When I was a kid, I had pen pals. Lots of them. I think I started writing letters when I was about seven. We moved away from Winnipeg where we had been living for a couple years. I had to leave my best friend, Lynne, behind and we kept exchanging letters for many years – up until recently when my Christmas card to her was returned ‘address unknown.’
I came of age in the 70s, way before Facebook or email. The only way to maintain a relationship with someone who lived far away was to write a letter. Long distance phone calls were pretty expensive, but stamps were cheap. By the time I was sixteen I had at least two dozen pen pals from all over the world. I loved getting their letters and learning about their lives. I still have one of those pen pals, and although we tend to catch up via the Internet now, we have shared dozens of letters over our 40+ year correspondence.
So I was ready to love I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda (with help from Liz Welch). I’ll spare you the suspense: I LOVED this book. It’s the true story of how Caitlin, a thirteen-year-old from Hatfield, Pennsylvania writes (via a school project) a letter to thirteen-year-old Martin who lives in Mutare, Zimbabwe. That letter – as generic as it must have been – is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Caitlin chose Zimbabwe from a long list of countries because it sounded exotic. She really knew nothing about the country.
My knowledge of Africa consisted of what I had seen in the National Geographic magazines my mother subscribed to for our family. I loved looking at the colorful photos of tribal people who wore face paint, loincloths and beads. I didn’t think my pen pal would dress like that, but I had no idea what kids in Africa wore. Jeans, like me?
Caitlin has no idea of Martin’s circumstances, but the reader does. Martin lives with his parents and siblings in Chisamba Singles “a housing development built in the 1960s as a place for men from the rural areas to stay during the week while they worked in different factories.” Martin and his family share a room with another family, upwards of twelve people crammed into a space designed to hold two.
The story toggles back and forth between Caitlin and Martin. Caitlin’s life is mostly concerned with friends and shopping, while Martin’s life is focused on doing well at school. Education in Zimbabwe is a privilege, not a right. Martin understands that to be successful at school is a (potential) ticket out of abject poverty.
While most of Caitlin’s classmates give up their pen pals after only a couple letters, Caitlin and Martin maintain their correspondence and Caitlin comes to understand the truth of Martin’s circumstances. If only she could have known the anxiety her asking for a photograph caused Martin. Or what he had to give up to send her some cheap earrings. It was truly heartbreaking.
And also amazing. Because once Caitlin and her family are aware of just how dire things are for Martin and his family, they do everything in their power to help. It’s pretty awesome.
In 2015, Caitlin addressed students at a high school. She said “One small act of kindness…You have no idea how powerful that can be, whose lives it can change, including your own.”
Be the change, people.