Sunday, February 19, 2012

Writing for an Addresser Who Re-Schools You: The Drama and Signifying Practices of Letter Writing in an African Village


Obododimma Oha

The ability to write letters was, for the old folk in the African village, a true mark of literacy. As an indication of literacy which was considered a possession of white man's magic of civilization, letter writing, in the perspective of the local people, presented a mystery because someone's voice is captured in scribbles on paper and sent to someone else far away, and that someone addressed is able to decode the message and indeed recover the emotions packed into the message. That was a mystery. If those elderly people of those days were to witness the use of modern forms of correspondence like SMS, email, mobile telephony, and video chat, they would have simply concluded that the white man is a either a god or a powerful wizard. 

I once enjoyed the honor of being a 'professional" letter writer in our village. The non-literate in the village once in a while needed to 'talk" to their relatives in distant lands and I was invested with the honor of establishing that contact, as someone who knew the art facilitating that conversation, having been certified by the elementary school I attended that I had mastered the ways of "converting" the Igbo message of my clients into appropriate English. Indeed, the prestige seemed to lie in the idea that I had made my non-literate clients speak English to their relatives who were faraway. That was no mean feat! I would sit and listen and then try to capture the voice of the speaker in a way that would make it possible for the receiver of the letter to recognize and recover the presence of the addresser. 

There I was, a major actor in a drama of literacy. Indeed, in each context of letter writing, which I configure as a dramatic performance, I was merely a proxy protagonist: the real protagonist was the person speaking through my letter, the person who hired me. My clients were the owners of the scripts as well as the directors who made sure I performed my proxy role according to expectation. In an interesting way, too, I was the audience of my client that dictated his or her message in Igbo, the local language, again playing proxy for the addressee of the letter. Two types of proxy role converge here: proxy-sender and proxy-receiver, and they made enormous stylistic demands on me! Sometimes, I had to omit some parts of the narrative for my own convenience; sometimes I and to add some bits of information that I considered tolerable. In a word, I had to try to enter the minds of my clients to be able to write what I felt they wanted to say. Wasn't that a risk? 

How could I forget the unique style and grammar of that special local performance of the White man's language? Those words added color to the content of those letters. One found "missive" more authoritative than "message" or "letter" and so had to use it. 

The Opening always opened doors for the letter writer as an experienced hand. In spite of what my teachers had taught me about the need to "go straight to the point" and much later dwell on other matters such as little talks about the recipient, the villagers -- both the literate and non-literate -- believed that the how-do-you-do's come first. One must ask about the health of the recipient first, as a demonstration of goodwill or being a well-wisher, about the family, about employment, about this and about that, before dwelling on the main purpose of the letter. This used to put me in a fix: I didn't know whether to go with my English teacher's theories and principles of letter writing, or the templates that the villagers had in their heads. 

I was expected, at every letter writing encounter, to take care of this aspect of Opening before asking what the addresser wanted me to put down as his or her message. Very often, it went thus: "How do you do? How about you? How about the present condition of your health which is very important to me. I hope you are swimming in the ocean of happiness as we are here today. If so, thank God." Even if the non-literate persons could not read English, they at least could see with their eyes and know whether I had performed the initial regular ritual in the letter. There was no way I could deceive them, assuming I wanted to follow what my English teacher had taught me about going straight to the point. Also, I would end up making the situation complicated -- possibly raise doubts about my competence in letter writing -- if I had tried to lecture them about why going straight to the point, according to my teacher, was a better way to write letters. They could have just started scratching their eyelids, giving me one of those strange smiles one found on their faces whenever they were incredulous or had doubts about the acceptability of one's statement. The village people knew how to say things with the look on their faces! 

It must have been established in their heads long ago when they had the highly trusted first generation of village letter writers who, armed with Standard Six certificates, knew the White man's language and "proper" ways of doing things. Those of us who came much later when adugbolija had also entered post-colonial Nigerian schooling had some difficulty proving that we knew our kernel. For the villagers, Standard Six was the measure of learning. And so they sometimes sang satirically:

Pasin'  Six 
Amaghi ede leta
Na ebiisi ka ya mma 
O hooo!

