Many thanks to RPCV Kyle Strode, Lomé, 1995-1997, for contributing this fine piece!
Receiving mail in Togo was a wonderful experience. When a letter or package arrived, I would always take my time to open it slowly and examine the postmark to see how long it had taken in finding its way to Togo. Actually reading the letters from friends and family was often anticlimactic. What I really enjoyed was the anticipation of opening the mail, and this anticipation was most poignant whenever I would receive a small slip of paper from the Togo Postes indicating that the mail I had received was a package from the States.
Early in my Peace Corps service, I was chosen to be the Volunteer Liaison, since I lived in Lomé and could easily take Volunteers' concerns to the Peace Corps administration. For some time, there had been confusion and irritation among the volunteers about why some packages were free and why others required paying mysterious customs and mail fees that amounted to as much as $30 (roughly 15% of our monthly salary). One day in June, I received a package notice and I decided to use the opportunity to conduct a postal fact-finding mission on behalf of the volunteers and with the help of Kossi Wala, one of the Peace Corps secretaties.
Kossi and I drove to the cavernous central post office at the port on the eastern edge of Lomé. Walking in through the heavy wooden front doors, I was reminded of an old train station. In front of me was a long wooden counter that separated the work area from the lobby, which was lined with dark, hard wooden benches that looked like uncomfortable church pews. Several Togolese men and women sat there waiting. Behind the counter there were four low wooden desks piled with receipts, record books and papers. Beside each desk sat four unsmiling and bored-looking women. Kossi and I sidled up to the counter and found our place between four or five other people who were waving their receipts and trying in vain to argue with the women. Recognizing Kossi from his frequent trips to pick up mail and packages for volunteers, the woman in front of us motioned for me to give her my receipt. As I handed her the slip, I asked in my terrible French, S'il vous plait, madame, je voudrais comprendre quel est l'origine de chaque cotisation? With a slight hint of disdain, she answered that the three charges on my receipt were the port handling fee, the package charge and the mail fee. Why then, I asked, did my last package arrive free of charge, when it was the same size? She replied that most likely, my last package was a paquet (which translates to package) while this one was a colis (which also translates to package). When pressed, my very unhelpful friend Kossi explained to me the clear difference between the two: a paquet was a package, while a colis was a PACKAGE! Two sunglass-wearing functionaries and thirty minutes later, I finally gleaned that a colis was any package over 3 kg and/or kind of big. A paquet was a parcel that was both less than 3 kg and kind of small. A package cursed with the semi-arbitrary designation of colis would cost 5,000-15,000 CFA to pick up, while a package labeled paquet would be free.
Finally, after (sort of) learning the nature of the fees, I paid 9,000 CFA ($18) for my colis while another clerk retrieved it from the large warehouse area. The colis (a small cardboard box) was then handed to a sleepy soldier, who sliced it open with a razor blade, rooted around fruitlessly for contraband and half-heartedly asked if among the bags of chocolate candy and toiletries, there might be a present in there for him. My box was then given to two customs officers in a cramped little air-conditioned office who lazily inspected and discussed the items, trying to decide whether I should pay an additional import tax. Happily, after some slimy pandering (at which I eventually became a master), it turned out that I didn't have to pay extra, and I escaped with my expensive little package from America with a marginally better understanding of Togo Postes.
On the way back home on that June afternoon, I noticed that the US postmark on the box of Christmas goodies was mid-December.
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