The Returning Expat Postal Service

A few days before leaving Belgium, I started getting asked the same question, over and over, by my Burundian friends.

“Have you got kilos?

Have I got whatnow?

It wasn’t until the third time I was asked this question that somebody– my sweet Burundian friend Caritas from class– cleared this up for me. Everyone has a set amount of kilograms of baggage that they can take on the plane without being charged an overweight fee. In the case of Brussels Airlines, 58 kilos– Ideally three bags of 23, 23 and 12. Could I cram anything else into any of my bags?

Burundi is a country without a door-to-door postal service, so shipping is a real chore. As usual, its people have found an ingenious solution, the Returning Expat Postal Service.

If a Burundian abroad has something she wants to deliver to someone, and she<s not planning on returning there herself anytime soon, she buys it and then waits to hear about another returning expat with kilos– that is, with space in their luggage. The two meet for the handoff. Person #2 puts the object in his luggage, then, on arrival, rings the recipient. The two strangers meet, get a drink, and the intermediary hands the cargo to the recipient. If the intermediary has had to spend any money during this process, he is reimbursed at this stage, and ideally everyone goes home happy, perhaps with one more friend than they started out with. Welcome to the Returning Expat Postal Service.

It's not without risk. Fleur, another of my Burundian friends from Belgium (a friend of a friend of Caritas), nearly got detained at customs after it became apparent that the person who handed her off a big bottle of medicine didn't include the appropriate documentation. If you flake and stick the three bottles of shower gel for your classmate's niece in your carry-on, they'll get thrown out and someone won't be happy. But ideally the intermediary knows what he or she is carrying, and there can be benefits.

Fleur's sister came to my house to pick up three bottles of shower gel and a par of high heels. When I realized that they had a car and were going south, I asked them to drop me off at Pierre's place in Nyakabiga, where he had already invited me to a party that I was pretty sure I would have to skip because– well, you try getting a cab going south at nearly 9 p.m.! They were kind enough to agree. Fleur's sister's husband waited with me while Pierre came to pick me up from our agreed-upon meeting place. He ambled out in that unhurried way of his, a shy little smile on his face– and then ran toward Fleur's brother-in-law with a joyful shout of "Hey, Claude!" It turns out that Claude and Pierre are buddy-buddy because Claude is the best friend of Pierre's brother-in-law, his sister Delia's husband.

So for those of you following at home, this all starts with Caritas, who I met in February in a lecture hall in a small town in Belgium, never knowing that

Caritas' friend's friend's sister's husband's best friend's wife's brother was my boyfriend.

I have almost given up expressing wonder at how small this town is.

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About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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3 Responses to The Returning Expat Postal Service

  1. Michel Pratka says:

    Lovely story!

  2. Rie says:

    hi there, just mosey-ed over via a friend of friends’ facebook post about knowing your expats (my friends commented on his post, which was the link to your article) and I got to reading your Burundi tagged articles (I was there for 9 months based in Gitega w weekend visits ever so often to Buja) and reading this post in particular put a HUGE smile on my face, especially the last bit – we are all connected. And that’s just so wonderful. 🙂
    Bonne continuation, and umusi mwiza!

  3. msmarguerite says:

    Wow, murakoze cane, I agree (about the interconnectedness) and am really quite touched that you posted this!

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