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.

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