In a season of severe stress from high cost of living, expensive and unavailable dollars, and the threatened return of mandamano, I feel inspired to escape the somber and reflect on the more mundane, but nonetheless fascinating aspects of life especially when viewed in the back mirror.
Several experiences this week made me mourn the unfortunate death of the art of letter writing.
This old age tradition, introduced to the world by the Mesopotamians, has been swallowed by Short Message Texts, which started off with full words but are now replaced by an emojis wave.
To make matters worse, with the entry of Artificial Intelligence you can now write any letter, including the most personalised, courtesy of ChatGPT or other AI programs.
That is an unrecognisably different world from when I grew up.
In those days, most villagers couldn’t read or write. Meanwhile, most husbands lived in the city while wives stayed in the village, farming and looking after their families.
The need for constant communication was however as real then as it is now. We had no phones and so communicating required the sending of oral messages across a series of deliverers, which tended to mutate the message by the time it got to the recipient.
The most reliable form of communication was therefore letters. Naturally, scribes were required for this professional service and in teenage days, I was one of accomplished village scribes.
A good village scribe was defined by several important traits. One, he needed to be absolutely confidential. Long before I was taught client confidentiality in Law School, I had learnt the merit of this virtue.
A scribe was the keeper of secrets. He knew which babies were overdue for replenishment. He knew who was not keeping up with monthly allowances. Which mother-in-law was overbearing. But beyond confidential, the scribe needed to be a wise communicator.
It was the height of folly to communicate exactly what had been mouthed by the letter owner. One needed skill to massage the more vicious messages.
A typical message was “what do you think we are eating when you don’t send money?” A wise writer rendered this as “we are really struggling financially and look forward to receiving your support which is now overdue”.
Because the scribe was also the reader of the replies, the same skills were applied in reading the replies. These were also massaged so that they would be palatable to the recipient.
That way a wise scribe, though young in years, managed marital relations and kept the community happy.
Indeed, my brother and I became so good in the art, that most women whispered that if you wanted your husband to respond nicely, Waiganjo’s sons were the fellows to see. Of course, we ended up enjoying choice meals in many homes as we moved through the village employing our skills.
This skill followed me in high school. The challenge here was different. Many a budding romantic was bereft of the corresponding gift of the flair of language. Consequently, I was the go-to person to add some flavor, spiced with occasional poetry to the lasses in MaryHill or St Francis Girls.
Of course, I was more advanced than S.W.A.L.K or the spraying of Brut on envelopes. Mine was a sophisticated operation that bore much fruit.
Even here I was the keeper of secrets many of which I discovered as I read the replies, which was necessary so that I could reply appropriately.
One girl, a senior professional today, was simultaneously dating two of my “clients”. None of the chaps discovered this reality and I kept the flames lit until their natural deaths.
To be honest, I did add more zest for the chap I preferred and that flame stayed lit for longer. To date their secret is safe with me. I suspect a couple of marriages were fashioned from my art.
I write this piece to mourn the loss of this beautiful art.
Those depending on Chat GPT, text and email today have no idea the joy that came from hearing your name on parade knowing some lass had decided to make your week, or month. O to be young again, minus google, chat and AI! To my Muslim readers, Eid Mubarak!
The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya