Minega Isibo, that perennially pensive young lawyer columnist of ‘The New Times’, made me think back with amusement when he was bemoaning the lost glory of letter writing.
I wonder how many years of this athletic engagement he ever managed to enjoy before ICT came along and put paid to his delights. Not many, judging by the look of that bemused mug that accompanies his columns.
Well, we were at it as early as the 1960s, and I can assure everyone that it was an athletic exercise indeed. Many weaved their colourfully lofty words around the pages of lined paper as deftly as a skier through the flagged sticks of a ski course.
No, I wouldn’t want to detain you with an example of those magnificent missives that we used to package in perfumed envelopes. Suffice it to say that they provided ecstatic contentment to many a lass, and a lad, of the time.
Time even came when those crass papers and envelopes were replaced by expertly designed and perfumed writing pads and envelopes. These usually came in a joyful cocktail of colours and scents that would put Gucci’s eau de cologne to shame.
As happens in this fast-changing world, however, time for these heavenly writing pads also came to pass, and they were replaced by what were known simply as airmails. No, not e-mail. And an airmail did not only mean mail that went by air.
An airmail was both a writing pad and an envelope. You wrote on one paper and, when through, you folded the side flaps that turned it into a wonderful envelope, with all the air mail colours of a conventional envelope at the edges.
However, it had a tricky problem that teased many people. And that gave lucrative jobs to the few of us who could use it correctly. You see, where people had been used to lines, the airmail came without lines.
So, it was not uncommon for a young man to start the first line at the top of the page (it was only one page) only for it to end at the bottom! In fact, many were forced to draw the lines in pencil before writing their lovely letter.
Imagine the mess of rubbing all those lines after writing your letter, sometimes with even some ink getting erased in the process. Many, therefore, found it wiser to part with ‘Luxury’ cakes and engage the services of the few, existing adept calligraphers.
All in all, however, what was most important was that we did not always craft those poetic lines because we were love-struck. No, most times we toiled over them for the sheer pleasure of seeing our print.
It was not rare, for instance, for you in 1st year of secondary school to write to a girl in 4th year, only for her to respond that she read over the letter four times and did not understand a thing. Yes, even if she was three years your senior!
That would be because you’d have used what we called ‘bombastic’ vocabulary and uncommon expressions. You’d not use simple words and expressions like “Warm greetings to you.” That, to you, was for the unschooled.
You’d say: “I send you a whole chariot of cheerily chersonese chiffoniers of timely, tender and tinctorial tidings!” To have such vocabulary at your beck and call, you had to have read extensively. That is why the school library was your first home.
Luckily, unlike Rwanda here where even textbooks are unheard of, the libraries of your time and place were packed to bursting with all imaginable books. And you, ever hungry, were ready to devour them: text, fact, fiction and all.
There wasn’t anything that we did not read, from books on Quantum Physics to those on Mediterranean Ocean formation, Micro Biology to Bantu Immigration.
We read books on Chemistry, Greek Mythology and others, and then all the fiction novels.
In fact, I know a first citizen who has read all the books on science, arts, the social arts and languages. When it comes to novels, quote him a random title like “Find Him, I’ll Fix Him!” and he’ll tell you the author and all the titles to his name.
Me, I get scared when I look at our children of this computer age who don’t feel the least thrill in reading a book. In fact, it is a wonder that they can even form a sentence in any language at all.
Which is why I’ve been haranguing my son to write something. After a half-hearted attempt at humouring me, the fellow seems to have opted back to his life of SMS and the quick-fix pictorial language of computers.
Wonder what awaits him when our Rwandan universities are so mean with the ever-limited options and are not offering him his choice!
That’s why I sing praises to any young man or woman who still gets a kick out of reading and writing.
Three cheers to such youth!