Reflections on the almost completely lost art of letter writing
A couple of months ago, while looking for something I cannot remember, I stumbled upon a stash of letters I received during youth service about twenty years ago. My National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) experience was about eleven months spent in the dry plains of Fika, Yobe State, over 1,300km from Lagos. It was a memorable experience filled with plenty of time for self-reflection, making new friends, travelling and exploring different parts of the state and country, discovering and experiencing new cultures, and learning how to survive far from home. Alas, the circumstances these days may not provide the breadth of experience that people like me enjoyed back then.
After the mandatory three weeks in camp, we were transported to our various places of primary assignment. I was posted to teach at the Government Secondary School in Fika, about an hour from Potiskum where the camp was. A posting I attempted to change the very next day but reluctantly accepted after pounding the streets of Potiskum and realising it was not Lagos.
Once we were settled into our new lives, the older corps members quickly gave us the 411 on communicating with the outside world. The easiest way one could get in touch with family and friends was to send a letter. It didn’t require spending so much time and money unlike travelling into town or the state capital to make a phone call. It’s amazing how I never had to send letters within Nigeria until I went for youth service.
There was no cell phone connection in that town so if I had to make calls, I would get on the bus to either Potiskum or Damaturu which was about 2 hours away from Fika. There was also a cyber cafe in Potiskum but the internet connection was slow, they used a dial-up connection back then. There was no point anyway because the email culture was just picking up and most people had limited access to the internet except for official purposes.
There was one post office in Fika, one small-looking room where we went to deliver and pick up letters. It didn’t look like much back then but at least; it did its work. Letters were dispatched and received once a week, and if I remember correctly, the postman would sometimes bring all our letters to our corpers lodge. The postal system was fairly efficient then, I think letters were often delivered within a week or max two weeks.
A few of my friends were master writers, writing letters to different people almost daily. Deep, heartfelt letters to lovers, long, measured letters to family, and fun letters to friends. While some people received updates about their family members, others received heartbreaks from girlfriends who had moved on. Most times, we were either celebrating or consoling someone.
I wrote several letters as well, to family members and former classmates who were also serving. I wonder how I even knew where some of them were serving. Many responded and some didn’t, maybe they never got the letters. Reading from loved ones was always an event; those letters were never read once. I remember my mum would often wrap some money (urgent 2k) with her letters because as far as she was concerned, NYSC wasn’t paying us enough.
Looking at the stack of letters that I had received so many years ago reminded me of the art of letter writing and how it has practically become defunct. I probably wrote my first letter in primary school. The journey to that experience typically started from first being able to write legibly. Teachers rewarded pupils who had clear handwriting with the opportunity to write with a pen instead of a pencil. That was akin to a rite of passage of some sort. Cursive handwriting was also the in-thing back then and we all had to follow the teachers’ standard.
After handwriting classes came composition, of course, grammar classes were a standard part of learning. How did you spend your last holiday? What does your father do for a living? We learnt how to reflect on issues and write down our thoughts in as much detail as possible. Which words best described what you were trying to convey? How could you make your story more interesting? Everyone wanted to share a story that others would find engaging.
I remember many friends penning down long love notes in secondary school. Foolscap-length sheets of emotions that would either be welcomed or disregarded. It was often the tool used to toast babes back then. Some would even spray perfume on their letters, was that supposed to act like a pheromone? Who knows? Those were also the days of pen pals, sending letters to strangers turned friends in distant lands. How did we find these pen pals though? I honestly cannot remember.
With the advent of technology came emails and with emails came brevity. Of course, brevity heralded the use of abbreviations and all that we had learnt in school went down the drain. I shudder when I see some of the messages I sent when I first started sending emails. So many funny abbreviations that should never have seen the light of day. One would have questioned my schooling. I guess it was a phase though because when one has paid for a 30-minute session in a cybercafe, the last thing on your mind is cross-checking your grammar.
It’s even worse nowadays with chat apps like WhatsApp. Many people cannot seem to string two correct sentences together, didn’t they learn to write properly or is communication simply evolving? I often wonder about this. I would have excused it as “chat language” but one often finds these misspelt words making their way into formal communication.
Have the younger generations who didn’t experience the fine art of letter writing missed much? Is there any need to even write letters these days when one can simply pick up a mobile phone and have long conversations? I know how I felt reading through the stack of letters that I found, memories of the time just came rushing back. There’s definitely a place for documenting our thoughts through letters.
When last did you write a letter? Would you consider writing letters? I believe that writing letters can help people organise their thoughts and communicate better. Maybe we should reawaken the art? This is the way I see things today.