Community Letter Writing: My Earlier Life of Service, By Oluwadele Bolutife
…my first act of community service, if this can be so-called, was in being engaged as a letter writer for aged women… yet I wondered then why older men didn’t write to their children who lived in cities as their mothers did. Was it that the men did not care or they engaged different writers? Till date, I remember with nostalgia and amusement the sign-off phrases of those letters: “tire ni tooto, iya re owon”…
In the past, I acknowledged Dr. Segun Ogidan as the one who eventually triggered me to become the modest writer that I have been. But that was only part of the journey, as some people had already aided my inclination towards the hobby, even if they did this unconsciously.
Back then, my late father took profound advantage of the adult classes organised by a Church, when people’s development was the central focus of the Church. He took Arithmetic (Maths), Yoruba, and writing classes. I would later ask him why he did not take the English Language class, to which he bluntly replied that he did not need it. He only took what he needed. His explanation was quite reasonable.
With his enhanced literacy, which he utilised to the maximum, he was either the secretary or financial secretary or both sometimes, in all the cooperative societies he belonged to. At the level of reading the Yoruba language, his proficiency in this led me to silently reading up on this, even till date. In an attempt to show I could read well while still in Primary Two (then, Grade Two), I would read out aloud; and this I loved doing. However, it turned out that in nearly every sentence, I got corrected by him.
In terms of the Bible, he was a walking encyclopedia of references on this. I believe he knew the Bible very well from Genesis to Revelation. At that time, in his engagements, it fell on him to issue circulars for meetings and to write out the minutes of previous meetings. As the last born who lived more with him, I was exposed to the crafting of those communication early.
My eldest sister, Victoria, was the one who helped me with my first composition (essay), as we called it in those days. It was a ten-liner titled, “My Best Friend.” Our teacher, Mrs. Da Silva, was so sure that I could not have written it, that she made me recite what I had written without looking at the book.
Unknown to her, I had practiced the material more than twelve times, which made it like a child’s play reading it offhand. She still called me to a corner thereafter to confirm if I had indeed written the piece or not. There I owned up that my sister had helped me in draft the composition. Perhaps, that was one of the reasons that endeared me to her along the line. She was actually good to me.
Apart from composition and sundry others, it was my uncle, James Adaralegbe, who drilled me endlessly in many subjects. He taught multiplication tables, clock reading, comprehension, and boosted my reading capacity, without the overreaching supervision of my father.
There was a particular day in which I was helping my mother to read a letter written to her by my older sibling, shortly after had I returned from hawking locust beans for her. Yes, you heard me right, she traded in locust beans, and I hawked this until my penultimate year in High School, when I successfully escaped into the boarding house. As I was reading, a woman in the neighbourhood came around and was pleasantly surprised that I could already read a letter. She could not hide her surprise, as she asked my mother for ‘confirmation’ that I could indeed read a letter at such young age.
Typical of mothers wanting to ‘show off’ a little, she said I could also write letters. The woman asked again to reconfirm. I could also write a letter? My mum answered in the affirmative. That was in my third year in Primary (Elementary) School.
A few days later, on my way from the stream, where I had gone to fetch water to complete my house chores, the neighbour beckoned on me to see her as soon as I was done carrying water for the day. On getting to her, she brought out a well tucked in envelope from her wrapper, asked me to open it and read the content to her. Afterward, she also brought out an exercise book, a pen and a plain envelope, and asked me to help her write a reply to the letter I just read.
Unknown to me then, that would mark the beginning of my constant engagement as a ‘reader’ and ‘writer’ of letters to an array of old women in our neighbourhood.
From the first woman, then there was another and yet another. It came to the point that there was scarcely a day I was not sent for to read a letter and write a response to this as well.
One major thing that I first noticed with all the older women was that they often repeated their statements, sometimes as many as five times, and kept asking whether I had written this or not. Then, I would read it to them over and over again. They kept ‘remembering’ one more thing to add to the letter almost endlessly. Even at the point of sealing the envelope, it was not uncommon for them to ask whether the same thing I had written and read to them a couple of times, was included in their letters.
They stretched my patience beyond limits.
On the negative side, they ‘robbed’ me of so many ‘valuable’ moments that I could have been playing football (soccer) and table tennis (ping pong) with my friends.
Yet, there were quite a lot of positives from those encounters. First, with time I learnt how to summarise whatever they asked me to write. The ‘instructions’ given for these letters were usually in the Ekiti dialect, but the writing was in general Yoruba, and as such there was a bit of ‘interpretation’ and ‘conversion’ across lingusitic codes along the line. I must also confess that once I read their letters, I could construct the reply on the basis of my understanding of the ‘uniqueness’ of each respondent. The interpretation aspect involved was to help me much later in life as a Church interpreter, especially in those days when I was domiciled in the northern part of the country. This was a skill I got honed in service to the late Elder Olorundare of the Iwaya/Onike axis of The Apostolic Church.
Besides this, I was often treated to a delicious meal after each writing duty. Perhaps, the most exciting aspect of the whole experience was the storytelling. Those old women told me tons and tons of stories, some of which I however learnt were only fictitious much later in life. I also learnt, even if I did not want to admit it, the idea of confidentiality. I recall some instances in which the women tried to figure out whether I ended up discussing the subject matters of some of those letters with my mother.
Even if I were to discuss them, it would have probably been with my father. But having unconsciously learnt from him how he handled the money of the cooperative groups he belonged to and sometimes the Church funds (though he was not the treasurer there), the needs for confidentiality was imoressed upon me from an early age. It was, therefore, no struggle for me later in life to appreciate and maintain the principle of privacy as an auditor.
Then it got to a point that I started ‘dodging’ those subtle beckoning, especially when these women also had children of school age like me who do the letter reading and writing for them. Even at that, it was not easy to fully detach myself from these women. Some would still ‘smuggle’ out letters written by their wards to me for ‘vetting.’ It was only when I had ‘certified’ the communication therein as okay, that the would would seal the envelopes for onward transmission to the recipients.
As such, my first act of community service, if this can be so-called, was in being engaged as a letter writer for aged women. For clarity, that did not make me an “Ogunjimi, Balogun lehin obinrin” (a women’s man); yet I wondered then why older men didn’t write to their children who lived in cities as their mothers did. Was it that the men did not care or they engaged different writers? Till date, I remember with nostalgia and amusement the sign-off phrases of those letters: “tire ni tooto, iya re owon” (yours indeed, your darling mother). I am also grateful for the good ‘seeds’ sown in me by those engagements.
Oluwadele L. Bolutife, a chartered accountant and a public policy and administration scholar, writes from Canada.