Meeting our Tanzanian penpals

About six months ago, my kids started writing back and forth with some Massai children in Tanzania. This is a feature of National Geographic’s family expedition to this location, and it was a really neat experience. For a long time, my kids had no idea they would actually meet their new penpals. So when I told them about the trip and that they would get to meet the kids they had been writing, they were really excited.


Karis’s penpal was a sweet girl named Bital. She is 9. IMG_9329

Kembe’s penpal was named Michael. They are the same age but Kembe towered over him (as he does most other 8-year-olds.)


Jafta’s penpal was named Mussa and they are both 10. IMG_9336

India’s penpal was Theresia, also age 8. When we visited the school, Theresia sang a song for us and India was hoping that she was her penpal, since she also loves to sing. These two really hit it off.



We brought each of the kids a small scrapbook of our life at home. It was a nice ice-breaker as the kids shared pictures and stories about life in the U.S.




After meeting and sharing stories, the kids headed out to the field to engage in the international language of children . . . soccer! (Or football, as it’s called in these parts of the world.)


As we were saying goodbye to the kids, India told me that she thought that if she and Theresia lived in the same town, that they would be best friends. And I could totally see it. They really made a connection.


The penpal experience was a lesson in contrasts. The kids really did find that they had a lot in common with each other, and there was a clear kinship between them formed after writing to each other for so many months. At the same time, that evening as a local Massai talked with the adults about many of their customs and practices, I was struck at how different their life trajectories will be. Especially the girls. It is common practice for Massai girls to be subjected to female circumcision upon hitting puberty, and also common that they are married off to an older man in the village when they are between 13 and 15 years old. “All of the girls?” the adults asked, and I know each one of us was thinking of the lovely girls we had met. “It is most likely,” we were told.

Such sweet similarities and yet such different futures for these girls based on where they are growing up. My hope is that this will be a lifelong lesson in empathy and understanding for my kids.

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