Roughly translated, this means:

A holder of Standard Six certificate 
Who knows not how to write letter
Someone in the kindergarten is better than s/he
O hooo!

And so, one always remembered how this satirical song could apply to one, and therefore just comply with the conventional model of letter writing in the village. No professional village letter writer wanted to be told indirectly that a KG child was more experienced in that art of writing. 

For the locals, those opening inquiries are not a casual howdy which a linguist would explain as not being a question requiring information about the addressee's welfare but a way of servicing relationship, of showing concern. For the locals, the howdy goes deeper than a mere ritual that services tenor. So, the recipient of the letter in replying has to take time to respond to such an inquiry. In fact, it is also part of the main purpose of writing the letter, so to say. The village letter writer thus has to respond to inquiries made about every Okeke and Okafo, as well as inquiries about the New Yam festival, the age grade, the ezinuulo, and other things the original addresser had asked about in demonstration of the spirit of community. 

Indeed, there is some sense in wanting to ask after an addressee's welfare before presenting the main issue of the informal letter. In one respect, the context of indigenous Igbo culture privileges identifying with the other over the propensity for minding one's business. One who therefore writes to the other acquaintance or relative and just plunges into the main issue might be viewed as preferring to be distant. If it is a request that the person wants to make, such a request might be given a negative or casual response. This is particularly so in the case of a tenor that makes it necessary for the recipient to be searching the language and structure of the letter for evidence of the performance of affection and intimacy. In this regard, what comes first matters to the addressee. Is it the symbolic presentation of affection that comes first (to prepare the mind of the addressee) or the "selfish" requesting of a favor?

On the other hand, presenting inquiries about the addressee's personal life, which are outside the main purpose of writing the letter, delays or even "buries" that main purpose. It could therefore be a risky distraction that might affect the measure of attention given to the expressed purpose. Buried things take some effort to dig up, and might not be properly or fully dug up! Now, that my English teacher's theory of writing, which my clients in the village only find funny, for they believe that an addressee that cares for an addresser and relationship with the addresser has to "dig" into the letter with utmost commitment. Only an ofooegeri whose mind is elsewhere would receive a letter from a relative and not read every word as if it were a precious message from his or her chi. Which is why the hired letter writer must know the craft and show it in the run of his or her pen, they reasoned.

The problem however lay in the generalization of this pattern, even to the point of using it in official letters, as well as thinking that it was the only "appropriate" way to begin all informal letters. 

One must not, of course, forget another important source of education which the Onitsha Market pamphleteering represented on such matters as "how to write powerful letters," "how to talk to girls and win their love," "how to make money in business," etc. Those how-to pamphlets provided what many of their readers thought were the right models of writing.The model letters, whether in an Onitsha Market pamphlet or a secondary school English text such as that of the popular S.M.O. Aka, even consolidated the wrong assumption that they were the formulae to good letter writing. One only needed to copy a pattern in one Onitsha Market letter writing pamphlet while writing to one's girlfriend, in the sure hope that it would turn her head and make her fall madly in love with the letter writer. So, one did not forget to sprinkle such "magical" expressions as "You are the apple of my eye," "You are the sugar in my tea," etc in the love letter. 

But why shouldn't the art of letter writing be sensitive to cultural preferences and expectations? Who says that societies that were assumed not to have developed traditions of writing cannot inject into received written communicative forms their own concerns about what makes communication much-more fulfilling? The village folks, whether educated and half-educated on Western ideas, can localize the Western forms of communication brought back by those they sent out there to be their eyes and ears. 

Being a "professional" letter writer in a remote African village is not just something one can easily dismiss as one of those strange things associated with strange places. It did serve as a training (and even re-training) for many locals on how to manage information and also manage an employer whose voice one must speak. I cannot see much difference between being a letter writer to a non-literate or semi-literate villager, with some little ego mmiri oyi as compensation afterwards, and the "big job" of a Personal Assistant or Speech Writer to a big man in government in Nigeria. The Personal Assistant takes dictations or originates what he or she thinks is the Master's Voice. The big man in government also re-schools the PA, "helps" the PA to see the world and ways of addressing issues in the world differently. School is theory; the job is practice. Yes, the "job." The job re-schools and changes us. We write the job. Our creativity and radicalism can wait.

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