Before Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter, there was the postcard. Many young people have never 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 a postcard takes more time and effort than sending an email, or a message on social media, which makes postcards even more meaningful now 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 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 almost 56 million postcards, which have traveled a combined 283,287,255,159 kilometers. As the website notes, that is “7,068,927 laps around the earth or 368,476 return trips to the moon or 946 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.
I have spoken to some of the most active Postcrossers in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, South Africa, and Tanzania. These countries have in common that they are all underrepresented on Postcrossing. Bangladesh currently has 55 Postcrossers who have sent about 2,500 postcards, placing the South Asian nation at rank 91 out of 248 participating countries and territories. 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. The majority of them, close to 1,900, live in South Africa and account for 135,117 postcards, placing the rainbow nation at rank 44. Ethiopia has only 21 Postcrossers. Together, they have sent 2,236 postcards. Ghana has 79 Postcrossers, with 2,814 postcards sent to date, and 25 Postcrossers live in Tanzania, from where 766 postcards have been sent. These numbers place Ethiopia, Ghana, and Tanzania at ranks 99, 89, and 132, respectively.
Bangladesh 🇧🇩, South Asia
Mohammad Ishaque from Rajshahi, Muhammad Nurul Amin Bhuiyan from Dhaka, and Foysal Shahriar Ratul from Uttara
Ishaque first heard about Postcrossing from a fellow stamp collector, a teacher at Rajshahi University, and decided to join. “I thought it could be a good platform through which we can let people know about our culture, tradition, history, and all the positive sides of the country.” To date, he has sent 427 postcards, more than any other Postcrosser in Bangladesh, and can proudly call himself an ambassador of his native land.
Amin has been an avid stamp collector from childhood and wrote his first letter to his grandfather in the United Kingdom, to ask him for stamps. He was in 6th grade at the time, and in the 47 years since has not stopped writing letters and postcards. He was introduced to Postcrossing by his college friend Nasimul Islam, a well-known figure in philatelic circles in Bangladesh and executive member of the Bangladesh Philatelic Federation, and has in turn himself inspired many others to join. Amin retired from the Bangladesh Army in 2009, and now enjoys his time traveling, both through postcards, and by plane, especially to Africa. The first place he visits whenever he goes to a new country is its main post office. It is no wonder his wife often says, “stamps are his second wife.” Amin uses Postcrossing partly to expand his stamp collection, but also to get to know people from different countries, and once met a Postcrosser from Russia when she came to visit Bangladesh.
Ratul, who is currently pursuing a law degree, found out about Postcrossing through a post on a blog and joined in 2013. He still remembers the first two postcards he received. They arrived on the very same day, and were sent from the Netherlands and Belarus. His parents and friends initially thought his new hobby was a waste of money, but now support his passion for old-fashioned mail. He has received postcards from places as far away as Antarctica, Cuba, Fiji, Greenland, the Marshall Islands, Seychelles, and Vanuatu, and even from war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Among the postcards he has received so far, the one he treasures most, however, came from Germany, and had a small piece of the Berlin Wall attached to it. Like Amin, Ratul has infected others with the Postcrossing virus, and likes to connect with the Postcrossing community not only at, but also away from the writing desk. He met Postcrossers in Kolkata and Penang, and at a Postcrossing meet-up in Bengaluru, some of whom, he says, “have become like my family members.”
It can be a challenge to find postcards in Bangladesh, but there are places where you can buy them, such as the Bangladesh National Museum, the gift shops at the Lalbagh Fort, the Ahsan Manzil, and other historic sites, Bengal Boi in Lalmatia, and Aranya in Dhanmondi.
Ethiopia 🇪🇹, East Africa
Melissa Cavender and Hwayeong Kang from Addis Ababa
Melissa works 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 some people in Ethiopia will read this and be inspired to join. Given that there are very few Postcrossing members in Ethiopia 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.
