Wagur: The Evolution of Reciprocity in Indigenous Societies

Tags: ROLA, wagur, Nyluoro, Mwerya, Chikola, mutual-aid, Kenya, testimonials

image Benter Atieno-St. Regina Segere Legio Maria

“I never thought that I would get an opportunity like this: to be surrounded by so much love and support from my group. Wagur is a practice that I enjoyed as a young lady when I was married into this community. People came together to help with work after which we would share a cup of tea, water or whatever meal the host was comfortable to provide. We slowly lost this practice as many people moved to the urban areas and the rest got so busy fixing their own homesteads that they didn’t really care about coming together. I love that Grassroots Economics Foundation is reviving this. It feels even better than before since we now have vouchers that are acting as a promise [accountability] amongst us as we support each other” She smiled. (Interviewed by Janey Otieno)

Wagur - To strengthen

The Dholuo language of the Luo tribe in Kenya is diverse with many dialects and different cultural practices. The word ‘wagur’ in Dholuo, is very interesting. Based on our work with communities in Nyanza we find many different (but connected) usages of the word. In its oldest usage (and still the most common across Nyanza) it means ‘to strengthen.‘ For many this is the only usage of the word they know.

Reciprocity of endogenous credit - as an ethic But in some groups this word came to be used in relation to ‘strengthening’ a group of people. In some other groups, they used it to mean a group of people freely giving to others in their community in the form of a gift economy. For instance neighbors would voluntarily come together and work on someone’s farm or home. Reciprocity in this case was purely social and followed the Golden Rule. If you received wagur you were expected to also give wagur but there was no strong rule in place for when or how. nor were there set punishments for not reciprocating, but generally if you never participated in wagur you would likely receive less yourself.

Reciprocity of endogenous credit - as law Some groups began to develop rules around wagur such that the group of people would have a chosen cycle of receiving wagur and a seasonal calendar through the year for types of wagur assistance. In these groups, determining whether someone had fulfilled their wagur obligation by taking part in these practices was given a lot of importance, because if they missed a wagur they would have to make it up in various ways; like offering some goods or services to the household who’s wagur they missed. In this case it was important to develop roles and rules for management of wagur. Some groups will also use the term Nyoluoro for this practice.

We can only conjecture at the amount of physical assets developed over generations through wagur (e.g. houses built and farms prepared) as well as social assets (cohesion, trust, cooperation and knowledge sharing).

Reciprocity of exogenous credit - as law Some groups began to use currency as their form of wagur contribution - this case is most commonly referred to as Nyoluoro (or merry-go-round). Nyoluoro generally refers to a local community initiative whose members contribute to a rotating fund and each member is entitled to a sum of money upon each rotation. Members often use the money for their personal needs such as paying school fees, buying household utensils, health expenses and investing in business.

Generally a cash based Wagur/Nyoluoro or merry-go-round is extremely limited by the scarcity of national currency. While they do and are helping community groups save, they no longer have the ability to gather enough credit together to do what they once did (build whole villages and farms for generations). This means that communities must depend on non-local currencies and markets to acquire enough cash to be able to support each other.

Monetary Imperialism Exogenous (non-local) credit or currency cash was (and still is) a method used inorder to ensure that communities (called ‘colonies’ by Imperial forces) were subservient and provided a stable workforce for the extraction of resources.

This progression from traditional non-cash-based mutual-aid; Wagur/Nyoluoro (also known generally as Rotating Labor Associations (ROLAs)) into cash-based Wagur/Nyoluoro/merry-go-rounds (Also known generally as Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs)) can be seen not only in Nyanza but across every tribe in Kenya. Indeed it can be seen in India, China, South America and in every indigenous society we have encountered. It is a legacy of our colonial past and centralization of power and control through currency.

Grassroots Economics Often economists are over emphasizing markets in the evolution of economic systems and are not even aware of non-market based indigenous practices of mutual-aid using endogenous credit. Grassroots Economics Foundation is seeing a revival of mutual-aid where local community groups (chamas) in different areas of Kenya are regenerating their traditional ways of non-cash based Wagur and Nyoluoro; where members of the group would be helped with labor on a rotational basis. This goes on until every member is visited hence a full cycle.

Communities are creating their own Community Asset Vouchers as a group based on their capacity to offer goods and services. These vouchers are promises - credit obligations redeemable as payment for the group’s services. The group uses their vouchers during these ROLAs. They agree on an amount of vouchers (generally one day’s worth of labor) to give to the current member of the cycle (the host of the wagur), after which members that come to the wagur, to help that member, have their vouchers returned to them (they are paid for their service). Anyone missing the wagur will be obligated to accept the vouchers for their services at local markets in order to fulfill their promise of support.

These vouchers are digital and available to create and use via SMS and USSD (no internet or smart phone needed). They are connected to a blockchain system (CELO) that allows for transparency and security as well as the ability for these vouchers to be traded between groups. Supporting and witnessing the flows of mutual-aid in these traditional practices and emerging connections between groups is amazing and beautiful. We’re honored and blessed to be doing this work.

60+ groups across Kenya having gone through a one month training on the dynamics around traditional wagur (ROLAs have a local name in each language) and voucher usage. The following testimonies were collected by Janet Otieno:

image Salome Adino- Kwe Kende Group

“Wagur not only promoted unity amongst the community members but also brought about so much support in labor in such a short period of time. When the entire group comes together to support you with farming for instance, you could get a month’s worth of labor in just a day. Not only do you save time but also have an opportunity to bond with your group members, share in laughter and now, also receive vouchers to help you seek the basic necessities from your network [market].” Sited the excited Salome

image Gabriel Omondi- Got Gagi Group

“The community’s attention has been drawn by the massive help that we show to each other as we all visit a member early in the morning and help with whichever work that they have. It is restoring unity amongst us since even the people that had grudges are forced to come together and work. We Luos believe that when one prepares you food, love is shared. That is emulated during Wagur too as the host prepares tea or porridge that replenishes our energies after helping with work. Normally in our community, a day’s work would go for Ksh.300 so we get paid the same amount in vouchers from the amount that we send to the host in each round. In our case, we send vouchers worth Ksh. 400. The host can use the rest of the vouchers to buy basic needs or to get the services that he or she may need. I’m grateful to the Grassroots Economics Foundation for training us and helping us with a tradition that was long forgotten.”