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‘Handing Over the Stick’: Hand-Written Letters and Envelopes to Rural Women

Written by Bonelwa Nogqaza

Letters Bonelwa received from rural women on key themes in Tsolo. April 2023.

In rural South Africa, hand-written letters have a special history. They were the way in which migrant husbands and rural wives communicated during their long periods of absence. The trip to the rural general store (also the local post office) by women to collect groceries and sell maize could be transformed by the announcement that a letter had arrived. These letters from the mines and hostels marked significant moments in the lives of rural women, not only because they often contained cash remittances, but also because they expressed the desire for intimacy, connection, and commitment from their absent lovers and husbands.

Today, family communication is mainly mediated through WhatsApp messages, social media, and phone calls, while cash is often deposited electronically. During my fieldwork I found myself thinking about the old way of communicating through hand-written letters and the way rural women in migrant families would talk of the letters they received. I also thought of what Robert Chambers wrote about ‘handing over the stick’ when doing fieldwork. Let me explain how I came to write hand-written envelopes for rural women.

When I arrived to live in a rural location in Tsolo to start my fieldwork on the Women RISE project in April 2023, there were many challenges. I was not known in the area and found it difficult to access women in the village. In many instances, access to the field is mediated through the head of your host family, or through a local organisation that knows and trusts you. The head of my household is employed and not in the house most of the time. She was very eager to have me but had other pressing priorities in her life that made it difficult for her to accompany me around the local community although she introduced me to her immediate neighbours.

In the first month of fieldwork, I was comfortable in my new homestead, knowing my neighbours but was not integrated into the broader community in the way that I had hoped. I was mostly staying at home with none of the usual introductions and chaperoning associated with the ‘meet and greet’ phase of fieldwork. In fact, rather than doing social rounds in the village; drinking tea, attending meetings, church services, and networking with women, I found myself mainly attending to everyday household chores. While that was educational in its own way, this is not exactly what I had been hoping for and, as time passed, I became increasingly anxious about my fieldwork progress.

How was I going to break out into the community and connect better with the rural women? There seemed to be no easy way. When local women saw me moving around, they were always perfectly friendly and acknowledged my presence, some offered to meet me privately or to become my friends but the issue came when they had to openly talk about their lives. As someone who had grown up in rural areas, I knew that the road between public acceptance and more intimate private engagement could be a slow process. To make matters worse many of the women I needed to talk to were much older than I am, adding to our social distance, as especially in the rural areas social age and generational authority matter a great deal.

Young women have no right or business intruding in the lives of older women, much less posing intrusive questions about intimate family affairs. I realised that without having the senior women in my household available to open doors, I could be stuck in limbo. This is when I started to think carefully about the methodology of the project and my training at university, especially the work by rural development specialist Robert Chambers, who advocated access from a “bottom-up” by framing and undertaking engagement through the registers and knowledge of rural communities.

Chambers generated an approach known as “Participatory Rural Appraisal” which imagined a reversal of the power and knowledge dynamics between the researchers or experts and local rural communities. In his work, he argued that outsiders should empower local people by taking the lead from their worlds and allowing them to define the issues that matter. Chambers called this ‘handing over the stick’, placing the conversation in the hands of rural communities, families, and individuals and then working from there.

I figured that I needed to find an innovative way to break the ice or ‘hand over the stick’ in my context by addressing older women in a way that was respectful of their roles as homemakers, mothers, and persons of status, but also invited an opportunity for personal encounters and conversations and the sharing of intimacy and trust. This is when I came to the idea of sending hand-written letters and labeled envelopes with themes for discussion to each one of them in the old-fashioned way of the migrant letter. I knew that such letter-writing and its meaning from my own upbringing in the rural Eastern Cape invited respectful and formal engagement but could also be seen as something personal and private.

Bonelwa’s mapping of key topics on envelopes for rural women to respond to in Tsolo. April 2023

I knew that if the women really did not want to engage, they would ignore the letters and topics suggested on the envelopes. It was a way of testing the waters and opening up new opportunities for personalised encounters. The images above were taken as I sat in my room mapping out the themes of the project and deciding on the letters and envelopes to be written and sent. Two main ideas were in my mind when embarking on this letter-writing initiative. One was to simply open avenues for personal communication beyond the ritualised norms of public acceptance and acknowledgment in the village. The other was to allow women to write back in their own voices. I thought here of those whose voices and stories were not so easily heard and had hidden stories to tell. I thought they could also use our letter exchanges as an opportunity to set the agenda of what they wanted to talk about and what should be left off the agenda. I also decorated the envelopes so that they would be personalised in each case.

In the end, it was a gesture that opened doors for engagement and made a great difference in my fieldwork process and experience. The fact that I knew and understood something about the meaning of hand-written letters in the lives of rural women helped me appreciate what the letters might mean. I have now collected a few life histories and have personally met many older women, not just because of the words contained in the letters we exchanged, but because of the meaning of hand-written letters in a landscape scarred by enforced separation and the history of migrant labour.

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