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Though North Africa shared the communication systems of the ancient empires - Egyptian, Phoenician and Roman (which included the transmission of official, and to a lesser extent private, correspondence) - in modern times the postal systems of Africa have been almost without exception European in conception.

The reasons are self-evident: with the exception of the Arabs, Copts and Ethiopians in the northeastern quarter, few people could write; in many areas language and experience were so localized that correspondence was in any case impossible or unnecessary. The little that was needed, mostly warnings of danger, could be better accomplished by talking drums.

Where culture reached a high level, as in the Lake kingdoms of Central Africa, runners were trained in accurate delivery of verbal messages well before the penetration of European explorers. It was from places such as Uganda (after Stanley had brought to King Mtesa a freed slave who could take dictation, translate and write) that the few letters of genuinely African origin are known.

The introduction of adhesive stamps, here as everywhere, is a wholly European-inspired development. Europeans at first used their own. With the exception of Liberia, where the impetus came (1860) via the United States, no truly independent state followed suit until Ethiopia (1894).

The colonial era in Africa set a pattern that is probably reversible only at the price of reverting to tribalism. European languages are well rooted and provide the only lingua franca in areas with tongues without a common root. Thus English remains necessary to Kenya, not only for converse in the UN but in order to avoid a choice between giving preference to Swahili, Kikuyu or Masai.

The destinations of overseas mail have probably not changed dramatically since independence. Habits break very slowly, so that a population reared on Fiats is more likely to continue to import them than to change to Peugeots; this, combined again with the language barrier, ensures that commercial correspondence from Somalia will more likely be in Italian to Turin than in French to Brussels. In general, French-speaking tourists are more easily attracted to Dakar, English to Mombasa, and German still to Dar-es-Salaam.

The routing of mail, on the other hand, was internationalized in the 19th century by the UPU. Though in colonial times railways tended to cross boundaries only if both territories were under the same flag (exceptions were the Beira-Mashonaland and the Franco-Ethiopian railways), shipping routes were less parochial (being less susceptible to military misuse). Even air routes tend to the conservative, so that European services to the Congo (Zaire) are still predominantly Belgian, those to West Africa mainly French.

Stamp-collecting habits will therefore tend the same way, since stamp printing also has linguistic and stylistic traditions.

Colonial Africa 1920-1939
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Modern Africa
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Uganda (after 1962)
Zaire (Belgian Congo)

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  • FALKLAND ISLANDS - 1898 2s6d deep blue, SG 41, very fine used on small piece, tied by full

    FALKLAND ISLANDS - 1898 2s6d deep blue, SG 41, very fine used on small piece, tied by full "JA 5 / 04" cds.

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  • NYASALAND - 1908-11 complete set to £1, SG 72/81, very fine mint. (10 stamps)

    NYASALAND - 1908-11 complete set to £1, SG 72/81, very fine mint. (10 stamps)

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