I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives, page 1
Table of Contents
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This book is dedicated to our mothers,
Anne Neville and Chioniso Ganda,
and our fathers, Richard Stoicsitz
and George Ganda.
I’D NEVER HEARD OF ZIMBABWE. But something about the way the name looked up on the blackboard intrigued me. It was exotic, and difficult to pronounce. It was also the last country in a long list that Mrs. Miller had written in chalk. She asked each student in my seventh-grade English class to pick one place for a pen pal program our school was starting that year.
I was sitting toward the back row. Usually, I spent that period passing notes with Lauren, my best friend, or staring out the window daydreaming about boys. It was late September, and the leaves on the trees were beginning to turn from vibrant green to rusty red and mustard yellow. I was an average student. If I applied myself, I did well. Honestly, I was not all that interested in school, but there was something almost magnetic about this crazy-sounding place: Zimbabwe. I raised my hand.
“Caitlin,” Mrs. Miller said, surprised. She usually had to call on me to participate.
“How do you pronounce the last country?” I asked. “The one that starts with a Z?”
“Zim-BOB-way,” she said, sounding it out like it was three words. “It’s in Africa.”
“Oh, cool,” I said. I had a hunch it was there, but couldn’t name any other countries on the continent. I had a good handle on Europe, as my family had gone to Germany the summer before to visit my dad’s relatives. On the same trip, we went to Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein, and France. Other than several trips to Canada, that was my first trip abroad, and it was a huge deal. I’d never imagined traveling to Africa, or even wondered what life must be like there. I had no idea, and that was all the more exciting—like the beginning of an adventure.
“That’s the one I want,” I said.
I didn’t know it then—how could I have?—but that moment would change my life.
Before then, I was a typical twelve-year-old American girl, far more interested in what I should wear to school than what I might learn there. I assumed most kids, regardless of where they lived, had lives similar to mine. And while I imagined that Zimbabwe was radically different from suburban Pennsylvania, where I grew up, I had no idea how much.
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? I had so many questions.
I was born and raised in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, a small middle-class town forty miles outside Philadelphia. Both my parents grew up there as well. They met in elementary school but didn’t start dating until college. After they got married, they moved to neighboring Lansdale, which was more affordable than Hatfield. My brother, Richie, was born there. By the time I came around five years later, they had moved back to Hatfield and bought the home they still live in today.
There was no reason to ever move—Hatfield was a great place to live: quiet streets lined with ranch and colonial-style houses with well-kept yards, a good public school, and an old-timey downtown with a deli called the Trolley Stop. There was a Dairy Queen within walking distance of my house, and I’d often meet Lauren there for Blizzards on the weekends. Otherwise, miles of farmland surrounded Hatfield, even though it was less than an hour away from a major American city. Truthfully, we rarely went to Philadelphia because there was so much to do in Hatfield, whether softball games on the weekends, roller skating at the local rink, or just hanging out with friends at the nearby mall. My summer trip to Europe did give me some sense of a world beyond suburban Pennsylvania, though.
When I was in Germany, I was struck by how different my cousin Carola was from me. Like me, Carola was tall and blond, but when I first met her, she was wearing cut-off jean shorts and dark brown knee socks with sandals. I thought she looked ridiculous. She also spoke English with a harsh-sounding accent, like she was always angry. She ate sharp cheese and dark bread for breakfast, and liked chocolate with hazelnuts, and salty black licorice—nothing like the Hershey’s Kisses and Starburst sweets I had grown up with. I assumed she was a total dork, until I went to school with her one day. The school year started in early August, and as soon as we walked into the building, everyone said hello to her, including all the cute boys. She was actually really popular! And many of her girlfriends were also wearing knee socks with sandals. It was fashionable! Meanwhile, I knew if I showed up at school wearing that outfit, people would say, “Why are you dressed like a nerd? Halloween isn’t until October.”
That trip opened my eyes to other ways of living beyond my small town. Everything and everyone in Hatfield felt so familiar—even a little boring. I wanted to learn about somewhere radically different, and having a pen pal in Africa seemed like a great way to do that.
Mrs. Miller went around the room, calling on people. Lauren picked Germany, as did many other kids in our class who had some ancestral connection. A few kids picked France, and others picked Italy and England. By the time everyone had chosen, I realized that I was the only person who had picked a country in Africa. I think it shocked my teacher, who had already busted me twice that year for chewing gum in class and once for passing a note to Lauren. Each time I was caught, I was slightly embarrassed. In seventh grade, I just wanted to blend in. I joined the field hockey team because all my friends were on it, even though I did not like running up and down a big field bent over a stick. I guess my trip to Europe had changed me. For the first time, I saw that being different wasn’t a bad thing. It was actually kind of cool.
