Recently, I have had two things on my mind: postcards and stamps. Both are secret passions that I have yet to explore actively. Some years ago I received postcards from Eastern and Southern Africa, and they are such lovable prints. It’s amazing how vividly they portray particular aspects of the countries they’ve been sent from.
The point has been made that Nigeria “is a land so picturesque that innovative postcard marketers should have no reason complaining of being poor”. Beyond the money, though, I believe postcards have a bit of Public Relations power and can help change people’s perception of Nigeria for good, especially overseas.
Two of my photographer friends who used to produce a series of postcards a decade ago felt the same way. They told me: “we want to use our photos to serve as image ambassadors for Nigeria, to present Nigeria the way we want it to be seen outside these shores”. To the best of my knowledge, their postcards were well received.
In the last five years I have seen some creative postcard designs in and around some stores in some Nigerian cities I have visited but they don’t appear to be common commodities at the airports, where thousands of traveling tourists could easily admire and buy them.
I wonder why. In the recent past, we spent a lot on greeting cards — but we didn’t transfer that same affection to postcards. Yet if we did, Nigeria would probably have been the better for it, particularly in the eyes of those who think of the country is a no-go area. I keep hoping that someday we will get round to buying and sending postcards as we do those greeting cards.
Now, to Stamps: it is hard to tell how much of a philatelist kingdom Nigeria is. But I have kept a cutting from This Day (published in July 2004) in which a keen stamp collector was campaigning in favour of the art.
“The impression that those used postage stamps whether Nigerian or overseas that are affixed to the various letters or postal packages are mere useless pieces of paper to be thrown away is very, very wrong,” the article stated. “Those stamps are not only educative, but money-spinning items. Remember also that a postage stamp is a living reminder of events, an aid to learning, a miniature encyclopedia, and a country’s ambassador.”
The collector’s interest in philately was stoked way back in 1958, when he was still a student. But half a century later, “I have since graduated from a collector to the status of a philatelic trader of international repute.”
I have been drawn to post offices since I was a boy. When I was barely 17 the Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST) opened for business a short distance from where I grew up in Ijeshatedo, a Lagos suburb. Apart from offering all the basic services (like selling stamps and registering letters over the counter) the facility came with hundreds of olive green private boxes, which people in the neighbourhood were encouraged to rent for N25 a year.
I was thrilled at the sheer novelty of having correspondences to the family tucked in our own exclusive post box; after much pressure from my siblings and me, Mom paid for one before too long.
When the documentation was complete, we got a pair of cutely-shaped 3cm-long keys, one of which was hooked on a nail next to the parlour window. Any one of us picked it from there whenever there was a need to go check the box for mails. Before that time, post men slugging zip-less leaf green bags would hand-deliver letters to the house, slotting them in a wooden box mounted on the fence. Sometimes, they handed it over to anyone in the compound. And this they did house after house in the area.
The closest thing to a post office there was before the new branch opened was a postal agency tucked in a tiny shop on a main road nearby. It was run by an elderly woman, who also sold other odds and ends, including school stationery. I don’t recall ever sending any letters through it.
A little over a year after we had grown used to the box, I went over to check if there were any letters. I could see outlines of a few envelopes through a glass barrier but the key wouldn’t turn in the little square door. I tried a second and third time. No dice. Alarmed, I breezed into the main office and made straight for the counter. What might the problem be?
“It means you have not renewed your rental,” the middle-aged woman behind the counter answered pleasantly. Now, I wasn’t thinking of that at all. None of us had remembered that fact. “It will be open once the annual fee is paid, or else it will be transferred to someone else.”
What? There was no way we were ever going to lose the box, not when dozens of our friends already had the number and were sure to send all future correspondence to us through it. Besides, taking a stroll to the post office every now and then had become such a pleasure that the thought of losing the tiny treasure proved too much a grief to bear. Mom would just have to find the money and pay.
The shiny blue walls of the post office were plastered with posters and public notices, and the wooden boxes for outgoing mails sat further from the entrance. The windows and doors, as always, were open and a pair of ceiling fans rolled lazily and noiselessly overhead.
While I stood wondering how I could pick up the letters I had seen a moment earlier, the woman — perhaps on compassionate grounds — motioned me to go further inside so as to speak with the controller. I met the man flipping through a file, a biro in hand. I greeted, explained the situation to him and asked for his assistance. He let the file be for a while, and — like his colleague had done a moment earlier — stressed the importance of ensuring that we renewed our rent as and when due.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I answered, both my hands resting on my laps. “We will pay up and won’t delay next time.”
As we talked, my eyes scanned the surrounding. It was more of a clearing room, where three men sorted incoming and outgoing mails in different containers and sacs. In between this activity, they would walk over to slip envelopes into the open back ends of the boxes. How thrilling it was to have seen what went on behind the scenes. How come my school didn’t plan an excursion to a place like this?
“Ok, go and collect your letters,” the supervisor said, clearly seeing no point in keeping me there further. Was I glad! I turned a corner and in an instant I gazed delightedly at the tens of green square boxes; some had documents in them, others were empty.
On my way out I cast a final look at the mail men. The supervisor had made my day. Many years later, NIPOST introduced the postcode system to ease its mail delivery process. The Ijeshatedo branch was “code-named” 101015, a number that stuck in my mind from the get go.
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