Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda were just teenagers when they embarked on a most unlikely — and life-affirming — friendship. Their bond, which took shape through pen-pal letters sent back and forth between Pennsylvania and Zimbabwe, not only changed their lives but has since prompted them to write a book together and devote themselves to showing others how far a little kindness can go.
"We just want kids and grown-ups to start treating each other nicely and embrace differences," says Alifirenka.
Adds Ganda, "Our story is a story of hope and the power that each person has to make a positive impact on others, independent of who they are or what resources they have."
The power of words
Alifirenka was 12 years old in 1997 when her seventh-grade English teacher asked everyone in class to choose a pen pal in another country. She immediately zeroed in on Zimbabwe because it sounded exotic compared to her all-American, small-town life in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. She wrote a simple letter introducing herself and gave it to her teacher to send.
Far away in the city of Mutare, Zimbabwe’s third largest city, 14-year-old Ganda learned that he was to receive a pen-pal letter from America. It was Alifirenka’s. The letter stirred a deep curiosity in him about life in the U.S. and ignited a dream to push beyond the world he knew. That night he wrote back by firelight. It was the beginning of a correspondence that would span six years, forging a profound friendship that continues to grow in ways neither he nor Alifirenka could have imagined.
From pen pals to best friends…
Like most teens, they started off writing about their favorite music (both were Spice Girls fans) and what they liked to do (she couldn’t get enough mall time with friends and he lived and breathed soccer). Alifirenka assumed Ganda was an African version of the American kids she knew, and smart, too. He was the top student in his school. But as he disclosed more about his life, and his letters grew more sporadic, often written on pieces of trash, she gradually realized he couldn’t be more different.
In fact, Ganda’s family was barely eking out a living in one of the city’s worst slums, struggling to remain in their one-room shack where he and his four siblings slept on the concrete floor. When Ganda finally revealed that he had to quit school because his parents could no longer afford tuition (Zimbabwe didn’t offer free public education), Alifirenka, then a ninth-grader, knew she had to act.
Without asking her parents, she started inserting babysitting money into her letters — $20 here, $40 there. "With that simple cash, I was able to get him and his siblings back in school, feed their family, and help keep them in their room," she says. "I thought it miraculous that I could do all that by just babysitting for a few hours."
Eventually Alifirenka revealed everything to her parents, and they stepped in to continue supporting the family. They even helped Ganda fulfill a dream he’d hardly dared imagine: they got him a full four-year scholarship to Villanova University where he graduated in 2007 after earning two bachelor's degrees in four years. He recently completed his MBA at Duke University.
…and better people
Alifirenka, now 30, credits Ganda with broadening her life. They remain the closest of friends. "Martin opened my eyes to the rest of the world," she says. "I believe our friendship even helped me be more open to a relationship with my husband, Dzmitry, who is from Belarus."
The "amazing feeling" she got from helping Ganda and his family also spurred her to become an emergency-room nurse. "I knew I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives," she says. "I specifically chose ER nursing because that’s when people are at their worst. Helping just one person through a terrible time is the most rewarding feeling."
Ganda, 32, is now an investor in emerging markets, particularly in Africa. He has taken over supporting his family in Zimbabwe, moving them to a bigger house and planning for his younger sister to attend college in the U.S.
"Caitlin gave me an education, which is the best gift I’ve ever received," he says. "Coming to America gave me exposure to people and opportunities I would have never dreamt of had I stayed in the shanty neighborhood where I grew up."
Martin and Caitlin meet for the first time. (Photo: Martin Ganda and Caitlin Alifirenka)
Paying it forward
And so their story might have ended there — an amazing but private tale of two lives reshaped and enriched by friendship. Except that others kept urging them to share their pen-pal experience with the world. Their dual memoir, "I Will Always Write Back," was published in 2015 and aims to empower teens to fight against the current culture of meanness by looking for what unites human beings around the world. Alifirenka and Ganda now speak at schools to spread their message of inclusion and caring.
"There are so many saddening stories in the world today … kids aren’t seeing anything positive," says Alifirenka. "We hope to show that there’s a diverse world out there, and just doing something kind can really impact someone’s life."
Ganda is also contributing in a very personal way. He and a friend Simba from Zimbabwe (who also studied in the U.S. at Yale University) have created a foundation called Seeds of Africa to help educate poor young students there.
"This is how we give back to children who are in situations where we were a few years ago," Ganda says. "Education is the passport to be whoever and whatever you want to be. I’m a living example of that."
Martin Ganda (right) with his mother and brother, Nation (left): Martin Ganda and Caitlin Alifirenka