Ghana 🇬🇭, West Africa
Merjim Groen and Elzo Kofi Groen from Agona Swedru, Samuel Ankamah from Accra, and Sisu Haruna from Tamale
Merjim, a farmer originally hailing from the Netherlands, has sent more than one thousand postcards, more than twice as many as any other Postcrosser in Ghana. He decided to join Postcrossing after hearing about it from a Dutch friend, who sent him a newspaper article about the project. He has since received postcards from places all around the globe, the most unexpected of which probably was North Korea. Before sending a postcard to a fellow Postcrosser, Merjim likes to study his or her profile, and takes great joy in selecting just the right card. His 10-year-old son, Elzo, grew up seeing his father exchange postcards with people from other countries, and was fascinated by the pictures of all those far-away places. With the help of his father, he opened an account when he was just three years old. He still remembers the country to which he sent his very first postcard. It was Germany, and the postcard took three weeks to reach its destination. The first postcard he received came from Hong Kong, and had a drawing of a clown on it.
Samuel works as a medical librarian at the University of Ghana and first learned about Postcrossing through a program broadcasted by Deutsche Welle. He decided to join because he thinks it is a “great way to randomly meet people from different countries and continents” as well as ”a wonderful and cheap way to travel the world without a passport and visa.” Samuel collects all postcards he receives in a neatly organized album. The postcard in his collection that he holds most dearly is one he received from someone in the United States. It has a quote printed on it, which reads as follows – “I think it is only fair to warn you that I am, in fact, a librarian.” It reminds him of the importance of his profession, and the expectation of being knowledgeable and intelligent that comes with it. Since joining Postcrossing, Samuel has inspired many colleagues and students at the university to join as well, and thinks it would be nice if there was a regular meetup, were Ghanaian Postcrossers can share their stories and motivate others to join. Ghana Post could help as well, he says, “by reducing the price of stamps needed to post a card.”
Sisu is an undergraduate student and spends much of his free time teaching kids in his neighborhood in Tamale, where he and his friends are building a school, with the goal to provide quality education to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. An important part of education is to learn about the world and its diversity and beauty, and Sisu hence likes to share the postcards he receives with his students, as a way to introduce them to different countries and cultures. His favorite thing about Postcrossing is the surprise when opening his mailbox and finding a new postcard. He has met Postcrossers in real life, including from Germany and Spain, but wishes there would be more where he lives. Like Samuel, he laments the high cost of stamps, which he believes prevents many people in Ghana from joining.
South Africa 🇿🇦, Southern Africa
Cecile Schlebusch from George, Jayne Batzofin from Cape Town, and Charmaine Zeeman from Pretoria
Cecile wrote her first letter when she was six years old and in hospital. It was addressed to her grandfather. Ever since, she is fond of writing, be it letters or postcards, which is why she signed up for Postcrossing the moment she came across it while surfing the internet. “I have always wanted to communicate with people who lived in faraway places. Postcrossing offered a once-off communication with somebody unknown; yet the possibility to become pen pals later on, if so desired, was there.” To date, Cecile has sent 1,663 postcards, making her the most active Postcrosser in South Africa. She has received postcards from places as far away as Macao, Estonia, Uzbekistan, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and South Korea, and throughout the years quite a few interactions on Postcrossing have developed into friendships. Cecile puts much effort into personalizing the postcards she sends, writing only after carefully studying the recipient’s profile, and likely leaving “a very small, funny line drawing of a cat, mouse, or something else.” She is always on the lookout for interesting new postcards and colorful stamps. To her, “the whole process of sending a card is magical, as you will be making indirect contact with somebody who does not know you or even realize that there is a card on its way from the southern tip of Africa!”
