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How my illiterate grandma taught me letter-writing



I credit my illiterate grandmother, the late Lucia Amayoka, and her last born son Nicholas Buhere for my education in the art of letter writing.

Uncle Nicholas used to work in Mtito Andei and would communicate with his mother through letters.

Our grandmother had not had an education. She was illiterate. That was in the mid-1970s.

It was, however, common for children to write to parents even though some, if not most of them could not read.

It was the few young educated people who invariably received, opened and read out the contents of the letters to the addressee.

This is how my young brother and I came into the world of communication between two people — uncle Nicholas and grandma Lucia — who were hundreds of kilometres apart.

The letters she asked us to deal — to use a bureaucratic language I have come to interact with for years — were in two categories.

We had uncle’s, which we opened and read for her, and another we wrote for her in reply.

The communications were about ordinary things in life. Uncle wrote about money he had sent for casuals on his farm.

Grandma would reply detailing how he had spent the money as requested in a previous letter, interspersing the letter with the latest happenings in the family and village and with occasional reference to weather.

One thing we noticed and which I later learned in communication studies was the introductory remarks to the letter.

A standard format which never missed in the correspondences was greetings and hopes the receiver was in good health and thereafter an acknowledgement of the previous letter.

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Then the writers would explain the reasons of the writing and/or the reply.

My brother and I loved reading and  writing the letters.

When I eventually found myself called upon to write letters — to my father, mother and girlfriends — I had little or no problem putting my thoughts, feelings and ideas into words.

The same applies to the letter-writing format we were called upon to engrave feelings, thoughts and ideas in our English language subject in secondary school.

This comfort was courtesy of the practical educational experience I had, under my grandmother, in writing letters.

It is this childhood flirtation with letters that induced me to read most of the letters St Paul, Peter and St John wrote to the newly converted Christians and priests in the gentle world.

I even chanced upon a letter German statesman Otto von Bismarck wrote to his father-in-law — showing Bismarck the nonsense statesman we know in history — as a humble.

The art of letter-writing is an affirmation of the union of souls between two people.

They share the mysteries of life, of distance, while breaking down the physical barriers.

Letter-writing is civilisation itself. It expresses hopes and happiness and tribulations on one hand while providing a platform to reassure people far removed from us that life is worth living.

It is unfortunate the current generation of youth and leaders — political, business and religious — don’t seem to value the place of letter-writing in establishing and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships.

I have read some of the most poignant letters by great statesmen other than Bismarck on matters of policy in a very humane manner.

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I have in mind Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs Bixby who lost five sons in the Civil War, and his other letter replying to Horace Greeley, editorial in the Tribune titled The Prayer of Twenty Millions.

Classical Greece and Rome abounds with letters in which respective leaders wrote addressing public and private matters dear to them.

I have also read love letters by some of the greatest men and women who ever lived.

Napoleon Bonaparte letters to his wife Josephine are common coin to lovers of letter-writing.

I would like to read letters by politicians, businessmen, educationists and religious leaders — letters on their public duties and in their private capacity as human beings.

I read somewhere that Grace Ogot was moved to write by her husband Bethwel Ogot who was mesmerised by Grace’s love letters. I am waiting for those letters.

Letter-writing is not actually a burden to write. There are many highly educated people who avoid letter-writing; they  choose to hide behind bureaucratic language when what a situation requires, what citizens require, what a customer requires is a personalised letter which demonstrates care when the outlook is not rosy.

I thank my late grandmother and uncle for exposing me to one of the most revolutionary modes of communication: letter-writing.  — The writer is Communications Officer, Ministry of Education

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