Postal runner – a Postage Stamp for a Gravestone

Thinking about it, now would actually be a good time to light a fire and spend the night in the bush. However, Omaruru isn’t much further from here and he easily finds his way in the dark. He is also spurred on by ambition. The trip to Walvis Bay took him less than three weeks, which is really fast but quite normal for him. Wouldn’t they be amazed, however, if he already returned tonight? And terribly pleased about this particularly heavy bag with the letters they always waited for so eagerly? Ignoring the heavy load on his shoulder he continues his trot through the bush. There! Isn’t that the glow of a fire ahead of him? Suddenly a voice booms through the darkness: “Stop! Who is there? Watchword?” It startles him. He hadn’t taken into account that he doesn’t know the watchword. “Tooke”, he calls and because he does not recognize the voice he hastily adds “the postal runner”. “Watchword?” the voice asks again, louder now and nervous. His anxiety turns into fear – the soldier on watch does not know him and will shoot if he does not come up with the correct watchword immediately. “Post, post…” he shouts breathlessly. “Post, post…” he still gasps after a blow hits him on the chest and knocks him down…

Postal runner Richard 'Tooke' Karambovandu shortly before his tragic death in September 1897. Source: Lichtbildstelle des Fernmeldetechnischen Zentralamtes (FTZ) in Darmstadt (seit 1995 Forschungs- und Technologiezentrum der Deutschen Telekom AG in Berlin)

Postal runner Richard 'Tooke' Karambovandu shortly before his tragic death in September 1897. Source: Lichtbildstelle des Fernmeldetechnischen Zentralamtes (FTZ) in Darmstadt (seit 1995 Forschungs- und Technologiezentrum der Deutschen Telekom AG in Berlin)

This is what the last moments in the life of Richard ‘Tooke’ Karambovandu may have been like. Unfortunately there is no source to tell us what really happened on that first day of September 1897. There is no doubt, however, that a tragic mistake was made. Tooke, the postal runner, was highly appreciated by all and part of a trained Herero unit with the Schutztruppe. He was laid to rest with military honours in the cemetery of the Rhenish Mission in Omaruru. His grave can no longer be identified because the customary wooden cross of that time has not withstood the ravages of wind and weather, or termites of course. But 100 years after his death Namibia Post has given him a monument which is visible far beyond Omaruru, and even beyond Namibia’s borders: a postage stamp designed by Namibian artist Joe Madisia. A picture of Richard ‘Tooke’ Karambovandu, which must have been taken shortly before his death, served as reference.

1897 was a bad year for the area of today’s Namibia.  Rinderpest was rampant and cattle died by the thousands. It was a catastrophe for the transport system which mainly relied on the ox wagon. Mail was also affected because at that time postal traffic had already reached a volume which could not be handled with postal runners alone.

Nine years earlier, on 16 July 1888, the first postal agency for South West Africa had opened in Otjimbingwe, with Hugo von Goldammer as the first postmaster. Why Otjimbingwe? Because the office of the Reichskommissar was there. He was chief administrator of the ‘Protectorate of German South West Africa’ which Imperial Germany had proclaimed in 1884.

The beginnings of the postal services were very modest: the post office was a small hut, the full-time police constable doubled as the postmaster. For many years letters and parcels were still distributed via the missionary stations as well. In October 1891 the postal agency was transferred from Otjimbingwe to Windhoek, where a fort had been built in which the imperial commissioner took up residence.

Following the collapse of the transport system in South West Africa in 1897, the Berlin Reichstag approved funds for building a railway line from Swakopmund to Windhoek. As a result the number of post offices mushroomed – first along the railway line, then in other places as well. Postal traffic was temporarily impaired by the Herero and Nama wars from 1904 to 1907, but thereafter the construction of other railway lines – Lüderitz to Keetmanshoop, Windhoek to Keetmanshoop and Seeheim to Kalkfontein-Süd (Karasburg) – led to the establishment of a well-organized public postal service. A regular shipping service was also started between Swakopmund and Germany. The two years of waiting that a German missionary had to endure in 1840 before receiving an answer to his letters had shrunk to just six or seven weeks…

Stamp mail runner Omaruru - Joe Madisia 1997

Contact for collectors: Philately Services, Private Bag 13336, Windhoek; Tel +264 (0)61 2013097/99,

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Wild Horses in the Namib Desert: An equine biography

Telané Greyling and Mannfred Goldbeck

Telané Greyling and Mannfred Goldbeck

A comprehensive book on the wild horses living in the Namib Desert in south-western Namibia is now available – hot off the press. A German version will be printed next month.

Their origins steeped in mystery, the wild horses have over the years captured imaginations and touched hearts. These resilient animals have survived in the desert for close to a century and have become one of the main tourist attractions in southern Namibia.

