Friday, October 19, 2012

Ethiopia: The Post Office

I needed to send some photo books to my good friend Marcella, so I packaged them in a box and took them to the Embassy's mail room.

The Embassy does not offer personal package-mailing services, per se, but the Embassy's Employee Association does provide an option.  Under the EEA's scheme (known as the Homeward Bound program), packages are sent by DHL to a sorting facility in Washington, DC, and there, they are handed over to the U.S. Postal Service for delivery to the final destination.  The cost for this service includes the DHL charges from Addis Ababa to Washington and the USPS charges from Washington to the final destination.

The package I had prepared weighed in at 2.3 kilograms (about 5 pounds), and when I got the shipping estimate at the Embassy, I nearly choked.  The door-to-door price was more than 50 dollars, with the bulk of that going toward the DHL leg.

The mail clerk who told me the price was an Ethiopian man.

"That's very expensive," I told him.  "I think I'll try Ethiopian Post instead."

"I don't recommend it," he replied.  "They don't provide a good service."

I was a bit surprised at the negative feeling he had toward his country's own postal service, but at the same time, I was not dissuaded.  I also asked the clerk about the EPS rates, but he wasn't able to provide me with any information.

I decided to get a few more opinions, however, so I asked some of my American colleagues if they had tried EPS.

While none of them had actually tried it before, all of them were very cool to the idea.

"Go right ahead," one colleague warned, "but don't be surprised if your package disappears!"

Others had similarly negative things to say.  Everyone was quite sure my box would be looted.

Some of my colleagues also took the opportunity to chide me for being cheap.  "Just pay the 50 bucks already," I was told.

It had been a bit pointless for me to ask my colleagues' opinions, I suppose, because in the end, I disregarded all of their advice and made my own decision: Ethiopian Post it was!

The notion that the systems of developed countries are guaranteed to be superior, and that those from developing countries are destined to fail due to corruption and incompetence is ridiculous.  It's difficult to give exact numbers since methodologies for counting differ, but there are around 150,000 Ethiopian immigrants (and probably twice as many Americans with Ethiopian ancestry) living in the United States.  With this population approaching half a million, there must surely be a robust postal exchange taking place between the U.S. and Ethiopia.  If so, I had nothing to worry about.  I had faith that EPS could do the job, and I was willing to put my money where my mouth was.

The following Friday afternoon, after the workday had finished, I went to the Post Office.

The guard at the door scrutinized me for several seconds, decided that I was legit, and allowed me to enter.

Inside, there was controlled chaos.  There were two service windows open, and there were many people hovering around each like a swarm of bees.  There was definitely no queuing.

I stood in the back of the swarm and waited for my turn.  I must have looked sufficiently out of place, though, because soon a woman opened a third service window, and she called me over.

I showed her my box, which I had sealed and labeled at home, and she started shaking her head "no".  Apparently, I was not allowed to use my own packaging.

I purchased a standard EPS box from the clerk, and then the guard from the door magically appeared to offer a hand.  He sliced open the box I had prepared and began to repackage the contents in the new box.  Basically, he took over the whole operation, and I was pushed to the side.

As the guard was working on my package, the clerk walked around the counter to have a look.  In Ethiopia, postal clerks are also customs officials, so she flipped through the photo books and conducted a brief inspection.  Once she was satisfied that I wasn't shipping anything suspicious or dutiable, the guard taped up the box.

When he finished taping, I wrote the shipping address on the box and handed it to the clerk.  She set it on her well-seasoned scale, noted the weight, and pulled out a hefty book of postal rates.  Then she turned to the back of the book and ran her finger across a page, stopping on the price that corresponded to the weight of my box.  There was just one problem.

"Excuse me," I interrupted, "but I think you are on the wrong page."

When she realized that she was on the page for the United Arab Emirates, she laughed.  I laughed too.

Once we got that sorted out, the clerk gave me three forms to complete.  She needed these in triplicate, however, so she had to rig them up.  For each form, she layered three blank copies with sheets of that bluish-purplish carbon paper sandwiched in between.  She held the stacks together with straight pins.

Throughout this whole process, the swarm of bees had gradually shifted over, so that my window was now engulfed like the other two were.  As the clerk was dealing with me, other people kept reaching around me to pass her envelopes, parcels, and money.  In turn, she was weighing things for them, returning envelopes and parcels, and passing out forms and stamps.  This system is both simultaneously efficient and inefficient, I suppose, and it reminded me of a mother bird feeding her chicks.  The clerk was giving everyone just enough attention to keep the majority of us quiet.  By serving ten people at once, she was able to keep things moving.  Such a system, however, favors those with simpler requests.  The people who weaseled in front of me to mail small letters and postcards were finished and out of the way quickly.  There were so many of these small intrusions, however, that I think my total time at the window was doubled as a result.

Since my window was overtaken by the swarm, I decided to vacate the area while I completed my paperwork.  I relocated to a table off to the side.

A few minutes later, I was back at the window.  I was in the home-stretch!

The clerk unpinned my forms and pulled out some rubber stamps.  Each form got several stamps, and the box got some ink as well.

Finally, the clerk attached a bar-coded tracking number to the box (and to my receipt and to her file copy), and I was finished.

The whole process had taken one hour, and the price was 829 birr (about $46).

"It should reach the U.S. in about a week," the clerk told me.

I thanked her and walked home.

The status of the package was unclear for a few weeks because the tracking number I received seemed to be worthless.  Whenever I entered the number in the EPS online tracking tool, my package could never be located.

Nonetheless, one month and two days after I had shipped the books, I got a message from Marcella.  The package had arrived in perfect condition.  I'm not sure how long the delivery actually took, though, because Marcella had been on vacation when the box arrived.

I should mention that Marcella was working in Afghanistan at the time, so the box I sent from Addis Ababa traveled first to the U.S.  Then it was passed to the Military Postal Service and shipped to Kabul.

That's a lot of traveling for a package, so even if I had opted for the EEA's DHL shipping option, I doubt the process would have been substantially faster.

And even if I had picked the slower horse in the race, it didn't matter.  Ethiopian Postal Service had done me proud.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice that it worked out but it seems like a big risk to take to save $4.