Kenyan oral tradition affects letter writing
May 13, 2011
As a small girl in Kenya, Elizabeth remembers gathering around the fireplace every evening to hear the elders share their wisdom through stories, riddles and proverbs. The stories always carried lessons that guided her in her life.
Peter Mwangi checks John's letter to his sponsor. CFCA social workers
use patience and guidance when helping sponsored friends write letters.
"Telling myths and legends was part of the community I grew up in," the 76-year-old sponsored woman said. "People believed that wisdom trickled through the elderly in society."
Technology was unheard of and the power of speech was glorified because most people were illiterate. The only way to get one's message across was through the spoken word.
That way of life has changed as Kenyan society has embraced literacy and technology. The younger generation has found a new way of expressing themselves through the Internet and social networks.
But Kenya remains a country that treasures its oral tradition.
"Passing messages by word of mouth is what makes us unique," Elizabeth said. "Technology cannot take away our identity."
Fostering the written word
This strong oral tradition is still apparent in Kenyan culture, and it presents a challenge for CFCA staff members who teach sponsored friends to write letters.
"When it comes to writing CFCA letters, [sponsored friends] do not know how to go about it and they view it as some sort of an exam," said Peter Mwangi, a CFCA social worker in Mathare, Kenya.
For some children, the English language is a barrier. Others have poor handwriting. And some children don't know how to express themselves in writing.
"They rarely write letters to their friends, so it is quite a challenge to put their feelings and experiences in a letter," said Felistar Kanini, another Mathare social worker who helps children with letters.
Mwangi and Kanini use patience and guidance to help sponsored members write their letters.
"At times, you have to have a talk with the sponsored member and get to know what has been happening in their lives and their situation at home so that you can assist them to put it down in writing," Mwangi said.
Sponsors can help their friends overcome some of their fears and resistance to writing simply by responding to their letters.
"The sponsor should try to appreciate the efforts of the sponsored member when it comes to letter writing," Kanini said. "If a sponsored friend has improved in handwriting or spelling, the sponsor should acknowledge this. This appreciation goes a long way in motivating the sponsored member to write more."
The important thing is to keep the channels of communication open to foster a good relationship.
"It is usually very easy for a sponsored member to write a letter to a sponsor whom they consider a friend," Mwangi said.