I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives, by Caitlin Alifireka and Martin Ganda with Liz Welch
I’ll give it to you straight: this book is not a literary masterpiece. But the wonderful true story of two children changing each other’s lives across an ocean makes up for any shortcomings.
Twelve-year-old Caitlyn’s seventh grade class is assigned a pen pal project, and she chooses to send her letter to a school in Zimbabwe where it reaches fourteen-year-old Martin. Caitlyn’s classmates soon drop their pen pals, but she continues to write long after the school project ends. Martin’s school can only afford postage for one return letter, but he works after school carrying heavy bags in the marketplace to earn money for stamps, promising, “I will always write back.”
Two lives could not be more different. Caitlyn comes from an upper middle-class family and spends her free time shopping at the mall. She receives a brand new car for Christmas before she turns sixteen. She decorates her letters with special markers that stamp borders of hearts and flowers.
Martin shares a one-room house in the slums with his family of eight and another family. He and his siblings sleep under his parents’ bed. He owns one school uniform and one t-shirt. His family shares a single bottle of Fanta for Christmas. He writes to Caitlyn on the back of a popsicle wrapper that he finds in the marketplace.
Yet the two form a special bond. Caitlyn is able to share her feelings honestly with Martin in a way she can’t with her school friends. As their friendship grows, so does Caitlyn’s interest in the outside world. She joins her school’s African American Awareness Club, persuades her family to host an exchange student from Germany, takes a class in World Culture, and chooses a research project on southern Africa.
Meanwhile, the economic situation in Zimbabwe was deteriorating. Rampant inflation meant that Martin’s family, already poor, can barely afford to eat. Although he is the top student in his entire region, he is forced to drop out of school when his family can’t afford the fees and works any odd jobs he can find to earn money for food. When Caitlyn learns this, she sends him $20 from her babysitting money hoping that even this small amount will help his family with food. Little does she know that due to the strong U.S. dollar and devalued Zim dollar, her gift is enough to pay for his school fees AND feed his family.
Moved by her friend’s struggles, Caitlyn gets serious. Instead of shopping with her classmates, she takes more babysitting jobs. When Martin’s father loses his job, the cash she earns after school keeps his entire family afloat. Eventually her family gets involved as well, paying the school fees for Martin’s siblings. Her mother devotes herself to getting the brilliant young man a full scholarship to an American university. A friend of Martin, already enrolled in the nearby university that Caitlyn’s brother attends, moves in with them. Caitlyn and Martin’s friendship changes lives all around them.
When the news is dominated by stories of conflict and division, stories like Martin and Caitlyn’s offer hope. Personal relationships possess a power that politics doesn’t. One life can change another life. Love and friendship can overcome great obstacles. Need a refreshing breath of hope? Read this book.
Caitlyn and Martin meet in person for the first time, embracing over the barrier at the airport.
Place on hold at the library