Daily Trust (Abuja)

15 November 2011

Nigeria: Ancient Art of Letter Writing in the Age of ICT

opinion

The advent of letter writing and the post dates back to centuries before our Lord Jesus Christ especially in Egypt where the art of writing first came up and later to Assyria, Persia , China and to Europe about the 12th Century. In all these areas where human civilisations constituted a flow, the art of letter writing accompanied by the growth of cities and towns including trade, brought about the rudimentary stages from where full blown postal services later emerged.

Letter writing was and till date remains one of the most confidential modes of interaction and means of expression. It connotes the most human and personality based system of linking self with others. At its primal stage, the individual who has learned how to speak surely would go further to express feelings, emotions and desires in one form or another and thus express that on paper.

Many people developed the art of letter writing either from home as children or while in primary, secondary and progressively in higher institutions. Then, were introduced to handwriting such as cursive and other styles of writing which either could be very beautiful, beautiful or fairly beautiful. Others may be so ugly to such an extent it could pass for what an average Offa person used to refer to as "adie ko iwe eyinbo kaa ti", which describes how ugly looking and indelible a handwriting could be to even a white man if a chicken would have to write.

Interestingly too, the direction of a letter from a sender to receiver used to determine the use of language in letter writing those good old days and how appreciative both sender and receiver could be when deciphering the content.

Except in self deceit, many of the vocabularies like splendid, doxology, yours till the ocean is dry, ditto and what have you, were beautiful pleasantries that used to accompany love letters of those days.

Interaction and communication with parents, friends and relations were once beautifully cemented by letter writing. Being asked by parents to help write to other relations could end one receiving knocks on the head because endless repetition of greetings which surely could be boring to write as instructed but if summarised, was considered an act of disobedience to elders punishable by knocks on the head.

From letter writing for social interaction also developed other methods of writing composition, comprehension, application for jobs, response to official and business letters as well as letters of admission, appointments including rudimentary frame of letters that carry legal implications.

All these retinue of letters used to pass through the post office and in literature intensive societies, millions if not billions of such letters had been processed throughout the world. Invariably the percentage of mankind that postal service had touched directly or indirectly is more on the high side than could be imagined. None, I say none of humanity's society had not experienced the positive and permeating influence of postal service especially the letter post which criss cross every geographic place no matter how big or remote in areas of mail delivery.

It is however a truism that technology of all sorts from telegraphy, telecommunication, computer and internet access has and is daily having crippling effects on letter writing. They are indeed double hedged sword blowing good and otherwise in the fortune and future of not only letter writing but also the post as a whole. On the good side technology has better fast tracked the speed, mode and method of mail delivery. On the other side of the divide, the human element associated with hand written letters, the personality orientation and emotional attachment in letter writing are giving way to mediated appliances and applications.

Similarly the confidentiality and security previously attached to the sacredness of letters are now sacrificed on the altar of mass message for heterogeneous audiences a number with ignoble tendencies because of mass movement of message by way of computer oriented technology.

Humanity Is also loosing touch with great opportunities of education, information and entertainment values that postage stamps on letters provide for their enrichment and extension of frontier of knowledge because and to relative extent, contact with postage stamps has reduced drastically because of downward trend in letter writing.

Not sitting with arms folded, the post still raises the consciousness of man to its age-long traditional and functional role of propagating human culture and civilisation through letter writing.

The Universal Postal Union, UPU, in 1971 introduced an annual International Letter- Writing Competition for young people of secondary school of ages 9-15 bracket. The competition aims to make young people aware of the important role postal services play in our societies, develop their skills in composition and the ability to express their thoughts clearly, and foster their enjoyment of letter writing.

A glossary look at topical issues treated in a few years back aptly describes the noble role of how letter writing could help stimulate the intellectual capacities of our youths. Even as a toothless young old man which I am, one could not but be fascinated by the following topics such as, " I am writing to tell you how young people can help reduce poverty," " I am writing to tell you how the postal service helps me connect with the world," and " imagine you are a wild animal whose habitat is threatened by environmental or climate change. Write a letter to the people of the world, explaining to them what they can do to help you to survive."

To mark the International Year of Forests, young people were asked to "imagine themselves as a tree writing a letter to explain why it was important to protect forests", and it was in this competition that Miss Omoshola Zubairu of Regina Mundi Girls Secondary School, Iwo, Osun State came first in Nigeria and 7th out of 2million competitors from 60 countries that participated this year.

The theme of the 2012 UPU International Letter-Writing Competition for young people which entries come to a close in April 2012 is; "Write a letter to an athlete or sports figure you admire to explain what the Olympic Games mean to you". A stimulating topic of this nature must sure appeal to children, parents, teachers, schools including ministries of education who are usually and annually approached by the Nigerian Postal Service for entries but which to one's dismay is relatively low in Nigeria.

In the submission of Voltaire a pre- French revolution philosopher, the post remains "The links connecting all affairs, all negotiation: by its means absent becomes present". And for those human element that make postal service a vibrant institution, Herodotus one of the world renowned Greek historians opine "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stops these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

If this is what the post was in time of Herodotus, then the post will ever remain relevant to sustain humanity's golden heritage, including letter writing, even in modern times.

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