Did you hear the one about how President Trump thought that Americans were getting screwed by mail? True story. Or stated more fairly, Trump believed that the Universal Postal Union (UPU) set rates that are unfair to the USA. Never heard of the UPU? You’re surely not alone. Yet as a former philatelist (translation: stamp collecting dork). allow me to use that ridiculous aborted threat to launch into an exploration of Ethiopia’s postal system.
Backstory first - the UPU is one of the world’s oldest member nation organizations. Started in 1874, it aims to keep the mail moving uncontroversially between nations. Amazingly, no country has ever exited the UPU and their current member nations number in the low 190s. Not surprisingly, the UPU sports a pre-MySpace quality, bland-to-the-point-of-adorable “dot-org” website. This is an organization, after all, tasked with keeping snail mail viable.
Not surprisingly, Trump’s empty threat to leave the union was meant to squeeze a political deal out of an otherwise non-partisan organization. Then last week, the UPU held an “Extraordinary Congress” to reach a deal that would keep the U.S. wedged into that group’s secure envelope. An “Extraordinary Congress” occurs only when a super-majority of member nations perceive a threat to the health of the organization. It really says something about the staid nature of mail wonks that this was only the third “extraordinary” situation in the UPU’s 145-year history.
Current politics aside, we’ve been thinking way more about the mail than usual since moving to Addis. In no small part because of its absence in our current living situation. The rub being that there’s no mail delivery here. While plenty of countries don’t have postal codes (or as we call them in the U.S. - ZIP Codes), Ethiopia doesn’t even have traditional addresses. They do, however, have a Postal Service. It’s even celebrating its 125 anniversary this year. Which amplified my interest in leafing through what they had to offer. Believe it or not, this is just “Part 1” of that larger pursuit. Everything takes a bit longer than expected in Addis. Especially stories.
After starting numerous conversations various locals with questions about when, how or even why people have gotten their secure mailboxes here, I heard many similar responses. People don’t use their boxes often, if they have even them. Maybe a parent or a grandparent got their box. Undaunted, I wanted to know if I could get one. The typical response was, “why?”
What really piqued my interest was when a fellow ICS-person with Ethiopian roots told me about the origin of the icon used on the Postal Service’s official mailboxes. It features a disembodied hand holding a letter on a stick, with a cartoon string tied around it. Which turns out to be a historical remnant of Ethiopia’s truly old-school delivery method, dating back presumably to the early 20th century. Apparently, there was a time when the arrival of letters was so cherished, that the Service would affix them to a bamboo stick. Maybe it was superfluous. But who wouldn’t want to get a letter on a stick? Everything’s better on a stick. Just visit any American State Fair for proof of that maxim.
In pursuit of my very own secure mailbox, I arrived at the Ethiopian Postal Service’s Head Office complex along Churchill Road in downtown Addis just after 10am on Tuesday. The guards checking bags were nattily dressed (tan uniforms, dark jackets and ties) and came armed with pleasant dispositions. They asked a few more questions than what I encountered at grocery stores or malls, but they kept it friendly enough.
“Camera?” I was asked using the English word, as a guard peered into my sling bag.
“Ay,” I replied, with the side-to-side headshake. That’s “no” in Amharic. “Computer,” I confessed, without interrogation.
He then noticed my bright-white, very-Seattle MiiR water bottle, which certainly looks suspiciously sleek and mysterious. I preemptively described its intended liquid with the wrong word - “wutat” (meaning “milk”). I caught my own mistake and rather than try to make a typically lame joke about being from Wisconsin (“ya know - America’s Dairyland?”), I revised my answer to “wuhah.” That’s the right word for “water.” We shared a chuckle and they motioned me through.
The main building’s entry hall features white marble, brown formerly-polished stone, drab colors and generous windows. The utilitarian space evoked impressions of the 1960s, which was when the building was built. It felt like an imaginary Pan Am terminal – imagine Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can” gliding through airports just ahead of Tom Hanks. Except the added furnishings were dissembled and worn, the obvious result of decades of hard daily use. There were ample customer service windows open, with things such as their “Express Mail Service” and the still ubiquitous Western Union wire service offerings included. The first person I asked quickly gave directions to the window where I could ask about renting a mailbox.
There were only two people ahead of me in line, and I was amazed that the dozen or so Amharic words I’ve committed to memory from my conversational classes all tumbled over my ears. In Addis, you need to know how to use “ishy” (meaning “OK”) as both a question and statement of being. I’ve got “ishy” down cold.
When my turn came, the friendly employee wearing a plaid maroon shirt and silver necklace behind the window asked how he could help in clear English. I explained my desire to rent a mailbox. He asked if I had a resident ID. My wife is still working on getting them for us through her work, I offered. He asked where she works, and I said, Saint Paul Hospital. “She can get a mailbox there,” he said, as if that would be the end of it.
