When last did you send a loved one a hand-written letter, or go to the post office expecting to receive one? When did you last begin a letter, on paper or in its pre-material compositional stage, and what did you want to convey, send, make real, or feel? Have you kept them, stashes of connection, right there on the page, waiting to be held, re-opened, re-read?
In an age where many of us communicate via video, email, and/or text, the idea of longhand writing or going to the post office might seem romantic or quaint. But just because many of us don’t write or send letters the old-fashioned way doesn’t mean we don’t write letters at all.
While the art of the letter as we once knew it might be dying, along with the accoutrements of ink, envelopes, and the postal fees that are also tied up in the financial business of state organisation, Kylie Cardell and Jane Haggis argue, in Contemporary Perspectives on Epistolarity, for the extension of the literary form of the letter – that “‘letterness’ or epistolarity continues to shape and inform communicative sociality as genre, life and social relationship.”
In Epistolarity: Life after Death of the Letter? Liz Stanley posits that “epistolarity is alive and flourishing in text, email, and social media of different kinds,” and Margaretta Jolly advises that “the concept of epistolarity must encompass the thriving modes of textual communication released by digital technology and welcome its democratizing elements.”
Over the years, Africa in Words has maintained an active interest in the epistolary, letter writing, and letterness – including their role in centering different points of view and minority positions, and sustaining private and public performances of identity.
Equally noteworthy is the status of correspondences as historical records and documents, or, expanding on the notion of the RSVP, letters that come to be included in public forums, such as the newspaper or the small magazine, holding in their compact form several possibilities for participation, activism and contact.
In this age of distance and digitality, protracted by our physical separation and curtailed travel, we are now excited to add to our confirmed interest in all things letter-y Sandra Chege’s Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A subset inspired by the spirit of community and resilience, initiated to connect the blog’s communities of work and life through their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sandra curates epistolary and letter stories for Hadithi, a website which is conceived of as “a living archive contributing to a vibrant, nuanced understanding of our shared existence.”
We chose letters because of how intentional and transcendent they can be. Letters ask you to balance your remembering of the past, your experience in the present and your hopes for the future. We hope to nurture an intimate and safe space here as we learn more about who we are and what we value as the stories we tell about ourselves inform how [we] move in the worlds we create and inhabit.
In her Words below, Sandra talks about how more people seem willing to engage with the letter form since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, the importance of collaboration, and plans to record 100 letters by the end of this year.
Please see our post-scripts at the end of this letter for more on responding to Hadithi’s own invitation to write to them, and some of the other letters of interest over the years – part of our own love letter to the letter and all its forms.
With love, as ever, and thanks for reading,
Africa in Words.
Sandra Chege is a cultural producer with over ten years of experience in event production and project management; she enjoys working with creatives to articulate their strategy, tell their stories and connect with their audiences.
With a BA in Psychology from the United States International University (USIU) in Nairobi and an MA in Theatre and Media for Development from the University of Winchester (UK), she is a trained theatre facilitator who applies her understanding of behaviour and creativity to develop thoughtful collaborative interventions in all her work.
Her life’s work is rooted in nurturing creativity and innovation in the Cultural and Creative Industries and affirming its place as a cornerstone of society and a driving force for economic and social development in Africa.
AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your work and the ways that the pandemic has affected your plans for it?
Sandra Chege: I work full time as a programme manager in the arts in Kenya and work with artists and organizations in Kenya, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the UK to develop programmes for the cultural and creative industries that can sharpen our skills, grow our networks and facilitate collaboration.
The pandemic really pushed us to reimagine the work and was a useful reminder of the importance of slowing down. As a result of the restrictions on travel and physical gatherings, a lot more of our work became digital-first this year but there is an appreciation that it doesn’t replace face-to-face working but can enhance our ability to work more fluidly in these uncertain times.
When I’m not at my day job I am dreaming up futures for Hadithi, a multimedia project that centers the lived experiences of African people through nuanced storytelling in letters, audio, and illustrations.
“Hadithi” is the Swahili word for story and I wanted to create a space for honest reflection and vulnerability. Everyone has a story to tell and at Hadithi we ask the writer to reflect on the themes of self, love, pain and release, family, motivation and purpose, and everything in between.
In COVID times, we have seen our engagement on the Hadithi platforms increase as more people look to understand how others have worked through difficult emotions or situations. I think some people are seeing themselves in the letters and I am keen on finding ways to reach more people to write, read and reflect.
In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
Collaboration has been central to all my work and the last year has renewed my gratitude for new tools and approaches to making things happen. I had often seen the next step as regular physical events but I’m now thinking about creating meaningful virtual gatherings.
For a long time, I have wanted to add audio to Hadithi and give audiences the chance to either read or listen to the letters. The pandemic has made this feel more urgent so we’re working on making sure that at least 100 letters are recorded by December 2021.
Things in Nairobi are difficult. At the time of writing this, in July 2021, only 1.2% of the population has been fully vaccinated, healthcare facilities are struggling and the economy has taken a hit, making it even more difficult for most of the population to earn an honest living.
For many, it doesn’t feel like there’s an end in sight; with 2022 being an election year, it feels like we’ll all be on edge for some time to come.
What have you found most supportive and/or heart-lifting in this time?
The shift in how we speak to each other. Working from home has meant that I’ve had a chance to interact with colleagues and collaborators in more personal ways; peeking into their homes, meeting their families, pets and plants has been heartwarming.
I spend more time speaking more honestly with friends and family about the whole spectrum of things which I am (mostly) enjoying.
How can our blog communities best support you?
I want Hadithi to be a space for sharing intimate reflections on our humanity. The AiW community can bring more color and texture to Hadithi by reading, sharing, writing, and submitting their own stories to us.
The more voices and perspectives on the platform, the richer the offering. So, I’d like to ask that, if you are reading this, visit Hadithi and get in touch!
PPS: If you’d like to read a bit more about the letter forms we’ve covered on the site over the years and in light of Hadithi’s work now, see below.
In January 2015, digital serial publisher, The Pigeonhole, launched Pigeon Posts: Letters from Africa which comprised weekly dispatches about everyday things: “family, fun, the daily commute, education, sexism, ethnic tensions, the arts and corruption, as well as on-the-ground updates on the Nigerian and Egyptian elections”; in February of the same year, The Pigeonhole kindly allowed Africa in Words to reproduce an extract from the first chapter of Pigeon Posts.
In July 2018, we were excited to pre-celebrate, along with other reading and writing communities, the widely anticipated London launch of Liveright’s The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, which documented Mandela’s imprisonment from 1962 to 1990; the book was edited by Sahm Venter and included a foreword by Mandela’s granddaughter, Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela. The launch brought together journalists, novelists, writers, activists and campaigners, actors and directors, and composers and musicians, to read and perform a selection of the letters.
The capacity of correspondence, the variety of the relationships it bridges and outlines, and so the scope of the text and its portrait of imprisonment, to quote Verne Harris of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, of “the person behind the public figure” – from the intimacy of a family life, of loss and close grief, to the decisions taken, articulated and maintained to eradicate apartheid – each can be felt in readings and comment by Dlamini-Mandela and Venter, among others involved in bringing the project to bear, available on Vimeo.
And, in December 2020, AiW guest, Dr. Jade Munslow Ong, wrote a commemorative piece on Olive Schreiner, whose letters appear in the thousands here “just as she wrote them – including omissions, spelling mistakes, deletions and insertions”; Dr. Ong highlighted Schreiner’s contribution to the South African civil and women’s rights movements, and the influence that her literary innovations had on major international writers.