Public health and disease control: Postal history of Uganda since Independence

John Otim, Ekkehard Doehring & Sabine Becker
John Otim is the Editor of Nile Journal



Before the age of the internet the conventional mail was king. The postal stamp was a perfect platform for public advocacy. Today the postal service is no longer what it once was. Think of Britain’s Royal Mail or of the United States's Federal Mail and the global reach they once commanded. Folks today use the smart phone, the email, facebook, twitter and a multiplicity of delivery services where once they depended entirely on the postal service.

I gave a letter to the postman
he put it his sack
Bright in early next morning
he brought my letter back

She wrote upon it
Return to sender, address unknown

In the days before the internet and the smart phone Uganda was a simple place to live and a simple country to run. It was a small and compact land with a small population and infrastructures that worked. Roads though for the most part gravel were good all season and crisscrossed the entire country. Unlike say the Sudan before the split with its South, when the South was one big jungle without roads, schools or clinics.

In the days when mail meant postal mail, postal stamps were a great opportunity for public advocacy, promotion or even straightforward propaganda. Postal stamps were pretty and appealing. In Britain the pretty face of the young Queen Elizabeth adorned most stamps of the Royal Mail. America put its great heroes on its stamps. Men like John Dewy and Thomas Edison. The old Soviet Union found a place for its socialist themes and heroes on the postal stamps. Through its stamps a country put its best foot forward.

For many young people across the world stamp collection was a rewarding and absorbing hobby. We know because we did it. Young people enjoyed virtual tours around the world through their growing collections of stamps. Before the world was global postal stamps were global because the post was global.

Before the internet the post linked the world in one huge network of communication. In every corner of the world the daily post, the weekly post or whatever was eagerly awaited. In the dark days of General Idi Amin Italian nuns and priests used to gather at the Post Office in the northern town of Lira to await news and gossip from the outside world through the letters they would receive.  In Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, once in three months folks converged on the water front in a festive atmosphere to await the arrival by sail ships of the post from Europe, which occured only once every three months.

There must be some word today
from my boyfriend so far away
please mister postman look and see
is there a letter, a letter for me

The popularity of the postal mail and the prominent position of the postal stamp on the postal mail ensured that the postal stamp was a perfect messenger. In this article we follow the postal history of independent Uganda. We discover how the post in Uganda ingeniously and uniquely deployed the popularity of the postal stamp to generate awareness towards health matters in the interest of a healthier society. In a country where except for the radio the reach of the mass media was weak, the practice of graphically encoding health messages on postal stamps acquired a greater significance.

The postal history of Uganda is linked up with the postal history of Kenya and of Tanzania, the two neighbours with whom it once shared a common service that included customs and duties, railways and airways, and for sure the postal service. This was the logic of geography and of their common history as colonies of Britain from the late 19th century to the early 1960s when all three states regained their freedom as independence states.

In this study we scrutinize stamps that were issued during this period. Our source for stamps include the Michel Catalogue of World Stamps, Uganda Postal Service now Posta Uganda, and one private collection. Uganda became an independent country in October of 1962.  Our study covers the period from that time on. We zero on stamps that depict health themes, infectious diseases and social medicine and other related issues.

The use of postal stamps for promoting health and public health discourse is not a new thing in Uganda. The 1962 independence commemorative stamp shows a doctor using the x-ray to examine a patient at the country’s then brand new state of the arts hospital at Mulago. The message; you have a health problem, we have the solution. It was part of confidence building in the capacity of the new nation starting out. In the later years there would develop a trend in favor of integrating traditional madicine with modern practices.

Health is more than equipment and more than medicine. Fundamental is food production and the growth of a healthy economy. Banana and maize are staple food in East Africa and are both depicted on the stamps of this period. So too is coffee the main cash crop in Uganda. The message was clear; we must work to establish the basis for a good economy as the way to good health.

The economy may be great and there may be enough food to go round. But there is still a need for preventative health. Some Uganda postal stamps of this period depict nursing mother breastfeeding. One stamp shows a mother comfortably seated on a pretty hand woven mat, a common practice in the country, happily breastfeeding her newborn. It was part of a campaign against the unsafe method many young mothers were adopting of using the bottles because they thought it made them look modern. There was the hilarious anti smoking stamp issued in the 1970s in which a self confident smoker encounters universal opposition as he attempts to light up.

For years Uganda existed as a country bordered to its north and to its west by unstable countries that had little or no government and were engaged in bitter wars. It was a situation full of health risks. It provided ideal conditions for cross border transfer of disease and infections. Many times Uganda was hit by severe outbreaks of infectious and contagious diseases. The worst was the aids epidemic and later the outbreak of the Ebola virus brought into the country by soldiers returning from battles in the Congo and southern Sudan.

Uganda postal service long seasoned in the campaign for the promotion of health and the control of diseases responded in a dramatic manner with near brutal frankness. One stamp carries a portrait of a skeletal victim of the AIDS epidemic. It was the 1980s in the days before the availability of antiretroviral when every aids patient was expected to die. The message on the stamp was abstain or die! For a while it worked. The rate of new AIDS infection in the country dropped. The postal campaign was part of the general anti AIDS campaign mounted in the country at the time. It helped that the postal service was part of the effort.

From Uganda’s postal service the message was not always sombre and stern. As we have seen even the health messages were sometime hilarious. Over the years the country has issued a variety of stamps depicting topics and events that at times reach beyond its borders. For instance one stamp issued in 1983 celebrates the computer, the machine that was then on the verge of world conquest. By placing the computer and its human interlocutor amidst a maze of road and rail networks, the image on the stamp foreshadowed the World Wide Web.

Another notable stamp, issued in the sixties, celebrated the now defunct East African Safari Rally, which was in its heyday one of the leading rally events in the world.

We cannot forget the many other stamps issued by Uganda Postal Services over the years that feature Uganda’s rich flora and abundant wildlife such as elephants, crocodiles and mountain gorillas. But in its advocacy for health and health matters, the Uganda postal stamp proved it was in a world of its own. Please, please mister postman look and see!