Remember like 93842309 years ago when I incessantly posted links to the computer project I was trying to fund? And then how my amazingly wonderful friends and family donated almost $1000 to help me out? And then how 93842309 years went by, and I didn’t really mention anything more about the project, beyond vague-but-insistent assurances that I didn’t take all the money and plan a trip to some exotic non-Cameroonian location? I finally have good news! Buried somewhere in the contents of the ranty longwindedness that is about to follow re: Cameroonian customs.
First, some background on what happened with the project: Many months ago, I was contacted by the World Computer Exchange (WCE), an American organization that donates (rather, sells at a very reduced price to cover operating costs) refurbished computers to developing countries around the world. I decided to get involved in a shipment of computers set to go out of Cameroon, raising the funds for 10 computers for my counterpart’s language center in Garoua. We raised the money really fast! And then waited… and waited… and waited. And nothing happened. As it turns out, all of the other people initially interested in the shipment weren’t able to raise enough money and backed out. I had two options at this point: get a refund and buy the computers (at a higher price) in-country, or contact other volunteers and see if they wanted to organize a Peace Corps shipment. I sent out an email to the listserv to gauge PCV interest in filling a 200-computer container, and the response was great, so I decided to go ahead with that. What’s better than 10 computers to give computers to kids in Cameroon? …TWO HUNDRED computers to give computers to many more kids in Cameroon.
Hundreds of emails back-and-forth with other PCVs and the WCE then ensued, until all of the volunteers involved (20 of us, including me) finalized our order (205 desktops, 69 laptops, and a collection of printers/scanners/solar lamps/other assorted things) and raised the necessary funds to pay WCE and anticipated port-clearing and transport costs. Which is where things got more complicated… In Cameroon, there’s no way to know actual port costs until a shipment arrives in country, at which point you begin the entire process of customs-clearing. By speaking to a few people, we were able to estimate that costs would come out to about 5000 CFA (~$10) per computer, and budgeted this much in anticipation. However, the stipulation on this amount was that it would require us to apply for exoneration of normal customs duties, since our computers were for schools and community centers and not personal profit; this process, also, could not be carried out until the computers were actually en route to Cameroon.
In order to begin the whole process, we were informed that we would need a designated consignee, who would receive the container when it arrives in Douala; the consignee, in turn, would hire a clearing agent who would help navigate the (way more complicated and frustrating than we realized) process. Brian, a volunteer in Tombel, in the southwest region, agreed for his organization—a small university in his town receiving about 50 of the 274 computers—to act as consignee. Once this was determined, and the computers were actually shipped, we had about a month before the computers’ arrival to prepare to clear them from the port. We met with various customs agents, drafted exoneration letters, and generally threw ourselves blindly into the crazy mess known as receiving a shipment of donated computers.
Port costs are broken into two main categories: clearing costs, which are relatively non-negotiable in the sense that you can’t apply to have them reduced or waived (but are still negotiable in the sense that a skilful clearing agent can find tricky ways around them and/or bribe his or her way out of them) and then customs duties. After drafting our exoneration letter, we submitted it to the Director of Customs and waited for a response; when the response finally came, we found out we had been granted 50% exoneration (the way I just described this process sounded pretty simple and straightforward and streamlined, but it was more like the most opposite situation you could imagine: showing up at the same office every day and being told to go to another office, and then going to another office and being told to come back the next day, and then coming back the next day and… you get the point). Unfortunately, we found out that 50% exoneration still meant we’d be paying about 1.5 million CFA (~$3000) in duties alone, plus another 1.5 million in port fees. This came out to almost 12,000 CFA (~$24 per computer) which was unpleasantly higher than we’d expected. When we spoke to the people at customs about our problem, to see if it would be possible to appeal the decision, we were informed that the reason we were only granted 50% exoneration—and not 60%, or 70%, or 80%—was that the letter was submitted to the Director of Customs, and not the Minister of Finance. Only the Minister of Finance can approve exoneration of more than 50% (ironically, our letter was originally addressed to the Minister of Finance, but when the consignee delivered it to customs, he was told to change the addressee to the Director of Customs).
We had a dilemma. Either we accept the 50% exoneration, or we try going directly through the Minister to ask for more exoneration. If we chose the second route, we risked paying demurrage costs at the port, which accumulated after the eleventh day. In a terrifying race against time, we decided to take our chances; if we could get 300,000 or 400,000 or 500,000 CFA knocked off the price, it was worth a few thousand in demurrage. In order to expedite the process—which can take days or weeks, which we didn’t have—we asked the Peace Corps country director to write a letter of support for our request, and she in turn approached the American Ambassador, who also kindly wrote a letter of support. We drafted a new request letter signed by the director of the university, and called his assistant in Tombel to take a 2 hour bus ride to Douala, to send the official university stamp on another bus going to Yaounde, so that we could stamp the letter. (Stamps are a really big deal in Cameroon; nothing is official unless it’s adorned with an official-looking ink stamp, which, incidentally, can be bought for approximately $12 from a random guy on the street. More on that later.)
