Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Beads In the Wind

Okay, so I was being optimistic in my last post when I said that our shipment would be in the air within a couple of days. It's been more like a couple of weeks, and that's only counting the most recent delay. I won't go into the earlier ones. Suffice it to say that, for all Bernard's efforts, our shipper there is a bit hard to get hold of and, when one does, he frequently doesn't have time to discuss things, but says he will email the information. But then a week or more passes and...no email. If Bernard talks to one of the employees to try to get information, what he is told is often in error. (We actually missed a shipment that way in January when the deadline we were given over the phone was after the date of the shipment's actual departure.) This is life as usual in Africa, and I should be used to it by now. But I tend to forget when I haven't been there in awhile.

Bernard finally did reach him, though, and arranged a time to come in and repack the boxes so that the two we could afford to ship by air would hold the items we need most--namely beads. The other two, which we could manage without for awhile, could follow more economically a month or so later by sea in one of Jasperdean's larger shipments.

So we were quoted a price--$320 for freight and $150 for the shipping agent's fee, and that wasn't counting the fees I would have to pay on this side of the ocean once the shipment landed, which would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $345. Ouch! But we were getting low on options. We needed those beads! So I gave the go-ahead, and everything seemed fine. But then we got a call from the shipper saying that the boxes would have to go through New York to New Orleans and then to Mobile, and that it would cost another $98.

Well, that made no sense to me at all. The shipment would be coming over on a passenger flight, and I happen to know that there is a passenger flight directly from Accra to Atlanta, since I've flown on it myself. And since there are any number of flights from Atlanta to Mobile every day, why should our boxes have to go way farther north to New York and then back south and well west of us to New Orleans before finally coming back east to Mobile? And that was if they reached Mobile on their own at all--it sounded as if I might even have to go to New Orleans to pick them up!

So I called one of our shipping-broker angels here in the U.S. (Sandra) to make sure I wasn't wrong about this and, no, I was right. There was no reason for our shipment to take the scenic route to Mobile. She even gave me the flight number of the direct flight from Accra to Atlanta to give to our shipper over there.

Girded with this new information, Bernard tackled the shipper again. But all he got was your basic, "No. This is the way it has to be." More discussion did not seem to be an option.

Bernard, ready to cry uncle on this round and just look for another shipper for next time, duly reported back to me. But by this time my feisty terrier side was starting to emerge. I had my teeth sunk into the end of that $98 rope, and I wasn't ready to let go. $98 may not seem like a lot of money here, but once you've seen for yourself how far it goes in West Africa, it seems like a small fortune. I just couldn't see throwing it away unnecessarily.

So I called our other broker angel (Leigh) to see what more I could learn that might convince our shipper to see the light. She suggested that maybe he didn't have an agent he'd worked with in Atlanta, and then gave me the run-down on what to tell him about why he wouldn't need one; on how Delta uses a company called Forward Air to handle the forwarding of the boxes to Mobile by truck, and on how the boxes could actually clear Customs here, since Mobile is, after all, an international port--it just doesn't have an international airport.

So this time I called the shipper in Accra myself. After only a few minutes of talking, he agreed that shipping through Atlanta was a much better idea. He was very nice, very cooperative. I'll probably never know whether his inability to hear this same information from Bernard had to do with Bernard's youth (he turned 29 last Friday), or whether his willingness to hear it from me had to do with my being a blefono (white woman) from a Western culture, and therefore the one presumably in control of some bottomless  well of money. Or there could very well be some other, perfectly sensible (though, to me, inscrutable) reason for his behavior. Whatever. He now agreed that he should ship the boxes through Atlanta and directly on to Mobile.

The bad news was that he would not agree to a reduction in price, which made me really itchy until I remembered that flying to Accra through New York costs about the same as flying to Accra through Atlanta. So this might be just another case of how, in my experience, business so often seems to be conducted in Ghana, to the dismay and distrust of Westerners (at least until they get used to it). In short, the first price quoted doesn't always tell the whole tale. It frequently does not include various aspects of the service being offered. Or sometimes it hasn't been thoroughly researched before being stated, so later information that comes to light makes an (upward) adjustment necessary. Or maybe I've just been taken a number of times and am in denial. I don't know. I may never know.

Here's a typical example:  On my first trip to Somanya, I wanted to commission a local artist to make us some Soul of Somanya t-shirts. He quoted me a price per shirt that seemed extremely reasonable, so I said yes, go ahead. We shook on it. But then he told me that he would need money to buy the paints that were necessary to get the effect I was so taken with.

