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A modern-day connection in an old-fashioned way

Victoria Leenders-Cheng
A modern-day connection in an old-fashioned way
Elisabeth Florman (left), stands next to Kantigi Camara during his trip to Falun, Sweden to visit her. The two have been pen pals for over 40 years. (Photo: Claes Soderberg)

Author: Claes SoderbergElisabeth Florman (left), stands next to Kantigi Camara during his trip to Falun, Sweden to visit her. The two have been pen pals for over 40 years.

Author: Claes SoderbergElisabeth Florman (left), stands next to Kantigi Camara during his trip to Falun, Sweden to visit her. The two have been pen pals for over 40 years.

Everybody likes to get letters, but few people are as adept as Stoughton resident Kantigi Camara at writing back.

For the past 41 years, Camara, the head librarian at Northeastern University’s John D. O’Bryant African American Institute Library, has been writing to a pen pal overseas. In August, he traveled to Falun, Sweden, to meet Elisabeth Florman, with whom he struck up a correspondence when he was 19 and she was 15.

“[Elisabeth] had sent out an ad looking for pen pals to write to, and a newspaper in Salisbury, N.C., where I was attending Livingstone College, ran the ad,” Camara recalled. He cut out the notice, wrote a letter introducing himself — “I was majoring in history and had just entered my second year in the fall of 1968” — and asked about the exchange rate of Swedish kronor to American dollars.

He put the letter in the mail and forgot all about it until he received a letter in return six weeks later. Turns out his original letter had gotten directed to surface mail rather than air, which was why it had taken Florman so long to receive it and to reply.

“We continued writing since then,” explained Camara, whose first name Kantigi, means “He who faithfully keeps his word.”

The two have shared photos, letters and clippings of news. Topics have ranged in scope from the personal — homecomings, holidays, marriage, children, divorce — to the international — the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon’s impeachment, the election of President Obama, and the assassinations of two well-known Swedish politicians, Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 and foreign minister Anna Lindh in 2003. They correspond between four to six times a year.

“It became a way of finding out about another culture without being there at the same time,” Camara said. “[In those early letters], I didn’t say anything indicating I was African American. I told her about our college newspaper and some of the things I was doing and she eventually figured it out. It was no big deal.”

In fact, Camara added, one of the notable aspects about his August visit to Sweden was the absence of racial overtones in his social interactions.

“I didn’t hear any name calling — the n-word, especially — and people didn’t stare,” Camara said. “On several occasions, we would go places where I was the only black person there. They treated me as if I was another Swede.”

He was already a minor celebrity in the city of Falun, to boot.

“Sweden is going through the process of closing down post offices and taking away mailboxes because they say people don’t write anymore,” he said. “So a local newspaper had an article saying, ‘How you can you say people don’t write when these two people have been pen pals for 41 years?’”

While touring the city, Camara said, a number of people came up to him to tell him they had seen the article, and to congratulate him and Florman on their pen pal longevity.

“Some marriages don’t even last that long,” Camara said, laughing. “I can attest to that — my first marriage didn’t.”

Their correspondence has traced the many parallels in their lives. Camara and Florman shared the happy news when they got married — she in a civil ceremony in a Swedish courthouse, he in a church  in Lillington, North Carolina the first time and at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel the second. They were among the first on each other’s list of people to notify when they moved to new locations. And they sent news back and forth as their families grew; both Camara and Florman have birth children, as well as children by adoption.

“When we had our son, she would send clothes over that would say, ‘Hey, Swede!’ We would take pictures and send them back,” Camara said. “I’ve seen the child she adopted as a baby from Colombia grow up — Louis is 27 now — and during the adoption of my daughter [who is now 10 years old], we sent pictures of her [from] when she was a baby up to now.”

There have been other coincidences, too. Two years after they started writing to each other, Florman (whose name was then Elisabeth Edwall) told Camara (whose first name was then Garland) that she would be visiting the United States as an exchange student.

Camara happened to be working as a historian at Minute Man National Historic Park near Lexington, Mass., that summer. When he told his pen pal, she wrote back to say Massachusetts was the state she would be visiting. Neither thought any more of it.

“I was working one day,” Camara recalled, “giving a talk on the battle skirmish that took place there and when I got through, I turned around, I saw her and said, ‘Wow, she looks familiar.’ I approached and said, ‘Elisabeth,’ and she probably thought, ‘Who’s this strange man who knows my name?’

“I said, ‘It’s me, Garland, your pen pal.’”

They took a picture to commemorate the occasion, and Camara had dinner with her and her host family two days later. That was the only time they’d ever seen each other in person until last month.

Their relationship has grown beyond its epistolary borders as well. Over the years, Florman had read Camara’s letters out loud to her brother and sister. When Camara met them during his visit to Sweden, they welcomed him as if he were a member of their own family coming home.

In fact, Camara added, “our tradition of exchanging letters has now spread to the second generation. [Elisabeth’s] niece, Hannah, has now become a pen pal with my daughter, Mariama.”

Camara and Florman also exchange the occasional e-mail, as they did in preparation for his visit. But they always send pictures, holiday cards and at least a few letters a year, a fact that sometimes surprises even Camara.

“I can’t believe I’m still writing or that I’m even writing to another person in a foreign country,” he said, laughing again. “But it’s one of those unusual things that was just meant to be.”