Backyard Bankers: Episode 2 Côte d’Ivoire Associations

In last month’s issue of the Leir Migration Monitor, we featured a story to appear in a forthcoming book, Backyard Bankers: Immigrants, Money Clubs, and the Pursuit of the American Dream. The story focused on the entrepreneurship of a band of hustling, creative Boston-based Bangladeshis who were moving more than $100,000 a month of capital through their club. They used their funds to invest in businesses. This month, we feature a different kind of club – an association of people originally from Côte d’Ivoire. This club does not invest in businesses but rather in the mental and social health of its membership. We hope you enjoy the contrast.

Originally from Côte d’Ivoire, Remy and his wife Martine arrived in the US in 2002. Remy worked at the Ivorian embassy in Washington D.C., while Martine served as a nanny in the area. After Remy’s embassy job ended, Martine said the family chose not to return to Côte d’Ivoire out of fear of bringing their children back to a country at war. Eventually, after their four children grew up and graduated from school, the parents made their way to Massachusetts to work.

What is an association?

Since their time in Washington D.C., Remy and Martine have participated in what they call an association, a type of money club used among Ivorian immigrant communities for an array of purposes, but most often for covering funeral expenses. People raised in the United States might perceive these clubs to be a type of informal ‘funeral insurance’ system, although Remy says, ‘We don’t have the notion of insurance… we don’t think of it that way. It’s all about solidarity’.

The associationis run by a president and executive board, on which Remy currently serves as the secretary. The club is nationwide, although most members are concentrated in Maryland, Washington D.C., and Virginia. Often, associations are grouped by ethnicity. Martine explains that there are 72 different ethnicities in Côte d’Ivoire, and that associations set up by immigrants in the US still fall mostly along those ethnic lines. For example, because Remy is from western Côte d’Ivoire, he is a member of a western Ivorian association. This is not always the case, though, as the couple are also members of a club started by people from the southwest of the US. ‘They do really well,’ Martine says, ‘now, in that club all ethnicities are included’. In either case, one’s general Ivorian identity is the most important aspect to associationmembership.

The mechanics of an association

Martine compares the association to a tontine, a broadly West African type of club. However, unlike tontines which routinely rotate payouts, Martine and Remy’s association follows a different, flexible model based on need and loyalty. 

To join the association, members must pay dues, plus $100 upfront for new members. Then, the new member contributes $10 every month for three months to become eligible for a payout. Most members bring their money in cash to the association’s regular meetings, which occur at the end of the month. Other members deposit directly into the club’s bank account. Remy says all members have access to the account number to make their deposits. Parents are contributing members, but not their children. Even adult children are not contributing members. If a child loses their parents, then they will join the association. All members must be in good standing to receive money in the form of a payout.

After making regular contributions for at least three months, members may receive full benefits from the club. For example, in the case of the death of a parent, a member may receive a payout from the association to cover funeral costs or lost income due to illness. Payouts range from $2,000-$12,000 and vary depending on the requirements for travel or funeral costs. Most payouts are in cash, but Western Union is used on occasion if the situation is complicated, and the member cannot receive the cash directly.

Payouts to members are tiered by participation and familial relationships. For instance, if a member were to lose a parent and that member always paid their dues on time, then theassociation would come together to financially support that member in their period of hardship. If a member were to lose a cousin or sister, and that member had paid their dues on time, then the association has no fixed payout amount to that family, but decides on a case-by-case basis, driven largely by the burial’s location.

Additionally, if an active member who has suffered a loss has many friends, some members will contribute additional money to the club’s fund, which increases the amount that person receives. This is an informal way of determining how much money is given to the claimant and is entirely situational, based on the need and the claimant’s popularity within the association.

For example, there was a man named Mr. Tape who was an association member for 10 years. When he died, the association paid $12,000 for two of his closest friends to take his body back to Africa for burial, as he had no family in the US. This significant outlay was seen as appropriate since Mr. Tape was a beloved and longstanding association member.

Most of the time members use their payouts to cover funeral expenses in Côte d’Ivoire. However, Martine explains that not all payouts are directed to funeral expenses. The association may also choose to give a congratulatory gift to a member for an event such as a wedding, birth, or school graduation. A standard wedding gift is between $500-$1,000 and would be funded by individual member contributions and not from the club’s fund.

In some cases, the association may issue loans to members. The largest loan ever given was to Mr. Tape. Martine and Remy insisted that it was very rare, but the group lent him a one-time sum of $1,500 to cover his rent and bills while he was ill. These sums are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. First, a member—in good standing and with at least three months of association participation–must meet with the executive board to ask for help. The board then assesses the person’s reliability before deciding on their case and informing the rest of the members. Remy says that the person asking for the loan must prove that they will repay the loan. The terms of the loan are fairly flexible and interest-free. For example, if a member is sick, the associationmight decide that the loan does not need to be repaid. When Martine’s daughter was sick and needed surgery, for instance, she was out of work for a week and the association lent her $500. There is no formal amount of time for repayment in the case of illness. Association leadership determines the amount based on need.

Not all business: social elements of the association

Martine and Remy smile as they share their association’s social perks. Martine remarks that sometimes members offer to host meetings. She laughs and adds, ‘But, you have to cook!’ The relationships between members remain important even as members leave the club. ‘We know each other,’ Martine adds, ‘we are still friends’. 

The club’s parties are events worth waiting for. Leadership looks for large venues that can host groups of 2,000 people or more and are open late into the night, as a typical party ends around 3 am. Martine noted that members often show up late as they are on ‘African time’. The association pays for the venue, but members are encouraged to bring both family and friends even if they do not belong to the association. Club money pays for an array of party benefits: the venue, decorations, photographer, and DJ cost between $7,000 and $8,000, and are taken from the association’s dues.  Some clubs pay for catering as well but mostly members bring food in a potluck fashion. The parties are lively and loud with lots of festive attire on display. Every summer, Martine and Remy make the trip from Massachusetts to Maryland, the home of their club, to attend its annual gala.  

Looking ahead

The association continues to meet regularly and serves as a useful tool for first-generation Ivorian migrants like Remy and Martine. Even though the association’s original membership peaked at around 53 people, 25 to 30 people still actively participate. Remy says that his four children, who all live successfully in the Washington D.C. area, choose not to be in the association but do enjoy going to the club’s parties.

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