Our homework assignment that night was to write a letter to our new pen pal. Since we did not know who would be receiving our letters, Mrs. Miller said to simply write Hello! instead of Dear so and so. I was actually excited about homework, maybe for the first time ever.
That afternoon, I sat on the bus next to Heather, my other best friend, who was a year older and lived two houses away from me. I told her about my pen pal assignment.
“That’s so cool,” she said. “What are you going to ask?”
It was a good question: I had no idea what to write or where to start. I thought about it as the bus pulled out of the school driveway.
Pennfield Middle School is just down the street from Hatfield Quality Meats, a pig slaughterhouse, which my school bus passed every morning and afternoon. That meant most days, I could see the pigs, some as big as miniature ponies, arriving on the back of huge livestock trucks, their pink and whiskered noses sticking through the metal crates. That image, and the squealing sounds they made as if they knew what would come next, always broke my heart. But the rendering days were even worse: The air filled with the stench of garbage cooked in bacon. The smell would stick to your hair and clothes, l
I certainly would not write about that—it was the one thing I didn’t like about my hometown. Hatfield was also known for its dairy farms, which I much preferred. I pressed my forehead against the window as the bus passed by rolling green fields dotted with black-and-white cows grazing. They had much better lives than the pigs, I thought. I wondered what my pen pal saw on her or his way to school. I knew there were elephants and giraffes in Africa. Were they like our cows, grazing on the side of the road? There was so much I wanted to find out.
Twenty minutes later, the bus stopped at the end of my street, a cul-de-sac. I knew every family in each of the twelve houses that lined the road. In the summer, I played flashlight tag and kick ball with other neighborhood kids. In the winter, when it snowed, we’d build snowmen in one another’s front yards. My family’s house was beige with navy-blue shutters and a matching front door, which we hardly ever used. Instead, I always went in through the side door. There Kava and Romeo, our two giant schnauzers, would always be waiting for me, doing their welcome dance, which entailed wagging their whole bodies and jumping up and down at the same time. They followed me through the laundry room that was also a mudroom for all our coats and boots, and then into the family room, where they returned to their still-warm spots on our couch. As always, I threw my backpack at the bottom of the stairs—one of my mom’s rules—before heading into the kitchen to grab a snack.
My mom was always home when I arrived. Before I was born, she worked as an office manager for a doctor in town. Then, when I was still a baby, she decided to go back to school to become a teacher. She wanted to be home when Richie and I finished school every afternoon, and she wound up getting a job as an elementary school teacher in Central Bucks School District in the neighboring county. Now that I was in middle school, I didn’t see her during the day, but I always found her waiting for me in the kitchen when I came home.
That afternoon, she was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper.
“How was your day?” she asked, peering up at me, her big blue-green eyes gentle but curious.
Most days, I filled her in on my softball game schedule or complained about too much homework or mean teachers. But on this day, I had something interesting to report.
“I got a pen pal today,” I said. “From Zimbabwe.”
“Where?” she asked.
“In Africa, Mom,” I said, and rolled my eyes. I couldn’t believe she did not know where Zimbabwe was. She was a teacher, after all.
“Oh, do you mean Rhodesia?” she asked.
My mom went to get a world map from the living room, which she laid across the table.
“Rhodesia,” she said, pointing to a teakettle-shaped country in the southern part of Africa above a place called Botswana and next to one called Mozambique. My mom then pointed to the date on the map: 1977. It was twenty years old.
“Countries in Africa change all the time,” she said in a matter-of-fact way. She mentioned colonialism, a vaguely familiar word.
“What does that mean again?” I asked.
“It’s when powerful countries take over other countries and call them their territories,” she explained. “Like America—it used to be a British colony, but we fought for our freedom. The Zimbabweans did the same thing.”
I had studied American history the year before, but I was having a hard time making the connection. It was all very confusing, but one thing was clear: I needed to learn a little more about this faraway place before I could even begin writing my letter. I didn’t want to seem stupid.
When my dad was not traveling for work, he arrived home every night at six. He worked on energy contracts for the government, which sounds as mysterious as it was. All I knew was that he had top government security clearance, and he could not talk about his work with anyone—including us. My brother, Richie, was seventeen years old and a junior in high school. He usually hung out with his friends after school—but he was always home in time for dinner. That was another one of my mom’s rules. We ate dinner together every evening at six thirty, and then afterward, my dad logged on to the family computer, a beige Dell the size of a television set. My parents kept it in the den, as my mother had read about predators posing as kids in chat rooms and wanted to monitor the websites Richie and I used. Back then, we had dial-up Internet, which took forever, and then once we were connected, everyone took turns using the computer.
