Postmen and stamps: a trip down memory lane
The post office area in Addis is home to various attractions. Located at an intersection that leads to Black Lion Hospital, ambassador area, and Churchill Avenue, the post office is a significant landmark of the city. The peaceful greenery of Ethio-Cuba Friendship Park is contrasted by the noise of the souvenir shops determined to attract locals and tourists alike.
In the event that one visits the main Ethiopian Post Office, whether to send or receive a letter or a package, an occasion that grows increasingly infrequent with the advent of email and popularity of DHL, one might observe a busy government office with employees and customers hard-pressed to conduct business. What may be difficult to notice in the expansive compound that also connects to the Ministry of Transportation is the Postal Museum.
Established in 1984 by Emperor Menelik, the Ministry of Post, Telegraph and Telephone transformed communication nationwide. Couriers called melektegnas carried letters visibly attached to a stick and weapons for defense as they walked through beautiful and dangerous terrain to fulfill their imperially entrusted duty.
The first Ethiopian stamps were issued in 1983 for inland postage and old in various regions of the country. After becoming a member of the Universal Postal Union in 1908, Ethiopian could send letters abroad and special stamps were issued to commemorate the occasion. These stamps featured the Emperor in coronation roads, another in national dress and a third showed the empire’s coat of arms.
An issue of the post office pamphlet commemorating Emperor Haile-Selassie’s 75th birthday printed in 1967 says ‘stamps have become a means of popularizing Ethiopia to the world.’ And it is true.
The museum has many stamps that commemorate events like Queen Elizabeth’s state visit to Ethiopia (1965) that features both the queen’s the Haile-Selassie’s faces, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Haile-Selassie’s Suez Canal Conference of 1945, Federation of Ethiopia with Eritrea in 1952, Empress Menen and Haile-Selassie’s 50th Anniversary 1961, the first conference of the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa and various others.
The museum is something of a hidden gem in Addis. A collection of stamps from the first ones ever issues featuring the coronation of Emperor Menelik and chronologically moving to Queen Zewditu and Lij Eyasu, the reign of Emperor Haile-Selassie, the Italian invasion, the provisional military government of the Derg and the government of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government are all featured. Each stamp tells a unique story of a specific event that took place at a certain time.
The post office also has stamps issued by other countries the exhibition has sorted in continents. The collection was built by the postal administration and with the assistance of donations from various philatelists that visited the museum.
Philatelists collect stamps as a hobby. The post office is rife with philatelists. Most of the employees have their own collection, most beginning their collection at the start of their employment at the post office.
T’eame Lemlem, 31, has worked at the post office for the past seven years and has collected stamps for eight. His collection covers the past 50 years of Ethiopian history. Hundreds of stamps have passed through his collection. His coworker Getachew Chekol has collected stamps for over two decades and says his interest in stamps began when he started working at the post office. Both Getachew and T’eame’s eyes light up when talking about stamps. “They tell a story. It’s like having a piece of history,” T’eame says, as he explains his interest in philately.
The colors and design of the stamp including both the background and text colors, the value and denomination written on the stamp, the size and perforation, the date of issue and quantity first issued, the watermark, the printing as well as the purpose of the issue are all considered relevant by philatelists.
The older the stamp is, the higher the price grows. Stamps issued in the 1980s or 90s can cost as low as 150 Birr. The price of older stamps can go as high as 10,000 birr. Getachew has sold a stamp featuring Haile Selassie for 200 Euros. His collection is diverse, ranging from the older Haile Selassie issued 1960s stamps to international stamps from various countries. There are few passionate collectors in the country; the interest isn’t as strong as it is abroad. Stamps issued by Menelik are impossible to find with many philatelists refusing to sell these special items or kept in permanent collections in museums.
The pamphlet mentioned earlier adds, stamps ‘have also afforded Ethiopia’s finest painters an opportunity of presenting their country in a bright and attractive manner.’
Maître artist Afework Tekle had designed many stamps in the early 1960s. His Great Ethiopian Leaders series (1962) features royal kings like Ezana, Zara Yakob, Libne Dingel and Bazen. The Great Empresses of Ethiopia series depicts Sava, Seble Wongel, Helen, Mentiwab and Taitu. He also designed stamps for the Adwa victory ‘Defender of his country’, and national costumes series that depicted the clothes of various ethnicities in Ethiopia.
Alle Felegeselam, famed artist for whom Alle School of Fine Arts is named after, designed stamps that showed the hairstyles found in various regions of the country and the dress styles of the monarchy. He also designed series of birds, butterflies, wild animals, flowers and insects.
Gebrekirstos Desta had also designed ‘Flowers’ stamps and International Telecommunications Union centenary commemorative stamps in 1965. The design depicts the LTU emblem and was printed in Germany.
During the Derg period Worku Kassa designed the Ethiopia Tikdem stamp that showed a broken crown and a stamp featuring Lenin and commemorating the Great October socialist revolution.
Bogale Belachew designed most of the stamps displayed in the museum. As the resident artist of the post office beginning from the Derg era, he illustrated many stamps commemorating events, propaganda, huts, fish, and various fauna endemic to Ethiopia.
The museum also has incredible images of the first postmen, scenes from the first post office at work and installations of the oldest post boxes ever used in the country. The clearly well-read and most energetic guide takes the visitor on a tour that connects stamps to the history of Ethiopia and its people touching upon politics, literature, philosophy and Ethiopia’s connection to ancient civilizations. The long kiremt days can be greatly improved with a visit to this historic and well-maintained locale.