Oh. I had assumed that the paints were included in the price he had quoted. But it was still a great price, so I said fine. It's a deal. But then he mentioned that he would need tro-tro (mini-bus) fare into Accra to get the paints. Hmmm. This was definitely starting to feel like a "how-far-can-I-push-the-blefono" kind of scenario. But the price was still less than I had originally expected to pay, and I am all about upholding fair trade values and not exploiting the people of developing countries by underpaying them for their talents and goods. So I said fine. Okay. But then he advised me that the t-shirt blanks would cost another two Ghana cedis apiece.

At this point I was (belatedly?) beginning to wonder what, exactly, had been included in the original price he had quoted. And I was definitely starting to feel taken advantage of. So I pulled back and started to to shrug off the whole deal, at which point he offered to throw in the labor for free because he really wanted to establish an account with an American contact.

Now Megan and I spent a great deal of our time on that first trip trying to figure out which behaviors on the part of certain people we spent time with were culturally based and which could be accurately characterized as exploitative (of us). Ultimately, we embraced Bernard as our standard to judge by. While some people were assuming we would pay all their expenses as we went about the business of our project there, but then somehow always had money to go out drinking in the evenings and even to treat their friends to drinks, Bernard would typically refuse our offers of free dinners out or snacks when on the road, instead using what money he had to pay his own way and/or to buy little things for our comfort--handkerchiefs (for mopping up perspiration), hand fans (to prevent same), purified water, etc.

Adopting him as our standard for Ghanaian customs was a choice that I have since realized was quite possibly skewed too far in the other direction, since he did not have a typical upbringing and is probably substantially more Western in his thinking than most rural Ghanaians. But at the time, it was a comfort to know that there was someone whose values we could depend on when we were not in a position to consult our host or hostess.

Anyway, I ended up commissioning the t-shirts, and also giving the artist a brief crash course in doing business with Westerners (talk abut the blind leading the blind!), explaining to him how most Western business people would not take kindly to his add-on approach to costing, but would expect the initial price he quoted to include everything. But a part of my brain kept whispering, and keeps whispering today, "When in Rome, when in Rome, when in Rome...." I suspect that if I lived in Ghana long enough, I would stop expecting that first price to include everything. If I didn't expect it to be any different--if I just learned to come to the table expecting the price to jump around as various considerations arose--then presumably I wouldn't experience it as an attempt to exploit my blefono naivete. I would just accept it as the way business is done there and learn to take it in stride. Or maybe I would learn that I was being taken on a regular basis and had just  been in denial. I don't know. I'll probably never know.

But back to The Great Shipping Dilemma of 2011. In talking to our shipper on the phone that day, I stressed several times what both Leigh and Sandra had told me--that the boxes must be clearly marked as being destined for, and paid for, all the way through to Mobile. Otherwise our beads could very well vanish into the bowels of U.S. Customs in Atlanta, possibly forever.

No problem. Everything was set. Within a couple of days, Bernard had deposited the extra $98 in the shipper's account and we were good to go. Within a couple of days after that, I was advised via email that the boxes had cleared all the red tape on that side of the Atlantic and had been delivered to the airport to await the next flight that had space in the hold for cargo. And our shipper wrote me a very nice note stating that he would be working on finding ways to make the next attempt less expensive; that the first time was always the hardest, but that we would all get better at it.

Great. We were all in this together. We were all learning something. This was good. I was happy.

Two days later (yesterday), I got an email letting me know that the shipment was on the ground in Atlanta. He attached the air waybill and packing list and everything that Leigh would need to process the shipment once it arrived in Mobile. I was delighted. Apparently our boxes had made it onto the first or second flight out of Accra. Excellent. My worst fear had been that they would sit in the Accra airport for weeks, and that we would run out of beads to sell in the meantime. But no, things were finally going our way.

I set my alarm clock for 8:30 so I would be up in time to call Leigh and make sure that she, too, had received the good news. She hadn't, but she had received the email I had forwarded to her "just in case." Close enough. She instructed  me on how to fill out the Customs Power of Attorney she needed from me and then said she'd let me know when she knew what was happening.

Twenty minutes later my phone rang. It was Leigh.