That evening, I went first. I waited for the snap-crackle-pop You’ve Got Mail sound sequence and then typed “Zimbabwe” into a search engine, which led me to the Encyclopedia Britannica site. My mom had a subscription, which meant I could access information. That’s how I discovered that Zimbabwe was “liberated” from the United Kingdom in 1980. I was beginning to see parallels: The Africans wanted to be free from British rule, just as colonial Americans did two hundred years earlier. I read that more than 90 percent of the Zimbabwean people were called Shona, but that there was another tribe called Ndebele, which I think was pronounced en-duh-BELL-lay. Shona was the country’s national language, but most people spoke English as a result of being colonized.
Phew, I thought. At least my pen pal would be able to understand me.
I wondered which tribe my pen pal was from, and what it meant to be from one or the other. Could you be both? Was it like being German and Irish, like me? It was getting late, so instead of doing more research, I went upstairs to my room to start writing.
There, I took out a piece of lined school paper and sat on the bottom of my bunk bed, where I usually did my homework.
I began: Hi, my name is Caitlin, I’m twelve years old. I live in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. I’m in the seventh grade. My brother Richie is in eleventh grade.
I paused. What else should I write to this person halfway across the world? I scanned my room for inspiration and spotted my collection of sports trophies won over the years, usually for good sportsmanship, as I was never the best player, or even very athletic. I continued: I play softball and soccer and field hockey. I did not include that I had started taking stats for my field hockey team because it hurt my back to bend over the stick all the time. I was already five foot three, the second-tallest girl in my class. My posters tacked to the wall caught my attention, so I continued: I like the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys. And my favorite color is pink. This was all true. My mother had stenciled pink hearts on my walls, and the rug in my room was magenta, though no one would ever know, since it was completely covered in clothes.
I continued: For fun, I like to go shopping at the mall on the weekend. I also like to go roller skating and bowling with my friends. And to eat pizza. What do you like to do for fun? And what is it like in Zimbabwe?
I knew there was more to ask and tell, but this was a good start. I signed it the way Mrs. Miller had showed us earlier that day: Sincerely, Caitlin Stoicsitz.
When I turned in my letter to Mrs. Miller the following day, I felt giddy, like this was the start of something big.
MRS. JARAI ENTERED OUR CLASSROOM, smiling.
“Class, I have pen pal letters from America!” she said in a chipper voice. It was mid-October and toward the end of our school year, so this was a welcome surprise.
Everyone started chattering—we all knew and loved America. It was the land of Coca-Cola and the WWF, World Wrestling Federation. Kids with money would Xerox different wrestling photos from American magazines they found in town, and then sell them to other students. It was very popular to have an eight-by-ten black-and-white copy of Hulk Hogan—he was considered a god in Zimbabwe. My older brother, Nation, managed to get one somehow, and we hung it on our wall at home, using bubble gum as tape. It was a status thing. “Do you have Hulk Hogan? Or Macho Man?” This was my view of America—men with big muscles who wore skullcaps and knee-high boots and made lots of money. The big l
Mrs. Jarai only had ten letters—and there were fifty students in our classroom. I was in Group One, so I was one of the lucky ones. The school year in Zimbabwe starts in January, when every student takes a placement test. The kids with the highest scores are put in Group One. I had been in that group for the last eight years, since first grade—my mother made sure of it. On my very first day of school, when I was six, she kept asking, “Who’s the best teacher?” An older woman was pointed out, and my mother approached her and said, “This is my son Martin. Make sure he is in your class.”
It worked—I wound up in that class. At the end of first grade, there was a ceremony where the top three students were named: Number three was announced first. Then number two. When my name was called for number one, I heard a joyous cry from behind me. I turned to see my mother jumping up and down, like a rabbit, ululating, which is how we celebrate. I had to hold back a smile as her high-pitched cries—“yul-yul-yul”—pushed me toward the front of the crowd, where I received my certificate. On our way home, my mother said, “Martin, if you want to do well in life, you must always be number one.”
I was number one again the following year, but then in grade three, I took second place.
“Why didn’t you take number one?” my mother asked the day I got my report card, her face screwed so tight, her eyes were squinted slits.
“The other guy is very clever,” I explained, handing it to her.
She swatted it out of my hand with such ferocity, I was startled. I watched the paper as it fluttered to the floor and kept my eyes there as she shouted, “That’s no excuse. Next you’ll be number five, then number fourteen. You must work harder.”
“I will, Mai,” I said, still stunned. I picked up the paper and smoothed it out on my thigh before trying to give it to her one more time.