a systems thinker. Within her West African tribal community, Aaliyah witnesses economic structures driven by sustainable community building – demonstrating the interconnectedness of economic, social and environmental systems. Identifying a lack of recognition of innovative sustainability concepts rooted in marginalized communities, she initiated “Storytelling for Sustainability. You can read more of Aaliyah’s work at her blog here


Bascom, W. R. (1952). The Esusu: A Credit Institution of the Yoruba. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 82(1), 63–69.

Nwoko, H. (2024). Is Your Grandmother’s Sou-Sou Savings Club the Key to Community Wealth Building?

Afriyie, A. (2015). Communal Non-Formal Financial Market System Development: A Model for Nnoboa Market System.

Further Reading: 

Is Your Grandmother’s Sou-Sou Savings Club the Key to Community Wealth Building?

Nnoboa and Rotated Susu as Agents of Savings Mobilization: Developing a Theoretical Model Using Grounded Theory.

Microcredit, money transfers, women, and the Cameroon diaspora

Effects of ““susu”” – a traditional micro-finance mechanism on organized and unorganized micro and small enterprises (MSEs) in Ghana

Galabuzi, Grace-Edward. 2006. Canada’s Economic Apartheid: The Social Exclusion of Racialized Groups in the New Century. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press. [Book]

Disclaimer: Please note that CCECJ is committed to amplifying the work of independent authors and artists. The opinions or perspectives presented in this article may not necessarily align with those of CCECJ, nor were they written by employed staff.