"There's good news and bad news," she told me. "The shipment is in Atlanta. But it doesn't say anywhere on the airbill it should have been forwarded on to Mobile, so it's stuck there." She went on to defend our African shipper, saying that the form is very confusing since the place where one is supposed to type in the final destination of the boxes says "Final Airtport of Destination," and he knew that Mobile's airport was not an international one, and therefore could not clear the boxes through Customs. It was a logical mistake. She also informed me that there was a Customs agent in Atlanta they sometimes used in situations like this. She would get hold of him and have him get the boxes cleared and trucked down here, but I would have to pay the extra freight.

Great. How much was it going to be?

She wasn't that far along yet. She'd let me know as soon as she had more information. I thanked her and hung up.

The next phone call was from my niece, Annah (a different niece). She had a really good idea. Since I would be driving to Chattanooga later this week anyway, why not offer to just pick the boxes up on the way? Well, a few hours out of the way.

So I called Leigh back. If the trucking was going to cost an arm and a leg, could I just drive up there and get it?

Well, maybe. But since the boxes hadn't cleared Customs yet, and depending on the placement of the Customs offices at the airport, there might be problems with getting me through security. She'd let me know.

So here I sit, wondering what new situation we may find ourselves facing by tomorrow, and trying to decide whether to be angry (no, not really) or frustrated (well, yes, a little) or mostly just highly entertained (yup, that's the one). Because I'll say one thing about this job I've pledged my heart to: It's never, ever boring. Nor does it show any signs of becoming so any time soon. And as someone who has a very low tolerance for boredom, that makes it a very good fit for me in many ways.

There is so much I don't understand about West Africa; so much I don't know and probably never will. But I have learned this much in these last few years about myself and Ghana and how the two of us do together, and this makes me feel competent to advise you this far: If you're someone who requires high levels of certainty and efficiency and organization to feel comfortable and right with the world, then West Africa is probably not going to be your favorite place on the globe, nor is doing business there likely to be your dream job. But if you kind of like being kept off-kilter; if you enjoy the suspense of never knowing what's going to happen next or what kinds of challenges are going to arise out of thin air several times a day; if you love surprises and don't mind being constantly jerked out of your comfort zone and having your perspective challenged on an hourly basis--well then, Ghana might be just the right place for you. It is for me. It keeps me on my toes. It forces me to engage, to dig deep for strength and tolerance, to wrench apart the confines of a viewpoint that otherwise tends to keep narrowing and narrowing and narrowing.

Ghana keeps me vital. I wouldn't trade it for the rest of the whole wide world.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Great Shipping Dilemma of 2008...and 2009...and 20010...and 2011....

I'm taking a break from chronicling SoS's history to write about what's top-most on my mind right now: i.e. trans-Atlantic shipping. Shipping has been our very own, much-unbeloved bugbear since it first dawned on me (after losing four out of the first four things I tried to send to Ghana by regular post) that there might be just a tiny smidgen of corruption among the bureaucrats in the Ghanaian postal service. It was either accept that possibility or try to convince myself of a level of inefficiency that was beyond my ability to imagine, having experienced first-hand the intelligence and resourcefulness of the average Ghanaian.

So, heaving a sigh laden with disappointment at the nature of human creatures whose lives, psyches and moral underpinnings, admittedly, I can't even begin to see into, I started looking for alternatives. The shipping forwarders I contacted on this side of the ocean tended to lose interest very quickly once they understood that I was talking about a fifteen-pound box here and a twenty-pound box there. Not worth their time. Their advice was unanimous: "FedEx it."

So the next time I had scraped together enough money to buy fifteen pounds or so of combined stringing wire, sterling wire, crimp beads, etc. that I needed to send across the Atlantic to Bernard and the SoS artisans, I lugged it all down to Kinko's, spent twenty minutes stuffing it into one of their FedEx-sanctioned boxes, and then popped out my shiny new Soul of Somanya, Inc. debit card, hoping the charges wouldn't be too much over the $150.00 or so that I had allotted for this expense.

$416.37 later, I took my depressed self to the nearest Starbuck's for a mega-hit of restorative caffeine. Four-hundred-and-sixteen-dollars-and-thirty-seven-cents! That was only a little less than the value of the box's contents! There had to be a better way.

