Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Importing Books to Madagascar is Like Herding Cats

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If you are a close friend/family member of mine, I probably bugged you almost a year and a half ago to donate to a huge project aimed at getting 22,000 books from America to 17 different schools and libraries in Madagascar. I really appreciate everyone who helped donate money to the project and I think after so much time has passed you deserve an update…

Well here it is: They’re still not here, but they’re close. Crunch time to sort out the logistics of sorting the books and sending them (by car/bus) to different cities/towns/villages throughout Madagascar is approaching quickly. Which means, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been running around town trying to get the nit-picky official aspects of importing a 40-foot shipping container with books and computers done. Unfortunately, the perils of wading through third world bureaucracy is driving me crazy. Mostly, it’s irritating because I’m trying to figure out a process I know nothing about, in a foreign language, in a system that’s 30 years behind in technology. For example, when I asked a Malagasy official at the customs office earlier today if I could e-mail her the one missing document I needed to petition for a tax-free import (since they are donations), she said “I don’t have an e-mail,”

I probably rolled my eyes a little too obviously.

I mean, in the West the idea of anyone working in government, business, or operations of this caliber not having an e-mail address wouldn’t ever cross anyone’s mind. But here, it’s kind of a big deal if I don’t have to travel across town on a janky bus and risk getting pickpocketed to hand off a letter. Not even an original copy of some official document, but a letter of request.

There’s also a lot of mis-communications that have come up in the process. Malagasy tend to talk around a point, rather than taking the American approach of direct communication and getting right to the point. I feel like I have sat in front of officials who explained something irrelevant to the question I asked, in three different ways, before they either answered my question or I gave up.

When I was registering on Gasynet — a website that anyone who imports large shipments to Madagascar has to get registered on — they kept sending me an e-mail saying “missing document” when it should have read “incorrect document”. It took a trip from my site to Tana to figure out what was going on, and even then I got so frustrated with the tech-help woman at Gasynet (who, even though she works for a website was hunt-and-peck typing) that I left her office crying.

However, I am proud of myself for holding it together today, when after going to the customs office for the third time they told me that I yet again, was missing a document. I felt a lot like when I was a server, and I would deliver a coke refill to a table, only to be asked for some more salt, and then a side of bread, and curse the table for not asking me for all three things at the same time.

Efficiency is a foreign concept I suppose.

I know a lot of it is language and culture barriers, and the fact that everything here does not run on e-mail and computer systems, but is still lost in the literal red tape of turning in hard copies of documents and having signatures and stamps on everything (my god, the f*ing love for stamps in this country!), but still, I can’t help but cry a little inside when I have a conversation like:

“We need the documents from you.”
“What documents?”
“The official documents.”
“Ummm…. that’s not what I meant….”

It’ll get done. They should be in port on June 23rd, and then I’ll be back in Tana, rushing around again. (Fortunately, there have been some incredibly helpful and efficient people working with me on this project, and I’m happy to say that we’ve finally got a space to unload the books, and someone to take the shipping container off our hands! Yay!) Wish me luck, or mail me bags of Starbucks coffee. No seriously, Starbucks coffee, send it my way — my address is in the about me section ;D