Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Book Love: I Will Always Write Back

This book was such a delightful surprise.  I read a decent amount of non-fiction but most falls into the self-improvement category and less memoirs. But this book was mostly just enjoyable, up-lifting, and made me really think about our privileged American life.

I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives by Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda with Liz Welch

Caitlin and Martin are two teenagers living very different lives, half a world apart.  They are assigned as pen pals in 1997.  Caitlin is 12 (I remember very clearly her being 2 years younger than me) but I think Martin is a year or two older (you'd think I'm remember him being about my age).  They start exchanging letters, slowly.

At first it's nothing real special, Caitlin lives a fairly privileged life outside Philadelphia with her parents and older brother.  She goes to public school, spends time with friends, and has about two dozen different boys she crushes on (probably pretty typical of many pre-teen and teenage girls.  Not that I speak with experience.)

Martin lives in slums in Zimbabwe, in Africa.  He's very smart and a hard worker but his family's poverty and living conditions make life hard for him.  He shares one half of a tiny room with his parents and 4 siblings.  They rarely eat meat and he shares one small blanket to sleep on the floor with two of his brothers.  He doesn't own a pair of shoes until he's in his teens.

These two kids live two very different lives.  While Caitlin is worried about friend drama and boys, Martin worries about getting to school and having enough food to eat. 

After a few years of corresponding and becoming pretty good long distance friends, it comes out that Martin is having trouble paying for school.  Caitlin starts by sending him an extra $20 in her letter which covers school fees and helps with groceries.  Then Martin needs to take some tests to advance to the next level of his education.  He's been the #1 student in his grade for almost his whole schooling and has big dreams, but they can't happen without some money.  And what he needs seems so small to Caitlin and her family; $20 buys a lot.

I really felt for Martin, struggling in his circumstances, wanting a better life for himself and his family.  Having a real desire to learn but having to drop out of school for a few months when his family can't afford the fees.  He has a lot of drive but not the means to make it happen.

Caitlin's family steps in and helps Martin and his family again, just showing how what seems like a little to us, can really be a lot to another.

And isn't it that way in a lot of things, not just money?  How what feels like a small comment or encouragement can really turn a life, or at least a day, around?  Sometimes you just need someone to notice that you are struggling, to acknowledge that what you are going through is hard.  That they believe that you can overcome.

Reading this book made me very aware of how much excess there is in our country (and probably many others).  I got up to use the bathroom after a solid 40 minutes reading and was just amazed that we have running water, a flushing toilet, and the space for a bathroom!  Suddenly our 1200 square foot house, pretty small by American standards, seemed huge!  All this space we aren't using every minute of every day!  We have electricity and food in the fridge and the ability to pay for our son to go to school.  It was a great eye opener.

Martin ends up going to an elite private school on scholarship and eventually making his way to the US for college, but not without some worries and problems along the way (I figured this out long before I got to that part of the book because I, of course, flipped to the pages of pictures as soon as I realized they were there.)

This isn't a story of the white people saving a brown kid, but about the power of friendship, how knowing the people involved in the news stories makes it all seem much more real, and how we can help others, not just financially.  It was a heart-warming tale of friendship, the power to change lives, and the bountiful blessings we have.  It was a very worthwhile read.

(And if you feel encouraged to help send kids to school in third world countries, I work with an organization, Sung-Taaba, that does just that to blind and deaf kids in Ghana.  We're sponsoring four students right now with hopes for more soon!)

Amazon | Goodreads

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