I spent large chunks of the next four months or so on the phone with every missionary, businessman, tourist, and student I could get a lead on, hoping to set up a network of couriers that could all help each other by carrying things back and forth whenever they came and went. But no dice. To my surprise (given our post-9/11 consciousness), I encountered no suspicions that I might have nefarious motives. The central issue seemed to be that all of those travelers were already carrying everything they could manage to muscle on and off their planes in furtherance of their own specific purposes. And when I thought of my own memorable wrestling matches with multiple suitcases upon landing in Accra, jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, and grumpily aware of the wonders of air-conditioning due to its absence in the airport, I could hardly blame them.

So, with much gnashing of teeth and straining of budgets (not to mention the repetitive importuning of certain amazing friends who, I'm relieved to say, still seem to love me despite all my fears that they would come to believe I only loved them for their money-lending capacities), SoS took FedEx to its bosom and yielded to what seemed to be the inevitable, at least in terms of outbound packages.

As for inbound shipments, the news was better. When I was in Ghana the first time, I'd had the opportunity to speak with a Peace Corps worker who was helping a wonderful organization called the Global Mamas, located in Odumasse, which butts right up against Somanya. She told me about an African art and craft importer in Pennsylvania, Jasperdean Kobes, owner of Bamboula, Ltd. Also formerly a Peace Corps worker, Jasperdean was all too aware of the problems small Ghanaian producers have getting their goods to the U.S. Better yet, she had been known to allow some of them to piggyback their little shipments on her larger ones, thereby raising the poundage of the shipments and lowering the price per pound for everyone involved. So I called her, and I didn't even have to ask--she offered. She has been a huge help to us. In general, we can ship 50 pounds or so of beads and jewelry inbound with her for about what we pay for 15 pounds of supplies outbound via FedEx. Still pretty challenging at times, but a huge improvement.

The even better news is that, no matter what method we use to import beads and jewelry,  we don't have to pay duty on it, either when leaving Ghana or arriving in the U.S. If I understand correctly, handicrafts from West Africa fall under an exception designed as a trade incentive, but don't quote me on that. Whatever the reason, we're grateful.

Still, timing has sometimes been a problem. Jasperdean's schedule doesn't always synchronize with our needs and resources. There have been times when we were experiencing a lean period right when we would have been needing to buy beads to fill up boxes to ship with her goods, so we had to take a pass. Then we'd find ourselves running out of essentials before her next shipment was ready to depart from Ghana. More than once, I've had to put Bernard in untenable positions, forcing him to seek credit (an extremely rare commodity in rural Ghana) with beadmakers and/or bead sellers in order to meet shipment deadlines. And more than once we have been unable to pay off those bead bills as quickly as we (and, I'm sure, they) would have liked, which I'm sure has contributed to the stress in his life. It's a tribute to his apparently unshakable patience with me that he has never once complained.

Anyway, right now we are, for the first time, doing an air shipment on our own directly from Tema to Mobile. It was crucial, lest we run out of goods to sell. But dumb luck stood me in good stead this time when, after several unsatisfactory attempts to find a more or less local Customs broker/freight forwarder who would be willing to handle such a small quantity of goods, and who would be willing to answer the many pesky questions that have been plaguing me for three years, I stumbled on two earthly angels, Sandra Lockwood and Leigh Daves of W.R. Zanes & Co. (which actually has a presence right here in Mobile!). For the second time in our history (the first was Jasperdean), my questions about shipping were treated as reasonable, and the modest size of our intended shipment (just two 50-pound boxes) didn't bring on a sudden shutting down of interest and eagerness to help. Twenty minutes later, I knew what--and whom--we would be dealing with, how much all the various fees would be (with no nasty, last-minute surprises waiting in the wings), why each fee was being levied, and exactly what I would need to do once the shipment had landed on U.S. soil.

So Bernard will be going to our shipper in Tema tomorrow, who will shepherd our boxes through the red tape on that side of the ocean. And then, with luck, those boxes will be airborne within a couple of days.

Of course, that may not happen. Air freight coming from Ghana takes second place to travelers' luggage, so if the hold gets filled up with suitcases, our boxes wait until the next flight out. And this scenario could recur any number of times before space on some flight or other opens up for them. I'm not sure, but I think that this is the reason we've had shipments arrive some five or six weeks later than expected in the past. Precious little happens quickly in Africa. But then, being on "Africa time" is one of the things I love about being in Africa. It's all a matter of adjusting one's expectations. And why are we in such a hurry about everything anyway? What doesn't get done today will get done tomorrow...or next week...or next month....

I can't wait to go back.