“Dear Ndugu…”

In 2003, Jack Nicholson was nominated for an Academy Award for his title role in About Schmidt, a movie about Warren Schmidt, the haggard Nebraska retiree struggling to make sense of life after the sudden death of his wife. In the midst of adjusting to his new reality, Schmidt sees a television commercial asking for sponsors for poor African children who need healthcare, food and education. Schmidt sends off for a packet and his child is assigned to him: Ndugu Umbo from Tanzania. Throughout the movie, Schmidt writes Ndugu a series of rambling letters about the state of his life, his past, and what it all really means anyway.

At the end, after Schmidt’s pitiful attempts to reconnect with his daughter and his painful excursions to landmarks from a more promising time, Schmidt receives a letter from a nun at Ndugu’s orphanage. She tells him that although Ndugu is illiterate and cannot understand any of what Schmidt had written, he was very grateful for the financial support and for the letters. Schmidt breaks into tears. His life had meant something after all to at least one person — even if that person didn’t fully comprehend the nuances of his angst.

Gordon and I have also sponsored children through the years with Compassion International, but I must confess I have had the opposite experience. I write my kids letters, but in the way you would if you were writing to a fictional character in a book— self-consciously, stilted, belabored. When you have never met this eight-year-old African girl and you probably cannot even pronounce what she ate for breakfast, you start asking yourself Do I say we went to the beach for vacation? What if she doesn’t know what a beach is? Or a vacation? I suffer from many compulsions, but bearing my soul in a sponsor letter is not one of them.

Occasionally I get letters back. But I never feel like weeping from validation. Mostly, I’m confused. I’m like Ndubu on the receiving end, trying to make sense of the writer’s world — what is making this child tick, or afraid, or what does she mean when she writes “Shikamoo!” at the beginning of all her letters. (The translators never tackle that one. It must mean “Greetings!”)

Take this letter from Yeison. He is 11 and lives in the Dominican Republic. This is the child who drew me a picture of a woman with large breasts a while back, you might remember. His letter starts out normal enough:

Dear Julie Rhodes,

Hello. I’m glad to write you. How are you? I hope you are well. My family and I are doing well thanks God. I got summer break from school and I hope to enjoy it to the maximum. I’m attending the church on Sundays to hear the word of God.

This is all well and good, especially the part about enjoying summer to the maximum, but then he launches into what can only be described as test-preparation-turned-sponsor-letter:

The biggest animal from my community is the horse; the biggest insect is the mantis religious. The biggest plant is the small limes one.

Pious insects, community horses, lime plants that tower over every other form of greenery? Check. (Doesn’t this make you curious about the Dominican Republic?) Yeison continues with a bit of theology:

God created the sea which is very big. The things that smell the best are the meals when people are cooking them. The thing that smells the worst is the garbage.

I tried to understand the connection between the Genesis account and the juxtaposition of good vs. bad smells, but then I figured superlative comparison is a skill they must teach kids his age: biggest, smallest, best, worst. The very big sea reminded him of other things that are very much something else.

His comparative skills unquestionably proven, Yeison goes into some personal recollections:

I had a funny Christmas and I ate roasted turkey, bread, Russian salad, hamburger, soda and so much juice and many candies. In Christmas I like to share with my family where we meet to have dinner.

At this point my mind is a spinning dreidel. Imagining a table displaying hamburger meat, Russian salad and many candies makes me dizzy. What is a Russian salad anyway? Vodka vinaigrette? Beets? A funny Christmas, indeed.

Then he gets personal and I’m drawn in:

Thanks you for the letter you sent me. How do you celebrate the Mother’s Day? I ask you to pray for my mom so God protects her from diseases. Goodbye.

– Yeison

A few things to observe here. In my quest to say something interesting and maybe even educational, I must have brought up Mother’s Day in a previous letter where I apparently wasn’t very descriptive. And while they don’t seem to celebrate “the Mother’s Day” in the Dominican Republic, the mention of it brought Yeison’s own mother to mind.

She is, by all accounts, an alcoholic. That’s about all I know, but she also seems to be frequently sick. Of all his family members, Yeison’s mother is the only one he ever asks me to pray for and it’s usually at the end of his letter like a standard late-show sign-off. “Thanks for tuning in, folks, and don’t forget: pray for my mom.”

Yeison’s concern for her makes it through the translation barrier, if nothing else does. It has always been the one constant in our correspondence. If I’m making a difference at all to Yeison beyond the financial support, perhaps the biggest way is just by being that disembodied person kids imagine will pick up their bottle with the folded message inside somewhere on a distant shore. I’m a faraway, fictional kind of adult — like his future self, maybe — who is proof enough that more exists outside the world he knows.
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