Friday, March 1, 2019

Word of the Year 2019: Action: Penpal

The mail goes on. Roots n Blues in Columbia, Missouri. September 2007.

Many years ago, while attending university, I met an Ethiopian post-graduate student named Taye Woldesemayat. He was a TA and a student in the school's political science department, which is where I did my work-study job.

Taye made a big impact on me by way of a story he told while we shared a pizza one day:
In Ethiopia, as land was handed down to sons by their fathers, their descendants - subsistence farmers - owned smaller and smaller pieces of land as it was divvied up with their brothers. The plots of land were becoming too small to support cattle, the traditional livestock of choice. Some smart people, perhaps with USAID, had a great idea: Encourage the subsistence farmers to switch from cows to goats. The goats provide meat and milk like cows, but take up less space and consume fewer resources.

Upon hearing this, I said, "
Hey, that is a great idea. Creative!"

And Taye said, "
No, it's forcing the farmers to do all the changing. The oligarchy doesn't have to change anything. They keep their wealth and vast properties. What needs to happen is land reform."
Years after we both left the university, I learned that Taye had been imprisoned by the Ethiopian government. The government accused and convicted Taye of treason, which was just one of the usual covers that governments use to quash contrary citizens.

I began to write Taye monthly letters. My goals were to:
  • Offer a friendly voice to someone in an unfriendly situation;
  • Let Taye know that another person on the outside was thinking of him; and
  • Put the jailers on notice that Taye had another ally on the outside. 

Penpals for people imprisoned in US detention centers
(including actual prisons with actual convicted felons, which immigrant detainees are not)

There are a number of organizations that sponsor letter-writing to detainees. The group that sponsored my penpal training yesterday is AVID in the Chihuahuan Desert. AVID is an affiliate of Freedom for Immigrants.

A primary goal of correspondence with detainees is to offset the isolation they feel due to the forced separation from their loved ones, their homes, jobs, communities, and from the routine of their lives outside the detention camps.

I can be a penpal regardless where I live, so this will be an ideal action for me to participate in.

In fact, before I left the training, AVID gave me a list of detained folks who'd expressed the desire for correspondents. I selected an individual who speaks English. He is from East Africa.

A small act for the cost of a little time, a stamp, some paper and printer's ink. But an act, nevertheless, and one which might shine a little light on both the sender and the recipient.

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