Wild Horses in the Namib Desert is the outcome of a collaboration, revealing – in carefully researched detail – the little known history and behaviour of the wild horse population. Mannfred Goldbeck sheds light on the horses’ origins, taking the reader back to the tumultuous time of World War l and exploring the more plausible theories. Telané Greyling (PhD Zoology) shares her knowledge of the intriguing behaviour of the Namib horses gleaned from her many years of research and life amongst the horses. The book provides answers to the numerous questions frequently asked about the behaviour of the wild horses, from how often they drink to the size of their family groups, enlightening the reader about their existence away from the world of domestication.

An honest account of the Namib horses through the last century, including the harsh reality of drought, and beautifully illustrated with over a hundred photographs, Wild Horses in the Namib Desert will appeal not only to history- and horse-lovers but to all those who cherish freedom and the greatness of the natural world. The attractive layout suggests the soul and the essence of the book which was crafted out of love for all things wild.

An equine biography of the Namib wild horses, the book traces the beginnings of Equus groups on the sub-continent, following their journey over time to Namibia and the present day.

Mannfred Goldbeck and Telané Greyling, as told to Ron Swilling: Wild Horses in the Namib Desert: An equine biography, Windhoek 2011

Wild Horses Cover

Available in all leading Namibian book stores.


Postal Runners – the Heroes of early Communication

Talk of snail mail! That’s putting it very mildly. Are the loved ones back home all right? Are mother and father still alive? Will the head office send the urgently needed bibles or won’t they? German missionaries in Namibia had to wait two years before they received an answer to the letters they sent to the home country. Every now and then they waited in vain. Around 1840 the mailing route was not only very long but also dangerous…

At that time, of course, postal services did not even exist. The missionaries sent their letters by runner or asked travellers to take them with. The first postal runner service in today’s Namibia was established in 1814 between the missionary stations of Bethanien and Warmbad. As more missionaries arrived and started to work in the central and northern parts of the country, they formed a loose network of   occasional runner services. These days it is hard to imagine the value that a letter from home had for them, the great joy that it brought…

Postal runner, artist: Heinz Pulon, issued 1988
Postal runner, artist: Heinz Pulon, issued 1988

Letters to Germany had to be sent via Cape Town and the colonial power, Great Britain, because German ships had as yet no particular reason to call at the coast of South West Africa on a regular basis. Essentially there were two routes for sending mail to the Cape: by land through the south of the country and all the way to Cape Town, or the somewhat closer town of Port Nolloth, and the Baiweg (Bay Way) from the interior to Walvis Bay; ship traffic from Port Nolloth and Walvis Bay to Cape Town was erratic.

The surface route was the biggest challenge. Namibia’s first postmen were real heroes who certainly deserve to be honoured by means of a postage stamp. They covered hundreds of kilometres on foot, in the murderous heat of the summer and bitterly cold winters. They were able to take up to 17 kg of mail. The mailbag was tied to a stick which they carried on their shoulder; a bag with their provisions was attached to the other end of the stick. They took around 12 days to get from Windhoek to Walvis Bay. On foot they were faster and more reliable than saddle oxen or ox carts. Horses were not suitable in those early days because they often succumbed to horse sickness.

Apart from the exertion postal runners also had to withstand many dangers. One of the runners, who was the communication link between the mission stations of Bethanien, Warmbad and Kommagas (approx.50 km west of Springbok), disappeared one day. Tracks were found shortly afterwards which led to the assumption that he had fallen prey to a lion. One of his successors met with the same fate. In that case, however, neither the postal runner’s mortal remains nor the mail was found. People were also a threat. During the armed conflict between Nama and Herero sealed documents were viewed with suspicion by both warring parties, even though the missionaries did their best to remain neutral and mediate between the two.

Postal runner on the route Tsumeb – Ondangwa with post bag and pouch of provisions. Photo: Walter Moritz

Due to the distances and dangers mailing was far more expensive that it is now. In addition to the postal charges from Cape Town to Germany via Britain, the wages for the runner as well as his provisions had to be paid – in British Pounds, then the valid currency at the Cape, and in kind.

Incidentally, the postage stamp as proof that the sender had paid the delivery costs was developed at about the same time when the missionaries were lamenting the fact that they had to wait for answers for two years. On 1 May 1840 the ‘Penny Black’ was issued in Britain, a printed piece of paper with an adhesive film on the reverse – the world’s first postage stamp. Sir Rowland Hill, a member of parliament who developed the concept for postal reform and submitted it to parliament, is seen as the inventor of the postage stamp.

The term ‘stamp’, however, refers to a method of prepayment which is 160 years older than the postage stamp. More than 330 years ago, in 1680, a merchant called William Dockwra and his partner Robert Murray established a postal service in London. A hand-stamp on the mail piece showed that it had been paid for.

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von Schumann, Gunter und Kube, Sigrid: Der Anschluss an die Welt. Die Geschichte der Post und Telekommunikation 1888-2005; in: Klaus Hess und Klaus Becker (Hg.): Vom Schutzgebiet bis Namibia 2000, Göttingen 2002, S. 468-479

Postman, by Namibian Artist Joe Madisia, 1997

Contact address for collectors: Philately Services, Private Bag 13336, Windhoek; Tel +264 (0)61 2013097/99,