This article originally appeared in the Hingham Journal HERE
After deciding to take off a “gap year” between high school and college last summer, Gaya Morris, a Hingham resident, recently returned from a stay in a rural village in Senegal as a participant in the Global Citizen Year Founding Fellow program.
What do you think of when you hear the word “Africa”? I’ve been asking kids, elementary to high-school age, over the past few weeks. Having just returned from a seven-month stay in Senegal, West Africa, I’ve been visiting French classrooms in the Boston area, giving presentations on my experience in Senegal.
Their answers usually involve a few iconic images that we generally associate with this triangular presence in our geography books: lions, grasslands, giraffes, men with spears, and maybe a few thatched huts. And then some don’t have any thoughts to share, as if they have never before been asked such a question.
Showing slideshows of photographs and film clips, I struggled to put into words my love for Senegal and for its people: from the crazed, vibrant bustle of Sandaga market in Dakar to cooler evenings sitting on the star-lit stoop outside my host family’s house in the town of Sebikotane, sharing bowls of porridge with the kids; from jokes with passing strangers to the wise Wolof proverbs uttered in my host mother’s bedroom; from lazy afternoons of hair braiding and sweet tea under the shade of the Sapoti tree to the meaningful work I discovered in a school library, sitting down next to little kids on the plastic woven carpet — tracing my finger under lines of text and sounding out the French words in a thickly Senegalese accent, pretending to taste the soup like Goldilocks or knock on the door like the Big Bad Wolf. These are the memories I’ve carried back with me to the United States.
Looking back as a 19-year-old resident of Hingham, getting ready to go to college at Princeton University back in the state where I grew up, New Jersey, I’ve always been eager for travel. When the opportunity to take a trip to the developing world under a program called Global Citizen Year popped up on my computer screen last summer, I immediately leapt for it.
I had already decided to defer my college admission for a “gap year” to do something a little different, and this was a chance to try out a type of work I had always dreamed of doing, before I went off to study about it. I wanted to know what it would be like to fully immerse myself in a foreign language and culture, and, to quote my pre-Senegal self, “learn how to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others.”
That felt like quite a lofty statement back in August when I wrote it down in my journal, but I am pleased and proud to say that, in light of my past seven months in Senegal, it makes perfect sense. For we Americans have all sorts of assumptions about what the “less fortunate” in the world need from us, and I would argue that it is only by living amongst these so-called less-fortunate people, experiencing the intricacies of their lives, that we can even begin to determine what our contribution could, should, or shouldn’t be.
As a volunteer in a public elementary school in Senegal, I was at once stricken by the lack I observed as well as inspired to see better education as a solution to so many other problems in Sebikotane, in Senegal, and in the world. More specifically, I observed first-hand the difficulties hindering literacy acquisition amongst Senegalese children. Bare-bones classrooms are packed full of up to 70 students, taught by just one teacher.
Very rarely do children attend preschool before their first day in the first grade and so it can take a teacher almost two months to simply make sure that every child can hold a pencil. And then, try learning how to read and write in a language you don’t understand. For Senegalese students who grow up speaking Wolof, this language is French. All of this means that it is simply too easy for the average student to fall behind and drop out of school before ever learning how to read and write.
Through my work in the school library I was able to explore one potential solution to this problem, which for me came in the form of children’s literature. After dusting and reorganizing the books that clearly hadn’t been touched in years, I eventually managed to bring small groups of students into the library.
I designed activities involving card games, skits, singing, drawing, and of course, reading not only to improve the students’ reading capabilities, but also to interest them in the books, which they had so rarely encountered in their childhood. It was very rewarding at the end of my six months to take note of even the smallest improvements among my students, or at very least, the pride with which they would announce they could read.
Now back in the United States I am working on a project engaging American youth in sending books and letters to correspondents in Sebikotane as a way to continue to contribute to my host community. And I know I will take this inspiration that I found in that dusty single-room library in Sebikotane with me into college, and the work I hope to do beyond.
So how does this very distant place and these very distant people become relevant to us where we sit now, sipping a morning cup of coffee in front of our computer screens perhaps, or glancing at the paper while inching through rush-hour traffic? The only answer I can give is that it most certainly doesn’t have to be relevant, but what if it were? An individual can gain so much for himself or herself and for others by reaching out into an unknown part of the world to learn.
I would without a doubt recommend this sort of experience to other Americans, especially students my age who are in midst of defining themselves and their paths. A gap year may not be the easiest choice to make after graduating from high school, but it is worth every ounce of initial doubt, and it sends one into college with a freshened perspective, a greater sense of self, and motivation.
I visit schools and tell my story not so much to say, “Hey, look what I did,” but more to say: “Look what you can do, too! The shrinking, flattening, globalization (or whatever you want to call it) of the world comes with so many worries about complications, interferences and change, but rarely do we talk about the possibilities and the opportunities for mutual progress.
To learn more about my experience or the organization Global Citizen Year, visit: