By Peter Wanyonyi
Back when Internet was just a bunch of cables in a university laboratory somewhere in the West and real telephones with painted booths and clanging ringtones ruled, having a family member “working abroad” was the height of prestige in society.
And it was easy to spot those families that were lucky enough to have such a soul in their midst what with the brand new clothes from overseas at Christmas and the twice-yearly phone calls from abroad, pompously received at the local post office.
Those phone calls were an event in themselves. On the appointed day, a son of the family would be sent to wait at the phone booth a whole two hours in advance, just to ensure that no one else got the handset engaged.
An hour before the call, the entire family would assemble around the booth. And when the call came, it was quite an affair, as family members jostled to say hello and push in a gift request or two for the coming Christmas season.
There was little phone etiquette involved, but no one really minded because it wasn’t a daily affair. In any event, the phone booths were located at quiet corners of post offices, away from the general populace. The hush and quiet of the post office ensured that the phone booths upcountry were treated with reverence and care, and villagers were known to even stand up when they heard the phone ringing. Who knew who could be calling?
The entire outing would be repeated six months later and in the meantime, the post office kept the family updated by delivering letters and telegrams from abroad, as well as the occasional bank draft from a caring daughter and a success card for a daft examination candidate.
Back then, post office was more than just mail. Apart from being the default phone call centre — since no one, apart from the local MP, had a phone in his or her home — it also doubled up as the local bank.
Banks were expensive in those days and most villagers ignored them altogether, preferring instead to open an account at the local Postbank, which was truly the pioneer of branchless banking in Kenya. For the young at heart, the Post Office was also a rendezvous for clandestine dates that often ended up blossoming into marriage.
And then mobile phones came along, accompanied by SMS messaging and mobile money. Suddenly, we all forgot how to write letters with a flourish, replacing them instead with cryptic text messages on a tiny screen.
Where the Post Office was a money transfer centre, mobile money showed up and took over. Even the old radio greeting cards, which could be bought at any Post Office for the princely sum of Sh20, gave way to the might of SMS.