“…ahsante sana kunipelekea barua yako, uliyoniandikia katika Agosti 24, 1888. Ilinifikia katika Oktoba 1889” (“..thank you so much for dispatching to me your letter, that you wrote August 24, 1888. It was received by me in October 1889.”)
Sunday, March 3, 2013
Letter from Butiama: No more letters
This is one of numerous articles I wrote for the Sunday News (Tanzania) column "Letter from Butiama" between 2005 and 2011. Publication date: 17th September 2006.
I realised some years ago that I hardly received letters anymore. After some reflection it was evident I was getting the output of my own input. I hardly write letters.
Yet for several years since I made those two discoveries, I routinely went to the post office to look for responses to letters I had not written.
Sometime last year, a team from the Tanzania Posts Corporation (TPC) visited Butiama to evaluate the performance of Butiama’s only post office. They wanted to confirm what they knew already, that stamp sales were falling because there were less people writing letters.
They told me they would recommend closure of the post office, and when they sought my opinion I agreed with them. The post office at Butiama seemed then like a place of worship, its doors were closed more often then were open.
For the more than five years I have been at Butiama I probably have received less than 15 letters from that office. If there were any letter writers remaining at Butiama, they would be using the Musoma post office, 42 kilometres away., but even their number should be falling.
While Butiama’s post office has now closed, the mobile phone company, Celtel, has recently constructed a new cell site at Butiama, joining Vodacom and Tigo who share a tower.
You may not agree with me, but I would say that the proliferation of mobile phones have contributed to the closure of Butiama’s post office.
And it will further contribute to some other changes in society. First, since there are less people writing on paper rather than typing short messages on their phones, the quality of handwritings is falling drastically and will continue to fall until technology helps us to change poor handwriting into good handwriting.
Second, and what could be an advantage for those who were born with a Nokia mobile phone next to their ear, we’ll have a generation of people with lightening typing speeds because they would have learnt how to write from a computer keyboard and a mobile phone keypad.
Third, we soon will have a generation of youngsters who have never seen an old-fashioned letter. They would visit museums to see some of the masterpieces of letters written in the past.
I remember growing up and writing to my brothers and sisters who were in boarding school. When that was not enough I would begin to write to some of their friends who were in the same schools.
I have kept some of the letters I wrote in those days. Some of these letters were quite lengthy, of several pages long. They should rightly be called newsletters instead of plain letters. I imagine that in those years, I must have similarly lengthy replies, although I just cannot imagine where all those words came from. The postal authorities did not care; they were selling a lot of stamps.
Receiving letters was also such a special event. My cousin Jackson, who had moved to Dar from Bumangi, a village close to Butiama, to complete his primary education would not open a letter before eating his supper. The reason? A letter could contain tragic news, such as a death in the family, so precautions against losing one’s appetite had to be taken.
While I long for the past and I place some blame on the mobile phone for the gradual disappearance of the personal letter, I cannot help but marvel about how far letter writing has come. In a 1983 article titled Historia ya Maendeleo ya Kiswahili Zanzibar, (The History of the Development of the Swahili Language in Zanzibar) Mohamed Seif Khatib quotes a letter written by King Kabaka Mutesa of the Kingdom of Buganda to the Governor of Zanzibar:
It took ten months for the letter to reach Uganda from Zanzibar. These two were extremely important people in East Africa in those days. One represented the British Empire, the other the Buganda Kingdom. It is safe to say that their mail service was the fastest in East Africa in those days. It would be the equivalent today of President Amani Karume sending by government jet a special envoy to Entebbe where that envoy will be driven straight to the Kabaka’s Palace (Lubiri) in Mmengo.
I cannot imagine the length of time it took to deliver letters between ordinary Ugandans and Zanzibaris.