In the age of text messages and instant messages, the art of the hand-written letter is slowly fading away. Why take the time to find a pen and paper and then a envelope and stamp to mail something that will takeĀ  days to get to the recipient when an e-mail would be so much faster and cheaper?

But there’s a certain charm that no e-mail can carry. A hand-written letter implies that the writer took the time and effort to write in the first place. And the very process of hand-writing forces a more careful thought process, since paper doesn’t come with a delete button. Finally, e-mail is such an ephemeral thing. It arrives in seconds, and is often deleted just as quickly. But letters last. Some letters have even survived from the days of the Egyptians.

It’s for all these reasons that I wanted to pursue the art of the hand-written letter again by getting a penpal. It would be fun to trade letters with someone else and learn more about their life (not to mention it gives me an excuse to use some of my pretty notebook paper I have around here.)

Safiya's Family

Meeting with Safiya's family

So about a year and a half ago, I found out about Food for the Hungry’s Child Sponsorship program. One aspect of the program is that you can exchange letters with the child you choose to support. Shortly after signing up for the program, I got my first letter from Safiya who lives in Kenya. She wrote mostly about her family and her life at school. I replied soon after, writing about my life and asking her some questions about her life. I also sent along some pictures of my family and I. About two months later, I got a reply where I found out more about her and her life, like what subjects she likes in school or the fact that she has to walk up to 25km (15.5 miles) to visit relatives. These letters have help me understand what life is like in a country very different from the US. It’s also fun to think of the distance the letters have to travel- over a ocean and across two or three continents.

After about a year of trading letters, I got to meet Safiya in person. On my first attempt to visit her, I went to the village where she lived. It was a bit depressing at first- half-naked kids were running around goat-dung piles and flies were everywhere. But even under these conditions, Safiya’s family was overjoyed to see me. Her mother recognized me from the pictures I had sent and in her words “happy to see that I was real”. I also met her father and several of her siblings and had a short conversation with the help of two translators- one to translate English into Swahili and the other to translate the translator into Samburu. The family enjoyed reading the letters and also appreciated how funds from the child sponsorship program was helping Safiya and several of her siblings to attend school.

Alas, Safiya wasn’t home- she was still in school. So the next day, I got a ride to her school. The school itself was a bit more cheerful and in much better condition then the village was. A few hundred kids were there getting ready for that day’s exams. I was both nervous and excited to meet Safiya. Would I recognize her? Would she recognize me? Did she know I was coming?

After spending a few minutes chatting with the school administrators in the office, Safiya came. And I did recognize her from her

Safiya and I

Safiya and I meeting in person for the first time

radiant smile. She also recognized me, although being one of the two white people at the school made it pretty easy. We talked for a while about school and her family and a couple of other topics, and I gave her some gifts for her and her siblings. She couldn’t believe how far I had come to visit her, and I couldn’t believe how tall she was and how good her English was. But even the best moments have to come to an end, and she said farewell and went to take her exams.

We still continue to exchange letters to this day and she is doing well in school. Sure, I accomplished my goal of getting a penpal, but it’s been so much more then that. It amazes me that someone with so little can do so much. It’s amazing how a few pieces of paper flown across an ocean can help foster relationships and understanding between two very different cultures. I also appreciated being involved with a charity program that goes beyond just sending money to some far-off place. It was wonderful to see what the impact a large number of sponsors and letters had on a community. They felt loved and honored that strangers would want to help them. And that makes it all worth it.

If you’re interested in sponsoring a child, visit Food for the Hungry’s website.