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BeatriceBox Hands and the Caribbean Economy

Originally from Guyana, South America, Beatrice is mother to two beautiful daughters, Maiko and Bahiyyih, and mother-in-law to a wonderfully talented son-in-law Remy Shand. Beatrice is a graduate in Women's Studies and Anthropology as well as Radio, TV and Journalism Arts and has a Certificate in Management. She is a writer whose published works include "Poison of my hate" as well as articles in various newspapers and pieces in anthologies. Beatrice works for the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

Beatrice says:

Like the noticeable division of labour that was and continues to be divided along gender lines, so there was a gender division of the economy which did not escape me even as a child growing up in Guyana, South America. Men did the big stuff and women did the small stuff. For example, my dad was in charge of the rice farm that brought in the bulk of the money and was the final decision maker when it came to buying farming equipment, home renovations or buying more cattle etc. My mother, on the other hand, grew a provision farm and made money by selling the produce at the local market each Saturday. This money was hers to take care of such bills as household items, e.g., buying new dishes, curtains, furniture, etc.

I learned from early in my life that men were the breadwinners, that what they did appeared to be more important than what women did in the larger economic perspective. They had the public persona as the head of the household and in charge of the household economy.

However, although my dad appeared to be the major economic head of the household, it was my mother who took care of the bills that were important to me and I looked to her for meeting my needs. During the time I went to high school in Guyana, education was not free as it is today. You had to pay to go to high school and provide all your supplies for classes. While my dad was reluctant to pay for school fees especially for girl children, my mother was determined that I go to the school of my choice. Against my dad, she decided to send me and was responsible for paying all the bills related to my schooling. The money had to be paid every term. Not only did she have to pay my school fees, she had to also pay my transportation fee as I travelled back and forth from school each day. Starting out with a hired car that would take me to the steamer stelling where I would catch the steamer that would take me from my Island to the mainland, then take a train to my school located on the west coast and had about a mile or so to walk to actually get to the school. It was onerous and costly.

My mother met these payments by saving through the use of box hands - A phenomenon that is popular throughout the Caribbean and known by different names. Box hands are a kind of underground economy. It is a system whereby 8 to 10 people get together and agree to pool a certain sum of money each week or each month or fortnight - whatever the most convenient time for the group. Each time the money is pooled together one person gets to take it home.

If the group agrees to throw $10 dollars each week, month or fortnight and if there are 10 persons in the group, then each hand would amount to $100.00. My mother generally threw two box hands which she arranged to draw around the time that school fees were due. My school never had to ask me when I was bringing the money. My mother always had the money in time and my books and supplies were always bought brand new.

As a child, I always saw my mother as someone that had a lot of money. The secret was, she knew how to make ends meet. She knew how to stretch the budget and how to save for what she wanted. By using box hands, she got the privilege of borrowing without interest, she was able to save for a rainy day without going through the formal banking system. In fact neither my mother nor father ever had a bank account as far as I can recall, yet we had everything it seemed. We owned our house, and lived a relatively comfortable life. My mother always taught me to live within my means, and never to hang my hat where my hand cannot reach. These principles guided me well until I came to Canada and succumbed to the lure of what seemed to be easy money through credit card purchasing and borrowing. At this moment I am trying to pay off my credit card balances and to avoid using them ever again unless I can pay off my balance outright.

I knew my parents slept well at nights and did not worry about rising debts or fear that the collector would come and take away their goods because of lack of payment. I know I cannot say the same thing. Use of credit has many people, including myself, living false lives, living a life one cannot afford. I know of many immigrants who have fallen into the credit trap and who are hounded by collectors at every turn.

I believe my mother's adage of paying cash for you buy will go a long way to cleaning up my credit. I think there is a lesson in the way simple people lived without credit. Most of the things we buy on credit are things we could do without easily but the urge and temptations to buy this and that are so pervasive, it is hard not to become trapped in it.

I have a better understanding of myself now and how the system works and I have begun throwing box-hands like my mother did to meet payments and to save money. While I would not go so far as not having a bank account, I could see that turning to the old box-hand economy could save me some pretty dollars in interest.

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