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by Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson, at 06:00 am, October 09, 2018, History

The real heroes of modern-day African postal services risked their lives delivering letters by running in the 1800s

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In Ancient Africa, communication was done through music, drumming and on critical occasions, the sending of royal servants and soldiers. In times when a piece of information was very sensitive or better delivered in person, royal kings left their palaces to speak with other kings behind closed doors.

After settling, the Europeans realised the lack of postal systems. They believed that not every piece of information could be carried by word of mouth especially because there was an obvious language barrier. As foreigners, it was also impossible for them to navigate the land well and travel with information. The German settlers in Namibia and Botswana waited for as good as two years to receive letters from neighboring towns and their homeland.

This saw the birth of postal carriers who till today are celebrated in Southern Africa.

In ancient Namibia and Botswana especially, postal runners were skilled and strong young men who sent and brought in letters. The service started as early as 1814. The runners were usually the sons of hunters and farmers who knew the ins and outs of settlements and neighboring kingdoms very well.

They were more than happy to work for the Westerners and often explained their jobs to others with pride. A postal runner was paid according to his speed and often escaped capture by slave traders because of his importance to the Western colonizers.

After a while, the job became very popular and many young boys wished to be postal runners. However, it was not as prestigious as it sounded. Many postal runners kept to themselves the harsh conditions they came into all in the name of delivering a piece of paper.

The postal runners run several kilometers by foot in their traditional clothing which usually covered only their private parts. They run from settlements in Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe all the way to the Cape Town Ports where all letters from the Western world came from. These postal runners carried letters close to 20kg. The letters were kept in a bag which was then tied on a stick that they carried on their shoulders.

In Botswana, one popular account of a postal runner is the story of an unnamed young man who never returned after an errand. He worked for the missionaries and merchants and was the very popular, fast and reliable. It took a while for a fellow mail runner to come back after healing from an attack to inform the missionaries that the boy had died after being attacked by a Lion.

Richard Tooke-photo-gondwana-

Another account of a popular post runner is the story of Richard Tooke in Namibia who was killed in Namibia because of mistaken identity in  September 1987. In his honor,  a postal stamp was made.

After a while, post runners slowly failed to keep up with a load of letters to carry over long distances. The number of deaths of post runners also increased because of the many wars and disputes in the late 1870’s especially in Southern Africa where the business was very popular.

Trains replaced post runners until the first postal offices were opened in Botswana and Namibia in 1875 and 1888 respectively.

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