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Sunday, 26 October 2014

50 years of idyllic harmony pictured in stamps

By Andrew Mulenga

As a personal contribution to the celebration of Zambia’s golden jubilee, Kitwe-based stamp collector Kamal Patel will be touring his collection that includes all but one of every Zambian stamp produced over the past 50 years.

Next week, on October 29, Lusaka viewers will get to see the exhibition from 9:00hrs at the InterContinental Lusaka, although the display will only be up for a day.

Some of the stamps issued on 24th October 1964
Some of the earliest stamps, a series of 14 produced on Independence Day in 1964 depict the buzz of a young nation, full of hope and prospects of growth. They illustrate aspects of Zambian industry, fishing, agriculture, wildlife, tourism and of course her mainstay, mining. Others are portrayals of education, health, new buildings, crafts and dance.

“I started [collecting] in the early 1970's when every kid in school collected either stamps, coins or rocks. In those days we did not have all these electronic games nor did we have that many TV channels so one had a collecting hobby,” explains Patel on how he started the extraordinary collection, often by tearing them off letters and envelops from all over the world when he was just nine-years-old not realizing that a childhood hobby will become a lifetime commitment.

True, the pastime may not be as common as it was during the pre-Facebook era of pen pals, and as Patel rightly points out, an entire generation of school-going Zambian’s were inspired to collect as they were also involved in letter writing, many – the author included – inspired by the American TV show Big Blue Marble screened on ZNBC in the 1980s that encouraged intercultural exchange among children all over the world.

Nevertheless, the Kabwe-born businessman, who grew up on the Copperbelt attending Kitwe Primary and Lechwe from 1973 going onto Kitwe Boys Secondary School in the 1980s after which he joined the running of a family business, says over the years he has had constant support from his parents, older brother and eventually wife and staff.

Stamps from 1975
“When I got into secondary school I started concentrating on Zambia. Most of the stamps were obtained from the Philatelic Bureaus [stamp collection agencies]. Then came the internet and online shopping that helped me to obtain the earlier stamps that I did not have and tried to complete my collection. Recently I have also started collecting items that related to Zambia Postal History like old envelopes sent from Zambia, old air letters, postcards, old photos of various post offices across Zambia and any item related to posting and Post Offices,” he adds.

In fact here, one is reminded that pictures of Zambian Post Offices and Railway stations of a certain period are particularly rare owing to the fact that from the 1970s through the late 1980s it was illegal to take any pictures at these sites, for security reasons.

These were very sensitive times as recorded by South African History Online (SAHO): “In addition to working together with Southern Rhodesia, South African security forces carried out targeted assassinations in Zambia. These began in the 1970s and escalated in the mid-to-late 1980s. In 1974 Boy Adolphus Mvemve (alias John Dube), the ANC Deputy Chief Representative in Lusaka, was killed by a parcel bomb in Zambia.”
SAHO also chronicles that in September 1987, another parcel bomb exploded, killing one person and injuring seven others as postal workers unloaded a train from South Africa. Such was the sensitivity around postal related sites when Zambia was the headquarters of ANC during the liberation struggle held strong by Dr Kenneth Kaunda.

It is not just about accessibility of photographic equipment, but those days one could not just take photographs or “selfies” in front of the central Post Office in Lusaka a site where in December 1985 a member of the ANC lost his left hand in a letter-bomb explosion, which was as shocking then as it would be today in a country whose citizens have always been accustomed to peace.

Nevertheless, back to the present, Patel admits that the hobby may have fallen off because more and more people are using the internet and emails so less stamps are being used and less postal mail is being sent. While there are no hard rules, Philately does have its technical aspects such as First Day Covers [special issues] and Mints [stamps that have never been posted], extremely rare collectables. It turns out that depending on the situation, a single stamp such as the Treskilling Yellow a rare Swedish stamp from the 1800’s can cost up to US$2 million.

“It [stamp collecting] is a dying hobby and will remain in the hands of a few. The new generation is so used to the electronic media so they do not even know what a post office is and the charm of sending a letter or receiving one,” he explains.

This will not be the first time he will be showing his collection having done it on a smaller scale in 2011 for Kitwe viewers only, just to test the waters on how such an exhibition will be received as well as what the logistical challenges would be.

“I think they [Lusaka viewers] will react well it’s a showcase in to the past. I feel that stamps were the only thing that showed the world what the country is doing, we have stamps on natural resources, special events of the country and of special events of the world,” he adds. In actual fact, stamps and postcards provided people overseas snapshots of a country before the advent of Google.

“It is also an expressions of artists who try to capture events or an issue into a small piece of paper. Yes I am exhibiting these stamps but I am just bring forward the artistic element in them, and at the same time my small contribution towards the 50th anniversary celebrations,” most of the post-independence stamps were illustrated by celebrated Lusaka artist Gabriel Ellison to whom the design of the national flag is also attributed.

He believes the general public, schools and artists should take advantage of going to see the exhibition, declaring not only will it teach them a few things but will definitely bring back memories, he will also be present to say a few words.

After the Lusaka show, he is moving it to Ndola’s Simba School where it will be on display on the 6th and 7th November. The Kitwe and Livingstone venues and dates have not yet been confirmed. The events are being made possible by the joint sponsorship of Mukwa Lodge Ltd in Kitwe and the Lowdown Magazine in Lusaka.

Patel’s exhibition is a timely commemoration, who would have thought a nostalgic glimpse into the past, could be provided by squinting at tiny pictorial gems from a bygone era that provide an elaborate tapestry of Zambian history.

The images are void of political differences, poverty, disease and corruption, they permeate the often cruel realities of daily life that many Zambians experience, therefore providing a transcendence into a somewhat mythical Zambia, a utopia which echoes those all too familiar words “Land of work and joy in unity”.
Patel may not realize it, but he is a hero of heritage and we should be respected for his effort of share a collection of a lifetime.

Meanwhile, the Visual Arts Council of Zambia (VAC) have announced an extra ordinary Annual General Meeting to be held between 09:30- 12:30hrs on 29th November, at the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka Show grounds, all members are encouraged to attend. 


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