Change happens when we look through a window into another person’s life. The authors of the auto-biography “I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives” tells the tale of teenagers discovering diverse worlds through their letters as penpals.
The name Zimbabwe caught the attention of typical suburban junior high student Caitlin Alifirenka when choosing a pen pal. Her letter went to Martin Ganda, the brightest, most promising student in his school district. His school paid to send his first letter, then the head master said, “we cannot afford anymore stamps.”
Neither could Martin’s family afford a stamp. They lived in a one-roomed house with a dirt floor and struggled to pay for his tuition in a country that did not have mandatory free education. Still, his mother found money for a stamp. When his dad’s job of 18 years ended, Martin carried suitcases at the train station to earn stamp money.
At first Caitlin wrote basic information about her life as a teenager, sent her picture and a dollar bill so Martin could see her and a sample of American money. His mother placed the money on a shelf.
“It stayed there for two weeks and then we had eaten sadza for days on end, no beans or even collard greens and our mealie meal was running low,” Martin wrote.
So Martin gave the dollar to his mother for food. With it she bought two weeks worth of groceries. He wrote to thank Caitlin for the dollar, but did not promise to send her a bill from his country. It would rob their table of the scant food they had. He did promise however that he “would always write back, no matter what.”
They both wrote. When she learned that he had to drop out of school because his family lacked the money for the fees, Caitlin looked at the $20 she earned for babysitting. “I was just going to buy another pair of stupid earrings.” she said and sent it to Martin. It paid for his semester of school and provided the first meat his family had eaten in months. Eventually monetary shortages forced Martin to write letters on garbage.
“After he sent the letter on the ice-cream wrapper, Martin started to open up to me in a way that made me realize how different our lives were. Until that moment I did not realize how privileged I was,” Caitlin recalled.
A part time job for most American girls pays for fun. Caitlin found a job so she could buy tarps, boots and rain clothes for the rainy season in Zimbabwe. Martin thanked her, “now I don’t have to sleep on a wet floor.”
Caitlin’s family joined her quest to keep the family alive, safe and in school during the country’s depression and political uprisings. As high school graduation neared, Caitlin’s mother began contacting colleges seeking a full scholarship for Martin.
Caitlin saw through another window when her family invited a German exchange student into their home for a couple of months. As the child of extremely wealthy parents, the visitor assumed Caitlin’s mom would bring her breakfast in bed and complained when she had to go to school. When her visit ended, Caitlin wrote, “I did a victory dance as soon as (she left).”
Through Caitlin’s mother persistence and prayerful pleas, one American college offered Martin a full scholarship. Caitlin’s family lavishly welcomed him to America. He worked hard in college and at part times jobs to have money to provide for his family. Everything he did, he said, “I did it for my family.”
Both families gained a broader view of the world thanks to their children’s letters from abroad.