Not knowing whether that’s true, I asked if I could still get us a mailbox here in no small part because she’s works during business hours and I’m the one out running these sorts of errands. He explained that I can with that resident ID, but that the piles and piles of forms stacked in front of him were for others already waiting to get a lock. The box itself isn’t a problem to get, he continued. There are lots of boxes. But getting the lock would take some time. I couldn’t tell if I’d misunderstood or gotten the jist of things perfectly. Bottom line - back of the line, faranji.
I asked for a blank form of my own, and offered my still-tortured but sincere version of Amharic “thank you” (“amisiginalew”). Box or not, the exchange felt more than just “ishy.” I left feeling downright “konjo” (meaning “good”). Even though I didn’t exactly get what I came for.
I walked around snapping pics and drinking in the Head Office’s unhurried pace. I looked for signs that might direct me to the National Postal Museum that I’d been told was nearby. Not long after, my maroon-shirted helper materialized from behind the counter. Without stumbling through an Amharic introduction aside from “hello” (“salam naw”), I asked where I could find the museum.
“You want to see the museum?” he asked, somewhat incredulously. I did, and I said so. I even dropped the mic by saying that “I collected stamps when I was a kid.”
He pointed me in the direction of the museum in another building. He followed up with a very friendly, “if I can help you get that mailbox, come find me.” No request for a bribe. But definitely more of a “wink wink, nudge nudge” than I’d expected.
I found the Museum, but it was closed (“maybe tomorrow,” I was told by a guard). After that, I wandered the remaining shambolic grounds. I wanted to take a much closer look at the Ethio-Cuba Friendship Park across Churchill Road. I’d attempted to check out this Communist-era relic while on Sarah and my “scouting visit” in February. But on that day a young guy spit on me in truly disgusting fashion. I didn’t harp on it then, but it was the only time I felt negatively targeted as a-way-too-obvious foreigner. That’s part of the gig, however, and I just chalked it up as a reason to not exactly go out of my way to head back to this Park. Until today.
Friendship Park goes by many other names. It was originally called Tiglachin (or “our struggle”) memorial. The former Marxist-Leninist regime, the Derg, had it erected in 1984 on the 10th Anniversary of their overthrow and arrest of Emperor Haile Selassie. The monument’s meant to memorialize the war between Somalia and Ethiopia in 1977-78. That conflict’s history reads like an opened time capsule of long since discarded alliances. The Soviet Union backed both sides in a conflict a few years prior between the neighboring countries, but sided with Ethiopia’s Derg in that second conflict (the Ogaden War). The U.S. switched sides to back Somalia and maintained that doomed-to-fail-horribly allegiance through the late 1980s. Cuba sent troops during the Ogaden War to back the Derg (hence the “friendship”). North Korea built the statues and park, using the same style and artists they still employ today. The current state of the park is one of general neglect. The iconography comes right out of that “dark and depressing” Soviet era textbook. Yet the park was reportedly restored starting in 2015, and could be much cheerier with a weekend clean-up and some earnest attention. Nonetheless, a few grace notes appeared. There’s a little library set up merrily in one corner, with the spines of bright-colored books facing the central statuary. Men of varying ages in pairs or small groups were seated on the benches scattered throughout. I didn’t feel necessarily welcomed, but I wasn’t threatened either. I even had a guy ask me this time, “how is your condition?” in a mangled English phrase that I found oddly charming. I responded, “I am fair to good,” while that Kenny Rogers and the First Edition tune used so well in “The Big Lebowski” flooded into my memory. It was a staging I didn’t expect, yet one I won’t forget easily.
After a short visit to the restaurant Gusto to check out the broader views from above Churchill Road, I hoofed it back to the Post Office. My driver, Teddy, would be waiting for me – he’s incredibly punctual and a ready listener even when he doesn’t understand my exploratory recaps. I had just enough time to find the maroon-shirted fellow who’d helped me earlier. I wanted to ask the question I’d forgotten earlier.
“How much is the rental fee?” I didn’t bother to focus upon whether the fee would get me the lock, a mailbox, or somehow both.
“105 Birr,” he replied with a smile. That’s between three and four US Dollars.
That oddball price charms me so completely that I’ll be back to get my lock when I’ve gotten my resident ID card. I’ll be sure to update you on the process (look for “Part 2”) and give you my box number, in case you want to write. I promise to write back to anyone who goes the snail mail route. And you can bet an inverted Jennie I’ll mail things to y’all with some of the coolest stamps the Ethiopian Postal Service has to offer. Ciao.