Monday, 3 September 2012

Rescuing the projector

When we arrived on 2nd August our projector was held in customs as we didn't have the cash to pay the customs charge. In fact we spent most of the rest of the month deciding whether it was worth going back for it, but after finding the four year old invoice and recalculating the fee, plus Tommy starting teaching and deciding it would be pretty useful to have, we decided we should go and bring it home. We meaning I, Sarah, as for some reason unbeknown to me they had taken my passport details on arrival so I had to collect it. Important note to self, don't ever make that mistake again. Tommy certainly should experience the fun of trying to retrieve something from customs if the need ever arises again.

Fortunately I didn't have anything else to do that day, well except the grocery shopping, but seeing as that is not much fun anyway, that can wait another week!

I left Bingham with a local taxi driver as my translator at 8.20am and headed out to the airport. The day proved to be a wonderful example of African bureaucracy in action, although to their credit I was not asked for bribes as is common in the West African countries we've lived in, the system was just incredibly frustrating.

We arrived at the airport about 9am, and found a long queue of people waiting to get in. Haile said that we could get in line and pay a fee for him to come with me or I could go alone and they would let me in without queuing to go to the customs desk. He assured me that I just needed to go and ask them to recalculate, pay the fee and retrieve the projector. So off I went, sure enough they let me in past the queue, I had my belongings scanned and my body searched and I headed to the customs desk.

I spent the next little while talking to every different member of customs asking them to recalculate the fee based on the invoice I had brought (and they had said we could bring for them to do this), explaining that the fee had been estimated based on a much higher valued item, with each person assuring me that they had already calculated the fee when I arrived in the country and there it was written on the page. Clearly going without the translator was not the best plan, the long queue was now looking slightly more sensible than before. Fortunately Haile had had the initiative to start queuing when I left him and so an hour later he was almost in to the airport anyway when I called him.

Haile came and explained the same thing, except that they understood Amharic better than English! Eventually, after talking to a few more people, we were taken to an office somewhere where we spoke to a man who scribbled something on the document and sent us back again, telling us that he had written an instruction that they should recalculate the fee. So off we went back to the desk, where the lady recalculated the fee, making it almost half the original amount. Finally - progress! Or not. She decided that she didn't want to change the amount, even after recalculating and so after more discusssions between the customs officials they decided that the person who originally made the calculation should be the one to change it. He would be there in the afternoon and we should return at 2.30pm.

So we headed back to Bingham for lunch and then back to the airport, back past all the security, spoke to the men with guns again, back to have our bags scanned and body searched and back to the customs desk where the man was identified for us. We explained to him that we had the invoice and were returning for a recalculation of the fee and he put the data from the invoice into the system. He recalculated it, and then point blank refused to change it! He said we needed to go to the cargo hold and speak to the valuation team before he would change it.

The cargo hold was about ten minutes drive away, we had to stand in the middle of the street while we were body searched there, which was a new experience, then once inside got shown to a little room in what seemed to be a maze of rooms. Their favourite phrase was 'just sit outside for a moment', there were so many people that it was a bit of a joke with only 3 seats. They seemed to look up the value of items and decide on the basis of that whether to accept your invoice or not. Initially the man said my invoice was wrong (!), but we persuaded him that it was from 4 years ago and so he decided that he would accept it and tell them to recalculate it at customs.  After he had discussed it with someone else and we waited for someone else to approve it we finally got it stamped by yet another person!

We returned to customs back at the airport...back through the security (this was quite funny as Haile moaned every time about having to remove his shoes and belt and everything)...and presented our stamped request for the recalculation. And they recalculate it finally. I am so relieved that there is hope that we may actually leave soon. But not so fast. They won't accept cash, only a bankers draft. And Haile thinks the bank is now closed. But a lady paying for her item assures us that it is open as she has just got a bankers draft and so we run for ten minutes to the bank, with Haile assuring me that exercise is good in pregnancy. I am yet to be convinced with a hacking cough and adjusting to living at 8000 feet, but somehow managed it in vaguely one piece, reminding myself I was still running while pregnant in the UK so surely I couldn't be that unfit despite feeling like I might keel over at any minute! And then the bank was closed, ok so he was right then! We establish that there is a bank still open which is about 20 mins walk further away. Fortunately Haile made the call to return to the other terminal and drive. Praise God for that decision.

Haile found me the right form (they were all in Amharic so it was little tricky knowing which was the one I needed ;-)) and we applied for the bankers draft. That seemed the most straightforward thing all day. Just a bit of waiting, going to a couple of different windows, paying a fee and there it was a bankers draft. I even got to sit down while he queued up for me for part of the time :-)

We returned to the airport, we've been so many times they don't even charge us to park this time. We'd been past the men with the guns so many times they just waved us past, slightly amused, we got scanned again, we felt like old friends with the policemen on the arrivals terminal having spoken to them so many times in one day that they didn't bother giving us any hassle about me taking a translator in this time. And we paid the fee.

We were then sent to the storage area, where all the paperwork was checked. Before they would return the projector they informed me I needed to pay a storage fee! Pay for the privilege of them confiscating my personal property! By this point there wasn't much choice. We paid that fee and were sent to someone else to collect it after they rechecked all the paperwork. Finally they brought the projector, I had to sign my life away after checking all the details with them, I had lost the will to live and truly was past caring whether I ever saw the projector again, but was pretty happy that we could leave.

But no, there was still another desk, haha, I was just thinking 'are you kidding me?' by this point. Is there really any way in this process that I could possibly be walking out with my projector having not paid the fees and had the item checked against the paperwork a million times.

We returned to Bingham just before 7pm! And we are very, very glad to say that after all that the projector does actually still work (we were slightly afraid for it as our bags had fallen from a luggage trolley whilst traveling) :-) And if you read all that boring story you deserve a medal, but Tommy said I should write it down. So I did ;-)

I'm not sure that I would add this kind of experience to one of the things you should put on your bucket list, but certainly I have experienced more of Africa as a result.

Tommy says he will offer another cup of coffee, this time for the person who can guess closest to the original customs charge they wanted us to pay. (Hint: The projector cost £195 4 years ago)


Ali Campbell Smith said...

£500? I'm pretty keen for the cup of coffee - any excuse to have to come and visit!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Nice try, Ali. I'm afraid the closest guess (£225) came on Sarah's Facebook from this post. The actual amount was £235!

If you keep guessing you might get a sympathy coffee :-)