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Lions, leopards and overnight delivery January 11th, 2015 by

Halfway between Malawi’s largest city, Blantyre, and the former capital, Zomba, there is a charming and unusual museum in Namaka, dedicated to the first postal service in the country. The small brick building (circa 1891) that now houses the museum was once the rest stop for the postal carriers.

One team would leave Zomba, while the other one set out from Blantyre about 3:30 PM. They would meet in the middle, at Namaka, at this one-room brick house, to exchange mail packets and rest for a couple of hours before returning home with their overnight deliveries, arriving at 7 AM.

The postal carriers were barefoot, but wore dashing uniforms. Along the whole way they sang “Wamtokoma sagona, eeh, eeh, eeh” which according to Kondwani Udedi means “the mail carrier never sleeps, hey, hey, heey”. The postal people carried spears (and later shotguns) to fend off the lions and leopards. No doubt the singing also helped to warn the big cats out of the way.

The mail runners were replaced by bicycles about 1936-37, and by a mail van in 1942. Malawi now has a post office in all the large towns, although the lions are scarce on the ground.

There is a lot of buzz today about ICT (information and communication technology), so it is worth reminding ourselves that before the revolution in electronic communication, there was an earlier breakthrough, with paper, which spread from China to the Middle East and Europe in the thirteenth century. Yet paper, as simple as it seems, enabled the printing press (about 1450), translation of the classics of Greek philosophy (see our earlier blog Translate to innovate), the newspaper (1606), scientific journals (1665) and a boom in letter writing.

Paper ICT was based on earlier conventions (like the written word, for example) but it replaced parchment and papyrus, which were expensive and could only be produced in fairly small amounts). Paper is cheap, and when you reach out to a mass audience, cheap is good.

Like the rest of the world, the people of Africa are now going through a communication revolution based on electronic gadgets. If the previous experience with paper is any guide, we can predict that the results will be far-reaching and democratizing, and unpredictable. Who would have guessed that paper would have led to shotgun wielding, overnight singing mailmen, hey, hey, hey.

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