I received two paper documents from Uganda last week. The beautiful multiple stamps on each khaki envelope, featuring some of Uganda’s wildlife, and the hand-written sender’s and receiver’s names and addresses triggered warm feelings and smiles as I walked out of my local post office.
I had been expecting them for weeks – yes, weeks. One was posted from Kabaare on August 12 and the other from Kasese on August 13. Two months on the way gave new meaning to the term snail mail. However, this slow delivery should not be counted against Posta Uganda, the senders’ service provider.
The new coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on international postal services. Besides limited air transport services, mail transit through the no man’s land has literally crawled at a snail’s speed. The mail may well have spent the bulk of its journey outside Uganda, including within Canada Post, which warned us a few months back to expect delays due to health safety measures occasioned by the pandemic.
However, I was very happy to receive this particular mail for two reasons. First, my friends, having taken the trouble to send me these highly valuable and hard-to-find documents, had not wasted their time and money. Second, this seemingly small experience eased my psychological struggle with the Ugandan postal service with which I had become deeply disillusioned decades ago.
I am a child of the 1960s, that being the decade of my earliest awareness about how the modern postal services worked. Besides the occasional use of the rotary dial telephones at the post office in Kabaare and Kampala, my main interaction with that service was the purchase of stamps and light blue “airmail” sheets upon which I would pour my heart out in carefully crafted handwriting to very special friends.
There was something rather uplifting about the act of placing the sealed letter into the mailbox, making sure that it had found a safe place in the dark chamber from which the very reliable postal service would extract it and deliver it intact to the addressee. One smiled as one imagined the smile on the recipient’s face upon receiving the letter.
Naturally, my letter writing in the late 1960s was almost exclusively to a dear friend at a famous girl’s high school in Buganda. Oh, yes, my parents would get the occasional letter from me, usually brief and less poetic than the diplomatic missives to my friend.
Receipt of a reply from said friend would cause temporary inability to focus on academic work, as one composed in one’s mind a reply to outdo the last one. After a few days of preparing a draft, one would pen the reply and send it on its way through the East African Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (EAPTC), easily one of the finest institutions in East Africa.
Happy memories linger, for the postal service acted as a very reliable partner in our youthful engagements in heartwarming diplomatic endeavours that prepared us for adulthood. One still marvels that one passed high school examinations in spite of the happy distractions. Now, where were we.
The postal service was more than a letter carrier and telephone services provider. Parcel delivery, money transfers, telegraphy and philately service
(the study and collection of stamps) were some of the other offerings. All were very reliable. Prompt and guaranteed delivery of mail and parcels were taken for granted.
The early 1970s, even after Gen Idi Amin and his military had seized political power, started off well. The postal service maintained its standards for a while. However, we soon began to hear stories of mail and parcels being opened “for security reasons.”
By the end of that decade, the postal service, like almost everything else in the country, had been brought to its knees.
One did not send valuable mail through the Uganda Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (UPTC), the successor to the EAPTC following the collapse of the East African Community in 1977. The situation deteriorated further in the post-Amin years, the UPTC becoming a den of thieves where letters and parcels, especially those from abroad, were reportedly targeted as potential sources of harvests of cash.
A point came when I personally gave up using that service altogether, relying on the old-fashioned method of human couriers. Technological and other advances in communication, such as the facsimile (fax), electronic mail (email), mobile telephony and express international courier services, eventually rendered my interaction with UPTC practically obsolete.
I can count on one hand the number of times that I sent or received mail through UPTC or Posta Uganda, its successor. I preferred the services of the big-name private couriers to Posta Uganda’s, not out of experience with the latter, but because of a residual fear informed by my experiences with its predecessor.
That is why receipt of these two letters last week was a very significant event for me. It prompted me to educate myself about Posta Uganda. What I read was very encouraging. The organisation appears to have become reliable once again in providing this critical service.
Whereas I cannot base my trust on a single positive experience, I will henceforth test-drive the services of Posta Uganda and will encourage my correspondents in Uganda to do likewise. It is a leap of faith I take with more confidence than I had when my friends informed me two months ago that they were sending the mail via Posta Uganda.
Why, I will even send parcels through Posta Uganda to find out firsthand how much things have changed since the dark days when even family photographs sent from Canada would not reach my parents. The central role of a national postal service in socio-economic development is a well-established fact. However, the success of that service hinges on its credibility, reliability and ability to fulfil expectations and obligations under the standards and protocols of the Universal Postal Union.
If Posta Uganda continues to reclaim the traditions and reputation of EAPTC, it will be a success story worthy of celebration and broad public support. I am grateful to my friends for sending me these valuable documents and for starting the potential restoration of my faith in an organisation that was a major part of my childhood.