April 23. I am a boarding school survivor, sent far away at the age of 8, my brother, Mike, with me. The school was Mbeya Primary School in the eponymous town in southern Tanganyika. The year was 1956. My father had taken a posting in Zanzibar as a political officer in the colonial administration. After a week of dormitory living with weeping at night; being called to strange meals by an African beating a drum and the realisation of the ‘wet takkie’ sanction for minor misdemeanours, I told my brother, ‘I’ve had enough, I want to go home.’ He explained to me that that was not how it worked.
In those days we had 3 term years. It was a long term for me. Every week we had to sit down and write a letter home. And every week, I received a letter from my mother.
This was the future for a few memorable years. To attend high school, Mike and I flew down to Natal, South Africa. It took a two-day flight by Dakota down the eastern coast of Africa and a train journey to get to school. And note that from the age of 12 and my brother aged 14, we were unaccompanied.
At boarding school I was the only child from East Africa, let alone Zanzibar, and was soon called a ‘zanzibar-barbarian’ because that is what kids do to strangers. But still the letters came and went. Every week my mother typed a duplicate letter to Mike and me. Every Monday for 5 years, the blue airmail envelope arrived bearing stamps with Sultan Seyyid Khalifa’s face and then Sutlan Abdullah’s. At rest period after lunch, these letters would take me home, a tangible and mental solace. Every Saturday we had letter-writing and I wrote to my parents about the happenings in my school life. I still have many of these letters, now a precious window into the past.
Forward to the present, 60 years on, and we have the miracle of emails. There are fundamental differences with emails: the way we write them; the way we read them; the way we reply. It’s fairly obvious that we do not take the same care over an email that we would with a hand-written or typed letter. There is just NOT that same kind of mental space. There is instead an imperative to be quick and to get it done – since there are so many to deal with. Parallel with emails, we now have phones that can access family and friends over the world without charge; we share personal time that way.
Since the lockdown, I have noticed that people are writing longer emails, more descriptive, more thoughtful. Some are calling these emails, ‘postcards’, delivered with photos and a promise to keep in touch with more extensive reflections during social distancing.
This brings us to another quirk with emails. You are expected to reply promptly. Whereas my letter home and my mother’s reply took a turnaround time of 2-3 weeks, I am able to reply to emails sent seconds ago. I feel that I should not leave days to reply or the sender might feel neglected. And what about the content? In my experience you told more of a story of your life, your situation, in letter writing. You were more reflective. Not quite so in emails.
And where do they go? I still have a swathe of letters from long ago, from my year living in the UK in 1971-1972 but as for emails? They disappear: left behind in old computers or not filed, not printed, not regarded as of any value.
the past is a forgotten country …