I was up until 1:30 this morning finishing I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives. This isn’t unusual when I am engaged in a book, but this title is nonfiction (not my usual reading choice), and I had to come to work this morning. In the age of the internet and text messages which demand immediate responses, writing letters seems a lost art. For Caitlin, an American middle-schooler who is a reluctant student, picking a pen pal from Zimbabwe was just because the name sounded “cool.” She described that decision as a “moment [that] would change my life.” More importantly, it transformed Martin Ganda’s life in ways that he could never have imagined.
Despite the fact that Caitlin’s family had traveled to Europe on vacation, her life in Hatfield, Pennsylvania in 1997 was comprised of mall visits, roller skating, bowling, pizza, the Spice Girls, and the Backstreet Boys. For Martin, his world could not have been more of a contrast. Twelve people lived in his living and sleeping space, and he and his siblings slept on a concrete floor, while his parents slept on their only piece of furniture, a single mattress. His mother stored her pots and pans beneath the bed during the day, using them to cook over the fire pit that they shared with four other families. If they were lucky, meals were usually greens and chicken feet while chicken was a once-a-year Christmas treat. Martin’s entire wardrobe consisted of one pair of green shorts and a green shirt that he washed twice a week because it was his school uniform. To respond to Caitlin’s letters, Martin wrote his reply by firelight since electricity was “rationed from six PM to six AM,…. “
The book alternates chapters between Caitlin and Martin, sharing excerpts from their letters and a narrative of their life at the time. His friend in America and her mail becomes a source of pride for Martin’s entire family; however, simple correspondence is a struggle for the young African because paper and stamps are luxuries in his impoverished village. When Caitlin sends a photograph and requests one from Martin in return, the disparity in their lives seems almost 19th century. The Ganda family must hire a photographer to come to their home and take two pictures, paying for them even if they are mediocre or blurry. It is two years into their friendship before Caitlin begins to piece together the trials that Martin faces everyday. Watching a BBC special about Zimbabwe with her mother, Caitlin is horrified. “Soldiers were clubbing people. Gunfire sparked and crackled, sirens blared.” This growing realization that Martin’s life is dramatically different from her experience as an American teenager alters Caitlin’s worldview and compels her to be more than a simple pen pal.
Throughout the last two thirds of the book, I felt like a voyeur peeking into the relationship between two tenacious and selfless young people destined to succeed regardless of the hurdles that faced them. Caitlin is impacted by her self-absorbed classmates and September 11; Martin faces his father’s unemployment, hunger and insurmountable school fees. No movie script could craft more compelling characters, and their unwavering hope and integrity seem more the stuff of fairytales. Caitlin’s entire family becomes a lifeline for Martin, his family and even a classmate, Wallace. The Stoicsitz family, while an upper middle class family of means, invests not only in their daughter’s desire to make Martin’s life a better one, they embrace Martin’s family as their own. As a parent, I had to examine my own heart, wondering if I would have had that much faith in my children’s ideas and solutions for a boy they had never met. It would have been so much easier to brush off the requests and stories as a scam or “not my problem.” Instead, Caitlin and her mother Anne commit weeks of their time finding resources, clothing, scholarships, and transportation despite the insurmountable red tape and roadblocks.
Even though the title of the book indicates that there will be a happy ending for the two young authors, the narrative ends in 2008. I was on the online first thing this morning “Googling” Martin Ganda to find out where he is today. No spoiler, but he and Caitlin can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and have numerous links to stories of their lives which are a long journey from where that first letter began.