The first email came in January 2017 from a 27-year-old Bangladeshi man. Uncomfortable in English, he had managed to tap out five lines on his Samsung Galaxy phone. His opening line got my attention.
“Sir I’m sell my body one kidney.”
He had listed his blood type, A-negative, along with his phone number. The last line was a sad mash-up of words: “from Bangladeshi poor people money problem life.”
This did not arrive totally out of the blue. Some months earlier, I had written an article about a hospital in Mumbai, India, that was busted for arranging illicit kidney transplants. The story was partly a cautionary tale about an unsuspecting young Indian villager who was duped into giving up his organ, then blew the whistle on the doctors.
The emailer didn’t realize — or care — that the kidney racket had been broken up and the suspects arrested. He certainly failed to grasp that I was a journalist reporting the facts of the case, not a potential organ trafficker.
I didn’t respond, filing the message away mentally as just another curious reader email. But five months later an Indian man named Manjunath wrote me with the subject line “How to sell my kidney.”
This time, I wrote back with my phone number, and he messaged me on WhatsApp: “Hi bro.” I asked him why he needed money.
“My sister marriage and some family problem,” he replied.
I explained what I knew, that kidney sales were illegal in India, where in most cases only close relatives of patients needing organs are approved as donors. Realizing I couldn’t help, he stopped messaging me.
Then, last October, I wrote a story from Iran, the only country that operates a legal, government-managed market for kidney sales. The economic turmoil there had produced an eerie phenomenon: Countless people were posting ads on Tehran streets, offering to transact their kidneys outside the official channels.
My colleague Ramin Mostaghim and I didn’t meet anyone who had successfully made a black-market kidney deal. The ads spoke to a profound anxiety in Iran. But after the story was published, I confronted a desperation that was much wider.
My inbox began to fill up with prospective kidney sellers. They came from everywhere: India, mostly, but also Germany, Russia, Croatia, Peru, Kenya, Nigeria — even the United States, from a man with an Ohio number who claimed to be a retired Marine.
I’ve received nearly 50 such emails, so many that I’ve created a filter to route all messages containing the word “kidney” to a separate folder. Last month I got a Facebook message request from Colombia, which was how I learned the Spanish word for kidney is riñon.
Was this some sort of elaborate gaslighting? A plot to entrap me in an organ racket?
It was simpler than that. I Googled “sell my kidney” and saw the two articles I’d written pop up on the first page of results.
The World Health Organization and most medical experts oppose the sale of organs, arguing that it exploits downtrodden people — mainly from poor countries — and contributes to human trafficking and organized crime.
Others, including supporters of the Iranian system, say that paid kidney donation is hardly different from surrogate pregnancy and that creating a commercial market would make more organs available to patients who need them.
Were the people in my inbox desperate? Some certainly seemed to be, their messages written in English that was broken but blunt:
“I want to donate my kidney for money i need money plz help me my blood group is o positive.”
“I am ready to sell kidneys to any one in any country. I have a lot of financial problems and I will pay this money for my son’s life.”
“i need money to help my family for now thing are not going well in my family now sir plz help and say somthing.”
Then there were opportunists, people I could imagine one day writing a story about.
A man from Cameroon emailed about a “business proposal” and said he had three prospective kidney sellers ready to meet me if we split the proceeds from the transactions. The purported ex-Marine with the Ohio phone number wanted $500,000 and a new house.
A more thoughtful email came from a 59-year-old Floridian who said he didn’t see an ethical problem with organ sales.
“If it helps me financially and keeps someone from dying, it is a win-win,” he wrote. “I am quite healthy, do not smoke, rarely drink and would consider traveling to the Mideast, if you know of [someone] willing to compensate me and cover the costs.”
As a foreign correspondent, I was accustomed to seeking out people in difficult circumstances. Now they were seeking me out, showing up in my email at all hours — when I was writing another story, racing to catch a flight, having dinner with my wife at home in Mumbai or trying to rock one of our newborn twins to sleep — and becoming impossible to ignore.
I began writing back by email and text. “Why do you want to sell?” I asked.
Some I texted denied having emailed in the first place. Maybe they had thought better of the idea. Mahar from Iran said he wanted to raise money to flee his country. Souvik from the Indian city of Kolkata had a loan of about $80,000 that he needed to clear. He was not happy to learn that in Iran’s legal market, a kidney seller earned less than $4,000.
I picked up my WhatsApp conversation with Manjunath, one of the first emailers. A year later, had there been any change in his family situation?
“Nthg bro,” he responded. And then silence.
I started to feel guilty — I had no helpful information to offer these people, only a door to shut. Was I raising their hopes even slightly by responding? Wouldn’t it be better to ignore them?
But the emails keep coming.
Vikash from the Indian state of Bihar wrote me in mid-September. His father was ill and he asked me to call. When he picked up, I could barely hear his voice over what he said was a chronically poor cellular connection in his impoverished rural town.
He was 22, he said, and had earned a degree in economics from a local university. As the firstborn son, he had to support the family, which had taken out a loan to pay for his sister’s wedding. But the only job he could get was delivering packages for Amazon, for about $110 a month.
How much did the family owe? I asked.
It was about $1,700.
I tried to imagine that being a sum so overwhelming that you’d consider parting with an organ.
I explained in my patchwork Hindi why selling his kidney wasn’t an option. He insisted he was in good health and texted me a photo, but he finally seemed to get that what he wanted to do wasn’t legal.
Suddenly he switched to English.
“I don’t have anything to sell except my body part,” he said. “Please find a way for me.”
In the moment, I looked for the quickest way to end a conversation I wish I’d never started. I said I would try, and he messaged a few more times. Soon, when he realized I couldn’t help, he stopped writing.
Shashank Bengali is South Asia correspondent for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @SBengali