At the end of the presentation, a sheet was passed around where murids indicated how many hours or days in a year they would like to pledge. Khudododova scanned the page, her hazel eyes puzzled: “Why days?” she asked the presenter. “I give all my time for Nazrana. I dedicate my whole self.” She made a promise to create 60 community-based savings groups to mark 60 years of Imamat.
It was nearly 10 years earlier that Khudododova saw the power of community-based savings groups, more commonly known as GAJA (Guruhi Amonati Jome Asos in Tajik). GAJAs were introduced in Tajikistan in 2009 by the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme, an affiliate of the Aga Khan Foundation. After the initial project ended in 2013, the number of savings groups still rapidly expanded to almost all Ismaili villages promoted through the Ismaili Council for Tajikistan’s Social Welfare Portfolio and a number of local champions such as Khudododova. GAJA promotes self-reliance through community-managed financial services, particularly for those living in mountainous, difficult-to-reach areas who are not served by microfinance or traditional banks.
Groups of up to 35 individuals, usually women, form a savings group and meet weekly to buy shares, apply for and obtain loans, and contribute to an emergency social fund. At the end of the annual cycle, any surplus accrued is paid out to members proportionate to the shares they own. The cycle then begins again, creating a modest, yet continuous platform for economic growth and financial stability. During particularly difficult economic times, GAJAs are often seen as the only reliable place to keep money.
“In a bank, you need 100 Somoni [USD $10] to open an account,” said Khudododova. “With GAJA, you don’t need anything. You save what you want. There is no prescribed amount. That way, it works for everyone.”
Each GAJA is governed by an elected leader, treasurer, and secretary who have keys to the lockbox where the cash and records are stored. All three keys are needed to open the lockbox -- a low-cost way to prevent theft. The groups are self-managed and grounded on the principles of accountability, equity, and inclusion.
Shortly after paying back her first loan, the retired government pension fund worker coupled her desire to serve with her experience in GAJAs as an elected leader of her village organisation, a position she continues to hold nearly a decade later. Today, Khudododova is responsible for the wellbeing of 2,600 households consisting of 15,000 people, nearly all Ismailis, and oversees 150 GAJAs. She directly delivers financial literacy skills and participates in all final payout meetings at the end of the year.
As her Time & Knowledge Nazrana niyat, Khudododova pledged to establish for women living in the rural areas of Gorno-Badakhshan 60 almosi GAJAs, meaning ‘diamond’ in Tajik. The groups were reserved for Ismaili women who had never participated in a savings group before, and who had dreams of uplifting the quality of life for their families.
“I prioritise those who need a loan for education or for health,” said Khudododova. “May and June is when people need money for education. And then after that, it’s for repairing houses or improving the condition of the house. But first is education. So many people get a loan from GAJA and they send to their kids who are studying in Germany or the US or Russia to support their children overseas with that money.”
Financial inclusion programs that target women are more likely to reduce income inequality and boost women’s decision-making power. This often leads to greater investments in a family’s education, health, and social welfare, which are necessary for inter-generational gains in quality of life. The practice of savings also helps to maintain stability when faced with economic shocks.
While GAJA has typically focused on younger and middle-aged women who are earning a small income, Khudododova has inspired other elders to participate in her almosi groups.
“One of the points is the importance of saving in older age. If I can save myself, I can be empowered in everything I am doing.”
Khudododova understands the inaccessibility of traditional banks and the financial opportunity savings groups can present to typically marginalised populations such as the elderly: “For me, because of my age, I can’t even take a loan from the bank,” she said. “But in GAJA, they don’t look at your age, or where you’re working or what you’re doing. If you can walk, and you can talk, you can go and make money for yourself.”
“My husband passed away in 2017 and my kids ask me to visit Dushanbe, but I tell them my GAJAs need me. All the groups are like children to me,” she said proudly.
She recalled the skepticism she initially received when telling her family about her pledge. “People were asking ‘Can you do this? You’re old’” she said with a smile. “And I responded ‘it’s what Hazar Imam wishes. Even the President [of Tajikistan] says you need to serve your community’.”
By the end of the Jubilee Year, 2018, Khudododova Tursunmo’s 60 newly established almosi savings groups brought together over 2,000 Ismaili women from Khorog, Shughnon, Rushan, and Roshtqal’a who collectively saved USD $255,650 (over two million Somoni), and an additional $5,000 for an emergency social fund.
As there is still demand from Jamati members, Khudododova is continuing to support people to create their GAJAs. The number of almosi Groups by the end of 2018 increased up to 64.
This initiative also introduced the GAJA model beyond Tajikistan, particularly in Russia. The Ismaili Council for Tajikistan conducted training on GAJA formation and management for Jamati members in Moscow, training a further 2,000 people on creating and managing GAJAs.