There was a time in the 1990s when a former history teacher, a reporter then of this newspaper, used to write an occasional open letter to the late Sir Seretse Khama, the country’s first president. Were the president still be alive, he would be 100 years this month.
The open letters were part reminiscent and part update on the country’s trajectory, and yet another part, a plea for inspiration as the country was reckoning with the end of a long stretch of economic growth.
Because he is a historian, most likely, he saw his open letters and others he wrote, as a representation of the past and present, as well as his record for posterity.
I would like to assume that the said reporter, now a newspaper owner, probably wrote his open letter by hand and later transcribed it on his newspaper’s desktop computer, to make it ready for printing.
As with most technology, I am almost certain that the computer made his open letter writing effective, perhaps even convenient. But as you will see below, there is nothing like a hand written letter.
According to Hellanicus of Lesbos (480BC-395BC) – the ancient Greek historian – the first ever handwritten letter was sent by the Persian Queen Atossa around 500BC. Since then and as more people became literate, letter writing has been a popular way of sending messages to others, close and further afield.
A fortiori, writing letters has been closely associated with the record of civilisation; the daily routine of political leaders and other famous people; as epistles of religious personae; and as the future literature of the literati.
Indeed, in writing a letter, we convey our state of mind at a particular time, sometimes the casual simplicity of what we observe at that moment, other times, our personal touch on a matter, or our desire for our thoughts to survive for posterity.
To pen a handwritten letter, therefore, is a matter of time, of timing, the writer as well as the reader thereof.
Now we must spit in the face of the cult of the so-called technological efficiency of word processing, instant messaging, email and social media: indeed, the technology that is often complicit in our hastily-held views pretending to be honest assessments of issues, and in our public disagreements that easily develop into the denunciation of others! As we ditch this technology, we must enthusiastically embrace hand letter writing.
You are bound to ask why? Because, anyway you look at it, paradoxically it will cost you more to engage in hand letter writing. You will require your personal time and effort to search for and select the appropriate stationery, be it a postcard, a birthday card, a bereavement card, an embroidered writing pad, or any other writing paper; a preferred pen (even a fountain pen if the occasion calls for it); a relevant envelope, postage stamps, and a trip to the post office box to mail the letter.
These acts are a gift of yourself to others, a promotion of the business of stationers and post offices – which is urgently required – and a deliberate halting of the frenetic pace of modern life. Put differently, it may be that, as in many things, the value of a handwritten letter is not just what it presents, but also what is behind it and what its function is, in our lives.
Additionally, letter writing literally forces our hand to express our own individuality. I have a friend, a professional and business executive in the Gaborone CBD, whose letter writing – no matter the subject matter at hand – is an attractive cursive style of letters, the conveyance of his well-considered thoughts on paper, and a deliberate effort to write legibly.
As a capitalist, I reckon that he sees his handwritten letters as a creative medium that not only fosters his business relationships with others but is also a tool to close yet another deal.
Another friend, in a foreign country, writes his letters with as much concentration as reading a captivating book, by setting aside dedicated time to write letters, making drafts of most of his letters and thoroughly reviewing them, before finally dispatching them at a nearby post office.
Being a European, and a recipient of a strong and admirable Humanities’ education, he probably views his handwritten letters as a momentary time to reflect on life around him and as an opportunity for discernment.
The ex-reporter and my two-letter writers’ friends, unknown to each other but united by history, ideology and education, bring distinct pleasure to all those who read their letters, and confirm the notion that indeed letter writing is itself a conscious act of creation and deliberation, a sharing of themselves, and a metaphor for their presence in our lives.
When we write a letter and thereafter dispatch it, we often expect it to be read and saved, in fact, to be read several times over the lifetime of the receiver of the letter, and to be cherished as a record of our existence at some point in time.
Finally, when we receive letters – irrespective of who we are or what we do – we are compelled to ditch the frantic pace of our lives, by slowing down and sitting down, to read and understand them, as our concentration is required while our senses are heightened.
And whether or not a reply is required or unexpected, still we are gratified by the writing of the letter, its dispatch and its receipt. Now it must be easy finally to accept the simple explanation that those who pen handwritten letters well are likely to write a host of other things, equally well.
So, please go ahead, write and send that letter. And going forward, allow your letter writing to remind you of its enduring usefulness in your civilised life, as bland as it may be and as curated as you intend it.
BONGI D D M RADIPATI*
*Radipati is a contributor to Mmegi