The other day, I had to fill out (or is it fill in?) a form in one of the numerous agencies you are loath to go to should you need something the government, in its infinite wisdom(Yes,pun intended), feels it should regulate. Why was I there, you ask? I don’t quite remember, but what do you care, right? I could have been filling out a form to go to the moon. So, this place is in the middle of, I don’t want to say ‘nowhere’, coz that’s such a cliché, but its in the middle of nowhere really. I mean I don’t like places where the bus drops you somewhere and then you have to walk back to find the street or stop a random person going about his/her business to ask for directions. It’s for the same reasons that I don’t like sitting in a bus with my back to the driver. What if we wind up in Timbuktu instead of the city center? How, pray, would I get back? Yeah, am one-dimensional like that.
So I get to this nondescript graying building,push open the door,nod at the sleepy receptionist to my left and walk into this sparingly lit space. Have you noticed that all male receptionist these days have a mustache? I am going to the third floor. I am not big on climbing stairs, I think people who climb stairs when there is a lift have serious insecurities. I take the lift. It’s an old soviet-era lift and these breed of lifts are not for the faint of heart. First, there is a protruding worn-out red button that you have to press hard before the door slaps shut. Blink and it will hit you in the face. Then you press your floor, in my case, the 3rd floor and off you go. Now listen to this carefully. When the lift stops on your floor, do not be in a hurry to open the door. These lifts like to take their sweet time figuring things out, so it will momentarily stop and after a couple of seconds, suddenly drop 2-3 inches lower. That’s when you open the door. It’s very much the same feeling you get from turbulence. So I get out unscathed and walk along this corridor, looking for door number 365, which has an arrow indicating that this door has been shut since Hitler doused himself in diesel and lit his ass on fire and could I please knock on 366 instead? So I knock on 366 and after explaining my visit, am presented with a sheet of forms to fill.
My dad had this neat idea that for primary school, I had to go to Ndere Boys boarding. As the name suggests, it was a boys boarding school. For those who are not familiar with the term, a boarding school is where students board, meaning, they spend a whole three months in school without going back home save for the occasional visits from family. Then they are unleashed back to their parents for a one month holiday before being hauled back for another three months. Parents believe that this is the best way for a child to get a good education, outside the influences and interference’s of normal human life. So this is where I found myself, on the first day at Ndere boys, in the holding area, early in January of 1992, waiting to be admitted to standard 5. Dad was grinning from ear to ear, while I sat there stiff and scared, his experiment working. At one point, the headmaster, Mr. Odhaji(R.I.P), passed by and loudly asked if my parents had packed milk with me, his point being that I was too tiny to be away from Mum’s side. A few minutes later, I was stamped with an admission number and let loose with the other boys, both old and new students. My new name was Fredrick Odhiambo, Admission Number 641.And thus began my life in boarding school. This is a story about handwriting.
Domnic Odhaji was not your average run of the mill teacher. He was a burly,hard-nosed administrator who prided himself with receiving unruly,unkempt and often, mischievous kids from a wanting parent, moulding them in his own image and churning them out back into the wider society as upright and high achieving African Gentlemen. Of course, as teenage students, we had other ideas. The running battles of wits we had with those teachers could make for a Hollywood movie, but I digress. The first tenet of Odhaji’s discipline revolved around hand-writing and of course it didn’t help that he was also the English teacher in standard 5. Woe unto you who doodled instead of writing. And no, biro pens were a NO-NO. It had to be a fountain pen. And the ink had to be a dark blue. The kind that was thick enough to be absorbed into the page. Anyone thinking that,”Ooh My God, I am running out of ink, let me add water”, think again, coz Mr. Odhaji noticed everything. The first few weeks of his English lessons revolved around teaching you the intricacies of penmanship,if that’s a word he’d approve, or more precisely, his penmanship. I am not saying that you had to hold the pen the way he held a pen, after-all, his tools of trade were his chalk and a long stick called mapera curved from a guava tree – there’s a whole different story about this mapera business. He couldn’t care less if you held a pen like a machete, but you had to write like he wrote. To Mr. Odhaji, handwriting is where science met art. Obviously, it had to be illegible and not only that, the words had to be connected and properly spaced. Because you were not using a type-writer, your hand writing had to be slightly slanted,what they call italic in the age of the Personal Computer. The only time you didn’t connect your words was when you wrote something in Capital letters, but how many times do you get to write a whole sentence in capital letters unless it was a heading? So, No, it had to be connected. Forget about properly placing an apostrophe, starting a sentence with a capital letter or dotting your i’s and the mapera dutifully landed on your backside to set you straight. Most of us, being away from home for the first time in our lives had a hard time coping, what with the lost pens and stolen ink bottles. There was a whole economy down there primed on these commodities;selling of pens and ink, hand writing help for the slow learners. I remember going home for the first time in April and Mum observing,”Fred, your cheek bones are protruding…but by God, your handwriting has improved”. By the time we bid farewell to that school after 4 years, all of us had impeccable handwriting not to mention an overly sensitive nose for whats up. You had to keep your wits about you or else you wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell with Mr. Odhaji and his lieutenants. But why am I telling you about 20+ years ago? It’s because in the intervening years,some clever chaps invented the PC and convinced everyone you had to know how to use it if you wanted to look cool. So a whole generation skipped Mr. Odhaji’s Standard 5 maperas, whizzed past the type-writers of their mother’s era and dove right into word processors, excel files and e-mails. Those of us who prided ourselves with having good handwriting begrudgingly jumped ship too, after all, who wants to be left behind when the whole world is in a hurry to get itself civilized? Not me, and certainly not you.
The problem is, not everyone boarded the ship. You see the thing with technology is, it jumps in leaps and bounds, so a shiny new object today could wind up at the Smithsonian tomorrow. This is how I found myself the other day trying my best to write down my names, where I was born, and every little detail some government hack had thought of in this form. To tell you that it was a disaster, wouldn’t quite capture it. After a few tries, I gave the last and best filled-form to the lady who was supposed to once again write everything down on the computer and submit it and I could see that her mood was getting darker and darker as she tried to decipher whatever I had written. At one point, exasperated, she asked if “this is an O or a Q” and I said its an O and I think she wiped her sweaty brow, sickened.
My point is, in the immediate aftermath of the doomsday warnings of the millennium, there is very little I have written using a pen and paper that exceeded one paragraph and the same probably applies to you. I wonder what my good teacher Mr. Odhaji would think of my handwriting today. Perhaps he would take one look at it and reach out for his mapera. I think you’d agree with me that most of our writing these days is pretty much confined to a signature and that days’ date. And I think that it’s a shame, coz handwriting used to be an art.