One of Jayne’s fondest childhood memories is of receiving postcards from her father whenever he was traveling abroad for work. There was no internet, so it “was a rare moment to connect with him and hear how he was doing.” Unsurprisingly, Jayne grew up to develop a liking for sending postcards herself, and joined Postcrossing immediately after hearing about it from a friend who was already a member. “I loved receiving interesting postcards from my friends who traveled abroad, and I loved the idea of making these micro-moment connections with strangers from all over the globe.” When people hear about her unique hobby, they are intrigued and ask many questions. “It is always an amazing conversation starter.” One of the postcards Jayne cherishes the most is one she received when living abroad. “I was undergoing a very traumatic time in my life, and this Postcrosser put immense care and thought into a postcard for a seeming stranger. They drew the most exquisite doodles all over the back that made the back its own artwork. When I received it, the care put into it provided me with a moment of joy. In fact, that whole period I lived abroad was transformed by the amount of postcards I received. I covered my walls in them, and it made the time there feel as homely as possible.” Even though it has been more than six years since Jayne joined Postcrossing, she says opening her mailbox and having postcards pour out of it still fills her with sheer delight.
Charmaine first learned about Postcrossing from an article she found browsing through a local magazine on a family trip to one of South Africa’s national parks. “The idea of receiving mail from all over the world, getting to know more about other countries, especially people, was an exciting thought. As I am passionate about South Africa, I could not wait to tell the world about our beautiful, unique Mzansi and all its interesting people and different cultures.” Sending postcards evokes feelings of nostalgia in Charmaine. It reminds her of the days when she was a young girl and writing letters and postcards was still a popular form of communication. “Birthday cards from family members with some money in it used to be the order of the day, so waiting for the postman to spot your name on an envelope kept children everywhere excited. We were taught to write and address letters in school, never realizing that the art of letter writing would soon be a thing of the past.” What Charmaine likes most about Postcrossing is sending postcards. “The mere anticipation of where your next postcard will be going keeps me buzzing. More than this, I enjoy browsing through the person’s profile and selecting a card that they would like.” Last year, she helped establish a South African Postcrossing group on Facebook, and she is planning to arrange a meet-up sometime this year, hoping to make friends who share her hobby. Postcrossing, she says, has taught her that people everywhere are kind, and it is the little things, like “getting a random Happy Birthday or somebody sharing a secret,” that make it all worth it to her.
Tanzania 🇹🇿, East Africa
Wilson John Simon from Bagamoyo and Harrison Mollel from Arusha
Wilson is a farmer and just completed a graduate degree in philosophy at the University of Dar es Salaam and learned about Postcrossing from a German friend. He decided to join to “connect with people and learn about what life is like in other parts of the world,” and as a way to advertise his country and culture.
Harrison is a IT technician and has been writing letters since childhood, starting with a letter he sent to his dad in 2001. He was happy when he heard about Postcrossing from a friend on Facebook. For him, Postcrossing is a way to find pen pals. Both Wilson and Harrison believe that the biggest obstacle that keeps Tanzanians from joining Postcrossing is cost. Postage rates in Tanzania are high relative to the average income, which is very unfortunate, as those having a small income would benefit the most from exchanging postcards with people aboard, due to generally limited opportunities to explore the world.
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.
Versions of this article were published under the following titles:
“For the love of postcards,” Sikkim Express (India, 7 January 2020)
“For the love of postcards,” Awoko (Sierra Leone, 10 January 2020)
“For the love of postcards,” Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh, 13 January 2020)
“For the love of postcards,” Capital Ethiopia Newspaper (Ethiopia, 19 January 2020)
“For the love of postcards,” The Citizen (Tanzania, 19 January 2020)
“The decline of the value of postcards,” The Spectator (Ghana, 25 January 2020)
“For the love of postcards,” Voices 360 (South Africa, 19 February 2020)
“For the love of postcards,” Cape Argus (South Africa, 21 February 2020)
“For the love of postcards,” Saturday Star (South Africa, 22 February 2020)
“For the love of postcards,” The Independent on Saturday (South Africa, 22 February 2020)
“For the love of postcards,” Pretoria News (South Africa, 22 February 2020)
“Precious postcards go digital,” The Star (South Africa, 24 February 2020)