I’ve used DHL before from time to time. Sending a package from Mozambique to the Netherlands was a breeze. I hand the contents in at DHL in Maputo, pay for it, and 4 days later it gets delivered to the doorstep and the receiver signs for it. Easy! As it turns out, it’s not so easy at all to send something to Mozambique. In fact, it’s a nightmare and DHL does absolutely nothing to make it less painful. When I see a DHL commercial with a smily guy running up to a door to deliver something and get a signature, I now know reality isn’t quite like that. At least, not in Mozambique. Here’s how it went.

My brother lives in Dubai and he wanted to send me some children’s clothes for my son, so he went to DHL, gave them my street address in Maputo and the clothes, and paid them for their service. DHL valued the goods at AED 100 (about $27), based on God knows what rules. The shipment dutifully went out, and I received some tracking updates. Then the updates stopped with the package at Maputo airport. Instead, I got a threatening SMS from DHL, in Portuguese, saying that my package had arrived and import duties had to be paid. If I didn’t show at the airport within 5 days, they would start charging MT 380 (about $10) per day for storage, and after 15 days my package would be auctioned off for the benefit of the Mozambican customs service. There was more text in the SMS, but I only received part of it so I don’t know if there were any further instructions. I have no idea why SMS was suddenly preferable over email as I had received all previous messages through email. I’m rather thankful that my brother had included my phone number with the address.

I’m not sure how this would work for people who live a long way from the airport. The national airport is at the southern tip of Mozambique, and the country is about 3000 km from north to south, so in the worst case scenario it would take rather more than 5 days to drive all the way down to Maputo to fetch a package. Or you could fly, I guess, but then mail gets really expensive. Actually, it was going to get expensive, but I didn’t know that yet. So I went down to the airport and found the cargo terminal. DHL has a small office there where you have to press a button on the door and pull the door at the same time to get in. How this prevents possible robberies I don’t really see, since I think robbers will also understand these mechanics.

It was quiet in the DHL office. There were only two people waiting, and two people working at the desk, so I asked for my package. It had arrived and it had to be inspected at customs, and customs had to be paid. Apparently duties must be paid over clothes imported for personal use. First I had to fill out a form letter (twice) kindly requesting customs to inspect and release my package. The form letter was a copy of a copy of a copy. Then I was told to take a seat and wait. Over the course of 45 minutes, the two people when through a door in the back and didn’t come out for a long time. Eventually I was pointed at which I assumed meant that I could go in as well, so I did.

The back of the DHL office is actually a large storage space, and four customs officials set at desks (no chairs for visitors) and are on the phone, read SMSes, joke around, and generally don’t do much of anything. Rather than attending any of the people there (suddenly there were about 8 people standing around, so these people must have been there for a good while) they would focus on inspecting incoming shipments that didn’t seem for anyone present at the time. Eventually one told me to speak to his colleage, who sent me away saying that he was busy. He still had so many SMSes to read.

About 30 minutes passed after which my package was identified, and it was placed on a desk, after which it was left along for another 20 minutes. Eventually an official opened it up and dug around for a bit. Finding only clothes, he then looked up the value of AED 100 that DHL had determined my package was worth, and started doing math on the back of one of my form letters. The AED value gets converted to meticais (the local currency), after which a fixed freight cost of AED 190 is added (about $52), and over this total a 46% tax is calculated plus another random tax just for the fun of it. In total, I had to pay 1380 meticais, or about $36.

These dues could not be paid at the inspection counter. Instead, I had to go to another part of the cargo terminal (conveniently located at exactly the other extreme end of said terminal) and pay there. The official found that he had made a small mistake on his form. He had stamped all documents (my form letters, the DHL manifest, a copy of the address as found on the package, and his form) and one of the stamps was slightly out of place. He therefor had to accompany me to the other end of the terminal (leaving everyone else waiting) so that he could explain this to the money people.

Once there, I was told to pay at a small window in the back which looked like a bathroom window. It actually opened by rotating it through a horizontal axis in the middle, so that you could either look over the window or under it, which I did both, as did the official behind it, so we found ourselves ducking up and down during our exchange. I was told that payment could only be done in cash, or by cheque, but not using a debit card. When asked when they would install a card machine, he said that they “didn’t have one yet” and left it at that. I was told to go to the main counter and wait for my receipt.

Producing the receipt took another 20 minutes, what with all the stamps. It’s very important to have one, because you have to carry your growing bundle of papers back to the DHL office so that custom can see that you made your payment.Your payment must also be registered in a big counter book, where your name, the date, the amount and the nature of the goods are recorded using two differently colored pens.

Once back at DHL, I was no longer allowed to enter the customs area. I had to leave my paperwork with a guard at the door to the storage area, who proceeded to tear off most of the papers and throw them on a pile on his desk, after which he gave them to a passing DHL employee who took them to customs. I was told to wait.

Another 15 minutes passed while some packages came out and were dumped on the floor, a fact the guard recorded in yet another counter book, and their recipients had to sign for receipts and fill out there phone numbers. Sometimes the guard needed to see which package went with which pile of papers, so then he would move the packages around with his toe for a bit to have a look at the labels. My package then turned up and the guard mutely pointed at the DHL people at the counter, so I went there. At this point, the DHL front office had filled up some more and about 30 people were standing around. Thank God I came early.

The DHL employee took my paperwork and said that there were more duties to be paid. She wouldn’t look at me as she said this very softly, so I had to ask her to repeat everything in order to understand what I was supposed to do. As it turns out, a “handover fee” must be paid to DHL for the privilege of driving down to their airport office and submitting oneself to this three-hour procedure, in addition to “airport security tax” for each kilo of package weight. In total, I had to pay another 545 meticais (about $14), so in total I had now paid $50 for a package estimated (by DHL) to be worth $27. Remember that my brother had already paid DHL upon sending the package.

So, in summary:

  • In Mozambique, DHL does not deliver packages to your door.
  • Upon arrival of the package, DHL sends you an SMS rather than an email.
  • It takes 3 hours and a godawful number of forms to clear customs.
  • DHL charges you a “handover fee” as well as “airport security tax”.

I really thought a big player like DHL would have better service. Although I can understand that in a place like Mozambique customs can be hell, I had expected the DHL people to actually accompany me through this process, speeding it up where they could. This was not to be. DHL’s service stops as soon as your package hits the runway in Maputo.