Around this time, I had to go to Kribi to help out with in-service training for the volunteers that started a year after me, so Brian waited for the stamp to arrive and submitted the documents to Peace Corps, who delivered them to the Ambassador to deliver to the Minister of Finance, while I was gone. When I returned a few days later, I followed up with the Peace Corps to see if there was any news from the Minister. After a couple days of no news, we realized there had been some confusion; Peace Corps thought the Embassy was following up, and the Embassy thought the Peace Corps was following up. Upon this realization, the country director’s assistant—who was amazing and helpful through all of this, as was the rest of Peace Corps staff—took me to customs and we were able to track down the letter we needed stating the 50% exoneration. Unfortunately, we found out that the Minister refused our request for increased exoneration. Apparently, none of the supporting letters and documents—including the one we sent for the stamp for—were received with the Ambassador’s letter; because the Ambassador’s letter didn’t state that we’d already received 50% exoneration but were simply seeking more, the Minister of Finance passed the letter along, not understanding why we were submitting a second request for something we’d already been granted. We met with another customs employee, who contradicted what the previous customs employees told us, stating that whether you submit the letter to the Director of Customs or the Minister of Finance, there is no difference, and it would not be worth our time to continue pursuing such a route. At this point we’d already accrued several days of demurrage fees, and decided to focus on just getting the computers out of the port. We couldn’t continue the process until after Christmas, since all government offices would be closed (yet, we would be charged demurrage for weekends and holidays, even though nobody was working).
Unable to go back to Garoua in the foreseeable future, I spent Christmas in Bafang, another volunteer’s post in the west, where I distracted myself from the impending doom of the computers by eating delicious food, watching a lot of Modern Family, playing with week-old kittens, and looking at pretty waterfalls:
The day after Christmas, I traveled to the port, which is located in Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon, in the littoral region. For several days, Brian and I ran around with his counterpart, the director of the university, in a convoluted maze of administrative confusingness (all while carrying millions of CFA on us and hoping not to get mugged). Because Brian lives only 2 hours away from Douala, it was cheaper to travel there and back every day than to find somewhere to stay in Douala. So, each morning we left around 6am, we took a bus ride into Douala, spent the day rushing from office to office and accomplishing very little, and then got back to his place somewhere between 8 and 11pm. Most of it was painfully boring (sitting in a single room for 7 hours, staring at a wall, waiting for a single document that was necessary before we could continue with anything else), some moments were terrifying (after waiting for said 7 hours, going into the office as it was about to close for the day and finding our letter granting us the 50% exoneration in the “reject” pile, because it was addressed to the Peace Corps, on behalf of the consignee, instead of to the consignee directly; thankfully we were able to get it moved into the “accepted” pile, saving us about a week of what would have been totally wasted time applying for a new mandate, and hundreds of thousands of CFA in the process), others were ridiculous (needing, and once again not having, the university stamp for an important time-sensitive document, and rush-ordering it from a stamp vendor on the street a 3 minute walk away) and some were just lucky (finding out customs duties were almost 400,00 lower than the estimate we’d been given, making up for the 100,000 in demurrage and various hundreds of thousands in various miscellaneous expenses we’d accrued).
After all of this, we got the computers out and into Tombel by early Saturday morning, at which point Brian’s counterpart mobilized some local guys to help unload the container. While unloading the pallets into the university—which isn’t a “university” as you might picture it in an American sense, so much as a small two-story building with holes in the walls and a less-than-solid door—we caught the unloaders sneakily throwing small items, like solar lamps and batteries, through holes in the wall with the intent of stealing them later. We kicked out the guy who we caught in the act of wall-hole-throwing, and didn’t have any more problems afterward, but were still somewhat concerned for the security situation. We tried to get the gendarmes to send someone to keep watch over the building, but they didn’t have any extra personnel on hand, so Brian, his counterpart, his counterpart’s assistant and I decided to keep watch on the building ourselves, spending Saturday night in the building. On Sunday morning, we bought out a 30-seater coaster bus and I traveled with about 80 of the computers to Yaounde, where I stored and sorted them at the Peace Corps office to be distributed to some of the volunteers. Brian, meanwhile, stayed back, continuing to keep guard in Tombel until everyone came to pick up their stuff.
Despite all of the chaotic craziness, in the end, things mostly worked out; and it was amazing to see all of the computers being unloaded from their pallets, and to know that they would be going to schools and hospitals and cultural centers and teacher training colleges, many of which wouldn’t have had computers otherwise. There’s a great quote that a previous volunteer wrote on a wall in the Peace Corps transit house in Yaounde, which goes: “Peace Corps Cameroon – where nothing works, but it all works out.” Nothing could be truer.