By Rainer Ebert
Before Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter, there was the postcard. The younger among us may never have sent one to anyone. Communication today is mostly instant, and mail is derogatorily called “snail mail” by the digital crowd. Since the world’s first picture postcard was sent to London-based writer Theodore Hook in 1840, the postcard has enjoyed much popularity as a means to share images and thoughts across regions and cultures. In recent times, that popularity has rapidly declined, mostly due to the rise of mobile phones and social media. Sending postcards takes more time and effort than sending an email, or a message on social media, which makes postcards even more meaningful than they were when there was no instant alternative.
Writing a postcard requires you to slow down and give your full attention, and receiving one feels far more personal than receiving a message on an electronic device. A postcard is a tangible token of acknowledgement, and there is something magical about knowing that the piece of paper you hold in your hands has traveled a long distance and passed through the hands of many people to deliver to you the thoughts of another person. While “likes” are often given without much thought and hardly rise to the level of meaningful engagement, writing a postcard to someone is an exercise in patience and mindfulness, and it shows that you really care – enough to buy a postcard, write on it, and go to the post office to buy stamps and send it.
In 2005, the love for postcards of then-university student Paulo Magalhães from Portugal led him to create the Postcrossing project. Postcrossing is an online platform that transcends geographic and political boundaries and connects people from across the globe. The idea is simple: for each postcard you send, you will receive a postcard. Anybody can join, regardless of age, gender, race, or belief. To join and become a Postcrosser, all you need to do is go to www.postcrossing.com and create an account. Once you have an account, you can request to send a postcard. The website will provide you with the address of a random stranger as well as a unique postcard ID. You then send a postcard to that address. As long as you keep it friendly and polite, you may write whatever you like. You can share a curious fact about where you live, an anecdote from your life, or a poem you wrote. Be creative! Importantly, though, you must include the postcard ID. The recipient of your postcard will use that ID to register the postcard on the website once he or she has received it. You will then be notified that your postcard has reached, and yet another Postcrosser will be tasked with sending a postcard to you.
Currently, the Postcrossing community consists of close to 800,000 mail enthusiasts. They have to date exchanged more than 55 million postcards, which have traveled a combined 280,523,777,289 kilometers. As the website notes, that is “6,999,969 laps around the earth or 364,882 return trips to the moon or 937 return trips to the sun!” At any given moment, hundreds of thousands of postcards are traveling. So far, most postcards have been sent from Germany, more than eight million, followed by Russia and the United States.
If Africa was a country, it would rank between New Zealand and Slovakia. Close to 200,000 postcards have been sent from there, by about 3,000 Postcrossers, most of whom live in South Africa. Ethiopia currently has only 19 Postcrossers. Together, they account for a little more than 2,200 postcards, placing Ethiopia at rank 99 out of a total of 248 countries and territories. I have spoken to two Postcrossers living in Addis Ababa about their unusual passion.
Melissa works in Ethiopia as a teacher and first heard about Postcrossing from a fellow teacher when she lived in the Netherlands. She has “always loved writing and receiving postcards,” so she decided to join. “Since texting has become our primary method of communicating, I think it is even more powerful to send handwritten correspondence.” When Melissa started Postcrossing in Ethiopia, she asked a colleague for the location of the post office in Addis Ababa, and was surprised to find that the colleague did not know. “To a lot of people, it seems arcane,” and it is also “surprisingly difficult to find postcards!” However, there are places where you can buy them, such as tourist shops in downtown Addis Ababa and the Zoma Museum. Melissa always tries to match the postcard with the person’s interests, and to date has connected with people in 31 countries through Postcrossing. Her favorite postcard came from the Russian city of St. Petersburg, where she used to live. She hopes this article will inspires some readers to join. Given that there are very few members in the country right now, “anyone who wants to become an Ethiopian Postcrosser will be very popular!”
Hwayeong too is an educator, teaching Korean at Addis Ababa University. Before coming to Ethiopia, she has taught in Uganda, Cambodia, and the Philippines. Her first memory of writing a letter is a letter she sent to Santa Claus to ask for a Christmas gift when she was in kindergarten. She is an avid stamp collector and joined Postcrossing to expand her collection, but also to improve her English language skills. English today is the most widely spoken language in a world that is increasingly connected, and it is more important than ever to know English. Postcrossing is a fun way to practice. She plans to match her Ethiopian students with Postcrossers in South Korea. For them, it will be a good way to practice Korean. Hwayeong’s favorite part of the Postcrossing process is the excitement of clicking the “Send a Postcard” button on the website. “Which country will I be sending my next postcard to?” She also enjoys opening her mailbox and finding new postcards. It is a surprise every time, and to her every postcard feels “like a gift.” Most postcards Hwayeong has sent from Ethiopia have reached within ten to thirty days, but one to Belgium only took five. She likes the thought that people in other countries are learning about Ethiopia through her postcards. Even though Ethiopia is not their native land, Melissa and Hwayeong have become global ambassadors of their chosen home.
Postcrossing brings people from different backgrounds together, promoting intercultural understanding and friendship, and bringing smiles to all corners of the world. The simple joy of finding a postcard in one’s mailbox is as pure and precious as little else, which makes it so very special.
Dr. Rainer Ebert is a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. He lives in Texas and can be reached at www.rainerebert.com