If you ever want to hear a true story about how education can change a life — or even two lives — I strongly recommend “I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives” by Martin Ganda and Kaitlin Alifirenka with ghostwriter Liz Welch. It really makes you appreciate the life you have, as compared to other parts of the world, and how one seemingly insignificant decision can change lives.
When the book starts in 1997, Martin Ganda is an intelligent, proud but very poor young man from Zimbabwe. Kaitlin Alifirenka was a typical American 12-year-old. Kaitlin’s teacher set up a pen pal project with schools from other countries. Kaitlin picked Zimbabwe because it sounded exotic and interesting.
It was a decision that would lead to more than she would realize. Martin was the top student in his class and was lucky to receive one of the 10 letters sent to his school, since they were only given out to top students. He and Kaitlin began corresponding and got to be very good friends. (In the book, Kaitlin refers to him as her “brother from another mother.”)
The book is a dual memoir that chronicles what happens to Martin and Kaitlin after they become friends. Martin undergoes major difficulties in trying to get an education but eventually succeeds. Kaitlin’s compassionate family helps him where they can, especially since he’s seeking a college degree and is really an extraordinary person. Martin tries so hard to get into several American colleges and thankfully, one of them was wise enough to accept him (Villanova).
Reading the account of how they met in person for the first time at the airport is extremely touching. It’s also touching to read about Martin’s home life — his mother can’t even afford shoes, the roof leaks, and basic necessities such as toothbrushes and clothing aren’t all that easy to come by. He doesn’t disclose to Kaitlin how poor he is but she reads between the lines.
The book became a New York Times bestseller. I happened to spot it on a library shelf and was interested to see how someone else’s pen pal friendship worked out.
Martin eventually earned two degrees from Villanova and an M.B.A. from Duke, according to LinkedIn. Kaitlin got married to another friend of hers and became a nurse (why am I not surprised, with that big heart of hers?), as far as I could find out. I hope they’re both still doing well.
After reading this book, I sat down in a chair. I took a good, long look around the place where I live and was very thankful to have what I have.
This is the type of book that makes you appreciate what you’ve got, no matter how humble it may seem. It is an object lesson in not taking anything for granted, even the basic necessities of life, and showing kindness and empathy.
Here’s a book trailer so you can see what Martin and Kaitlin look like. (Video credit: Theyarenotjustbooks, YouTube)
I also found an 2017 Lower Canada College interview with Kaitlin. (Video credit: Lower Canada College, YouTube)
I hope you read it. Enjoy!