Yours Sincerely: Not a Letter

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Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  – MLK II Letter from Birmingham Jail

And we thought letter writing was dead. In the recent past with the advent of internet, email, mobile telephony and social media, the art of letter writing was driven to the background and NIPOST, Nigeria’s flagship postal agency, almost turned into a parcel shipping service. That is until the presidential missives started flying back and forth.

Growing up as boys we were told that Abraham Lincoln once wrote a letter to his son. And we strived to live up to the ideals expressed in the heartfelt correspondence from America’s iconic President to his son’s teacher. The letter admonished the boy’s teacher to instill in the young lad virtues like courage and patience, and one can see that Lincoln poured as much emotion and time in it as in the Gettysburg address.

 Respected Teacher,

My son will have to learn I know that all men are not just, all men are not true. But teach him also that for every scoundrel there is a hero; that for every selfish politician, there is a dedicated leader. Teach him that for every enemy there is a friend…..

Another emotion laden letter that came into prominence was the lovely letters Mr. Mandela wrote to his then wife Winnie while incarcerated on Robben Island. Full of pain and love and poetry, Madiba poured out his soul and frustrations in the letters telling Winnie how he missed her, the love of his life, and their children. The letters are now iconic because even after divorce, not a word of ill did Nelson speak against her.

                        My Dearest Winnie,

I have been fairly successful in putting on a mask behind which I have pined for the family, alone, never rushing for the post when it comes until somebody calls out my name…………Letters from you and the family are like the arrival of summer rains and spring that liven my life and make it enjoyable….

Half the New Testament is composed of letters – epistles – from Apostles to other believers. Whether it is one of Paul’s correspondences to the churches in Asia Minor, or to specific disciples of his, the content always points to “edification.”

May the Lord grant mercy to the family of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my imprisonment. But when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me. May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well all the ways he served me in Ephesus. 2 Tim 1: 16-18 (NEV)

In school, letter writing was an important part of the studies. One had to learn the science of the informal letter, the  art of the formal letter, and the one in-between; of salutation and conclusion; and the need to be clear, concise and polite. In the senior school examinations at the end of secondary school an inability to write a letter is costly and can make one lose a place in the university. So it is with glee and surprise that letter writing – that lost art – is back in the front burner.

Many leaders and politicians have achieved more with letter writing than with tanks and guns. Remember, the pen is mightier than the sword. However letters can be acerbic too. In the war sodden fantasy novel, The Game of Thrones, Tywin Lannister writes ominous letters (via Raven) that culminate in the Red Wedding. It ends the war and violates the laws of hospitality (guest right). But Tywin was a man without scruples who said it was more humane to kill a dozen noblemen around the dinner table than a thousand men on the battle field.

In this digital age of the email and instant messaging and the 140 word limits. And in a society of instant replies and instant gratification where we have lost the patience to wait, it will be cheeky to remind people that the Pony Express was once thought of as lightening fast.

Yours Sincerely,

@sirwebs

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Image of the year: That Obama Selfie

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In November, 2013 the Oxford Dictionary announced the word ‘selfie’ as the word of the year and included it in the dictionary. This December, President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and Ms Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Prime Minister of Denmark, have conspired to make their selfie, taken at the Memorial for Nelson Mandela, image of the year.

Acting like excited teenagers on a day out these world leaders got caught up in the moment and couldn’t resist taking a self-portrait of themselves. Journalists have reported that everybody else was taking pictures too, especially of the dignitaries sitting in the VIP section. Everybody, that is, except Michelle Obama whose stern look betrayed her disapproval.

In diplomatic circles, planning is essential. Itineraries are scrutinized and synchronized and the uncommon and potentially ambiguous eliminated. But sometimes ‘unplanned’ moments like President Obama shaking the hands of Raul Castro, the leader of Cuba, occur, amidst discomfort and gritted teeth. While the White House has dismissed any thawing of relations because of the handshake, Havana is gleefully playing it up as a sign of positive development. So the question for the diplomats would be was the presidential selfie with the European Prime-Ministers on the schedule?

When the initial images of the selfie surfaced, commentators described the Lady Prime Minister as unidentified until she was properly recognized as the Danish Statsminister. Helle Thorning-Schmidt of the Social Democratic party is the first female Prime Minister of Denmark and has been Prime Minister since 2005, and while she is a good looking woman she is also a handful and politically savvy, as in a single stroke of diplomatic finesse she enraptured the two leaders of the ‘free world,’ the leadership of the Anglo-American axis that arguably rule the world. Not even Thor with his divine hammer can knock up such a favorable coalition for the Danes.

But Madam Prime Minister couldn’t charm Michele who with a cold look, reminiscent of Loki, froze the ‘summit’ and broke up the coalition. The consequences of her actions could be dire. I fear that the price of Danish Cookies may soon hit the roof.

 

Of Obituaries and Mandela

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Even as Mandela lies in hospital hooked to life support systems,  print media organisations all over the world have already written his obituary. This is not sheer wickedness but standard practice. Haven’t you ever wondered how well researched and extensive obituaries of public figures are available even while news of their death is still ‘breaking?’ So a furtive look into the computer folders of media editors around the world will give one a glimpse of the life and times of Madiba, baring the all important line stating the date of his death.

Speaking of obituaries, there was once a case of mistaken identity. In the late 19th century, Alfred Nobel, a Swiss Chemist, business man and entrepreneur, who invented the dynamite and gelignite, and made a fortune from explosive and armaments was fortunate (yes, it’s good fortune) to read his own obituary in the newspapers. The editors had made a mistake and written his obituary instead of his brother’s who had died.

Nobel, obviously sitting in his patio with a glass of vintage in hand, was shocked to read what people thought of him. The obituary, captioned, The merchant of death is dead, said, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

Though the error was finally spotted and Alfred apologized to, Mr. Nobel got a hint into how people really felt about him. Most importantly, he resolved to mend his ways and that birthed the Nobel Prizes as Alfred who had no children willed his vast fortune to the award of the prizes for outstanding work in various fields. Today, the Nobel Peace Prize, which has become the marquee category “is to be given to the person or society that renders the greatest service to the cause of international fraternity.” And, that helps to reduce standing armies.

Inspite of the French newspaper in Cannes making an error over Nobel’s death, newspaper and magazines still take the publication of obituaries of public figures seriously. Organs like the Economist and New York Times have raised the writing of obituaries to an art, and I must confess they will outdo themselves in the event of Mandela’s passing. For such media whose home governments once thought Mandela a socialist and terrorist, it would be an intriguing read.

Most Western based newspapers have regular obituary columns (not anecdotes) and use it to celebrate the lives of not only public figures like politicians and celebrities but also lesser known individuals who have made a resounding impact in their niches: actors, scientists, authors, teachers, etcetra.

In a country where we fashionably forget ‘heroes past’ or fall foul of giving national honours only to people active in certain prestigious categories, newspapers and magazines could pay more attention to obituaries and scour the nation to eulogise departed men and women of repute and acclaim, presenting an unbiased, uncoloured portrait of a person’s life in a thousand words or more.

Such a column if raised to quasi-editorial status, non-commercialized and given a pride of place can, if not bag a Pulitzer, raise the awareness of the average citizen to the need to celebrate ‘our heroes past,’ aside from archiving permanently the life and times of such notables.

For Madiba, the ‘father of Africa’ and inspiration to humanity, it is not yet adieu.

@sirwebs