DOBSON — Surry Community College students involved in the Kenyan Letter Exchange Project have found letter writing teaches them patience, and surprisingly, it has more options than social media. According to instructor Kathleen Fowler, the project is held in conjunction with Sister2Sister International Outreach Ministries.
Fowler said the project is not only for women. Cross-cultural understanding is also one of its goals. Participants were told to keep their first letter to about one page, front and back. They were encouraged to give their name and how they found out about the exchange project. Writers were asked to tell about the town they are from and interesting sites, geography and history.
Fowler said around 56 people are involved in the project and include community members as well as students. She has been encouraged by the amount of students asking to participate who are not in her classes. One of the earliest rules learned by participants is some popular topics here are not discussed elsewhere.
“I was used to one consistent hotbed issue here being sexuality,” said student Tiffany O’Flynn. “We found out Kenyan culture considers such topics vulgar and insulting. I was so nervous about what I should or shouldn’t write and the context.”
Fowler said many of her students had not written a letter until they participated in the exchange project. She said she insisted students use only handwritten letters because it would tell the recipients more about their character.
“The principle involving giving and receiving a letter is so different for them,” added Fowler. “It takes time for a physical envelope to get there and back which is different in this age of instant messaging. I want this to open the eyes of our students. The American way is not the only way. It’s giving them different experiences. It is always good to get different perceptions of the world.”
“This has been so exciting,” said O’Flynn. “I can’t wait to try a recipe they have sent to me. I really feel they have an appreciation for their environment we don’t have.” She recalled being so thrilled to hear from the entire family she shared the letter with other students in class, which was an argumentative research class.
Student Lindsey Huttar said she was surprised by the “more human connection” she experienced through letters from the family. She said it involved her on a personal level that instant messaging did not.
“Many of the students have received handmade handkerchiefs and key chains from the Kenyans,” said Fowler. “These are things you cannot get through in an email.”
She said another perspective of the project is many of the Kenyan women participating are victims of abuse and are trying to restart their lives and are often learning a new trade as well as how to use a computer. It also has been an eye-opening experience for them to learn about living conditions in other countries first hand through letters. All of the students interviewed said they were surprised by the depth of personal details given in the letters as the Kenyans describe where they live and who they are.
“They really take time to say what they have to say,” said Lauren Henderson. “I’ve noticed with social media we don’t put a lot of effort forward to say it. It’s like any (social) site is stream of thought format. It’s superficial. People say things and don’t necessarily mean it.”
Another surprise for the students was the Kenyan reaction to details in letters from America about pets. It seems pets are not nearly as important an issue in Africa as it is in America. Dogs, for instance, are just not a regular feature inside average Kenyan households. Goats and cattle are more likely to be taken inside for protection because they are an important food source.
Fowler said stresses to students letter writing is a personal gift to someone, much like the bracelets made by the Kenyans and sent to them. She said students are also aware many of the Kenyan participants are women who have been battered by husbands, fathers and families with women banding together to form protective villages in some places. The process of learning English for many of these Kenyans is to better themselves.
Sister2Sister International and Adopt a Sister founder Purity Ruchugo is the liaison between the college letter project and Kenya. She often takes letters with her on trips back to her homeland and returns with the replies on some occasions. She confirms letters are a benefit to both parties and not a novelty.
“They (Kenyans) are starting to look at the world differently. They realize other people have issues and life struggles all over the world,” said Ruchugo. “The reason I started this is I realized the art of letter writing is dying. By the click of a button, you can delete someone. A letter is a piece of paper you can always go back to. I love writing.”
She said it has never been more important to communicate and said the letter project is opening doors for younger people in Kenya. Ruchugo also operates a store in Winston-Salem which features African crafts. It’s name is Umoja, the word for unity in Swahili. The Sister2Sister program helps Kenyan women to re-start their lives.
“One can show a printed letter they have kept to someone even if they do not have a computer,” added Ruchugo. “You can’t do that with an email.”
Surry’s students already are considering including pictures in their upcoming letters and are enjoying new options of expression possible with letters.
“I’d like to get my daughter to do a picture next. After all, you can’t send a leaf through email,” said Huttar. “I’d like to get a recipe to try. It would let me get a taste of what they have tasted.”
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1952.