(Red) Letter Day.


Photographs by Kevin Tosh.

Location: The Murumbi African Heritage Collections.

This weekend my sisters and I were invited over to dinner at a cousin’s. It’s one of those situations where it’s a distant cousin– our gukas (grandparents) were cousins, which technically makes us third or fourth cousins (?) and while we’d seen each other once or twice at family get togethers, we hadn’t really had the chance to hang out. When our parents were our age, though, they roomed together for a bit, which gave the whole scene a feeling of deja vu, like history was replaying itself during our dinner. Our cousin is also newly married, which meant that we were meeting his wife for the first time. You know when you find yourself sitting with a couple that’s so beautifully in love that it just kind of extends throughout the room to everyone? That was the experience of dinner, and I’m still moved by the warmth of your love for one another, and by the genuine way in which you welcomed us into your home. So, to M and D, before I go any further, thank you for dinner, for wonderful conversation and for sharing the story of your love.

Somewhat related to this, I find myself wondering whether Joseph and Sheila Murumbi ever wrote letters to one another. I imagine that they did; at some point during their time together they simply must have. And so looking at their stamp collection I allowed myself to daydream a little about what this might have looked like: Sheila sitting down to write lengthy letters to her husband, Joseph receiving them weeks later and drafting a carefully worded response. Of course, all of this is fiction, I don’t know much about the story behind the two of them, but there must have been something extraordinary about a marriage that birthed an entire national archive of treasures.

 I haven’t sent a letter through the postal system since high school. Well, that’s not really true; I have sent official documents here and there — tax returns hell-o!– but other than that, I’ve yet to get over the inertia that stands between my intentions to send post cards to friends scattered all over the globe, and my actual actions. (but does it count that I sometimes send success cards during national exam periods?)

Back in high school, however, Saturdays were special days. This was when you’d get mail, and honestly I think there should have been a name for the ceremony that surrounded the receiving of what had been sent to you by a family member or a friend in another school OR by that cute someone whom you had met at a function.

Letter writing was also an art in itself; there was the introduction/ greeting (“W’sup?”), the actual message itself, and finally, a playlist of song dedications at the end (also known as “deds“). And when writing back, you would sometimes enlist the service of envelope calligraphers (I think Janice used to be one of our envelope calligraphers back in the day) whose job it was to do the very necessary task of colouring and drawing on the envelopes for the replies. I’m not even going to talk about that little trick we did with toothpaste in order to recycle postage stamps. but gosh, letter writing used to be such an event.

And so it just seemed apt that we’d try to recapture a bit of that feeling of Letter Days when playing around in this room at the African Heritage Museum. It’s meant as a tribute to the extensive stamp collection that Joseph Murumbi and his wife Sheila put together during their time alive, many of the stamps from all across Africa (and currently housed at the National Archives in the City Center), but I think that it becomes a tribute of not just their love for one another, but their love for Africa and for African art and culture. And can I just say, it had not occurred to me just how much history can be contained in stamps; at the most basic level, you can see how names of countries changed over the years (“Nyasaland”, “Rhodesia”, “Tanganyika”).

You can read more about the museum and about Joseph Murumbi in this 2013 New African article. For this series of photos, we decided to capture some of that feeling of letter days in high school, starring the wonderfully amazing and wonderfully strange Amanda, who is wearing one of her own Amanda Fashions designs for this shoot.


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