The first time I understood the significance of postage stamps was when I was in Sawa doing my national service. In Sawa, we longed for Sundays, the day’s someone chosen from amongst us brought us stamps from the post office in the camp. You had to get on well with the person elected to fetch the stamps lest she refused to sell you stamps pretending to have sold out. What this meant was not being able to send letters to your loved ones. It was back then that I appreciated the importance of the postal service and the significance of stamps.
When I watched Hollywood movies, collecting stamps was portrayed most of the time as a worthless leisure pursuit or the hobby of weirdoes and nerds. However, when I met Fitsum G.Selassie, a philatelist, I came to know that name-calling in the movies was just stereotyping.
Fitsum has more than 100 collections of stamps, representing a period extending from Italian colonization to the independence of Eritrea. He says stamp collecting can be both a hobby and a form of historical study because postage stamps issued by governments tend to tell the history of nations. And when the demand of stamp collectors greatly exceeds the supply, the commercial value of stamps in a specific market may become enormously greater than the face value of the stamps, even after use. For some postal services the sale of stamps to collectors who will never use them is a significant source of revenue.
I have lived my whole life in Asmara but I have never visited the bureau of postal services. Of course, with the internet and the social media the importance of letters was fading when I was growing up. But that could not still be a good excuse for my not visiting the post office. The moment I shared this with Fitsum, he was willing to be my tour guide right away.
When we reached the gate of the art deco building the first and most noticeable thing was the banner bearing this message: October 9, 2022 World Stamp Day. We entered the building and Fitsum pointed at the archaic but vibrantly and beautifully colored ceiling. On that ceiling appear names of the post office’s branches during the colonization period located in different towns, including Keren, Massawa, Akordat, Barentu, Decemhare, and Tessenie.
Worldwide many types of stamps are used. Those mainly used in Eritrea are: definitive, commemorative, first Day Cover and local post stamps. The first adhesive postage stamp in the world, the Penny Black, was issued in the United Kingdom on 1 May 1840. According to Fitsum, the postal service in Eritrea was probably introduced with the coming of the Italians in 1882, when the mercenaries bought a land at Assab and had to establish their own way of communication. Postal service was one of the most essential communication means at the time, and they had to use stamps.
When the Italian government recognized Eritrea as its colony in 1890, the necessary infrastructure for post office was built in Asmara, and an official overprinted type of stamps introduced with the words Colonia Eritrea printed over the existing stamp called Estro. After that they issued several stamps displaying pictures of Eritreans from different ethnic groups and wild animals.
In 1903 and 1916, revenue stamps were launched, and in 1922 pictures of buildings began to appear on stamps. One such picture was that of St. Mary’s church, with ‘Asmara Deghe Selam’ scribed on top of it. In 1938, new stamps bearing pictures of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Libya were printed under the name Africa Orientale Italiano reflecting Italy’s ambition to be a formidable colonial power.
With the end of Italian colonization, the British Military Administration took over Eritrea and issued overprint stamps marked Middle East Force (MEF). After a while the words on the stamp changed to British Military Administration and then to just British Administration.
The pictures on the stamps didn’t vary much during the British Administration although one new stamp was introduced. It was an Inland Revenue stamp bearing the picture of a farmer cultivating. The stamps continued to be printed throughout the federation period until they were replaced by stamps with Ethiopian king’s portrait following Ethiopia’s annexation of Eritrea.
The history of postal service and postage stamps is also associated with the struggle for independence. On the catalogue published by the philatelic bureau of Eritrea, it is clearly stated that postal service was provided to people in the liberated area and towns of Eritrea. In 1978 postage stamps that depicted the steadfastness and bravery of Eritrean women and the sacrifices made by the people were printed.
After the second congress of the EPLF, postal services were expanded to facilitate communication between the armed forces and people in the liberated areas as well as Eritreans in Diaspora. Despite all the difficulties around eight centers were established.
After the liberation of Eritrea, on 1st September 1991, the Independent State Postal Administration issued a group of three stamps featuring “Freedom, after 30 years of armed struggle” for internal use only. A second group of the commemorative postage stamps were introduced on 22nd April 1993 consisting of five value denominations celebrating the days of the referendum. Then sets of commemorative stamps consisting of two souvenir sheets and two sheetlets featuring the marine life of the Red Sea were issued when the national currency, Nakfa, was issued. The Eritrean postal service has so far issued more than 42 series of stamps, both definitive and commemorative.
As humans it is natural for us to use communication tools that are up-to-date and more convenient for us. And there is no question that the advent of mobile phones and social media have undermined postal services. However, the collection of stamps is emerging as a popular hobby, which keeps postal service from totally vanishing. When I saw Fitsum’s collection of stamps I had the sudden urge to know the history behind them, the history I had learned only through textbooks.
I asked Fitsum how he was able to collect all the stamps, and he said he followed four things that enabled him to pursue it without giving up. They are: hobby, devotion, patience and money. At last while we were standing in the middle of the bureau of postal services, Fitsum told me that World Stamp Day is a great means of income and a tourist attracting event and he calls on the philatelic bureau to do more!
Eritrea formally became a member of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) on 19 August, 1993. UPU, which was established in 1874, has 192 member countries and sets the rules for international mail exchanges as a Specialized Agency of the United Nations.