Why a gap year?

Michaela Kobsa-Mark


February 2, 2011

Note: I was going to talk about how today I brutally scaled, beheaded, and disemboweled a fish, as part of today’s Cebu Djin preparation; however, I felt that as I have not done an adequate job in posting up blogs, I owed GCY fellows, parents, and supporters an explanation of where exactly I have been these past three months.

Taking a gap year was a spontaneous decision to feel alive, an existential decision that would prevent me forever from living an “average American” life, a challenge to see if I could tolerate such a drastic change in lifestyle, and an opportunity to explore the world I have only had vacation-long tastes of.

My gap year so far has been a test of strength, a seismograph of highs and lows.  I spent a month working in a local hospital where I was soon given the responsibilities of a secretary-nurse.  I stood by a boy receiving surgery without anesthesia. I realized my powerlessness when I watched a premature baby die. I have seen countless children filing in from the crowded waiting room and leaving the doctor’s office with arbitrary prescriptions to treat strep throat, malaria, parasites, or bronchitis.

Afternoons I work with a local women’s organization, Dynamique Femme. So far I have spent the bulk of my time designing labels for their products and posters to help publicize their boutique to the tourists that stay in nearby hotels. (I am also working on setting up a rudimentary catalogue system, so watch out for that!) interested) I have taught the women here how to make paper and cloth beads from materials that would ordinarily be thrown to the dump.  The women in turn have taught me how to make a variety of goods: skin cream, tie-died tablecloths; hibiscus, lemon, and ginger juice; and mango and papaya jams. Of course it all sounds better on paper. In reality, we spend the majority of our time waiting for tourists to walk into the boutique (which is a lot to hope for, as the boutique is located in the back of a center. What makes it even worse is that there is a male-owned boutique that sells rival goods in front of the center).

In the future, I hope to work with the Peace Corps on a website they are creating to promote the work of artisans all over Senegal, Dynamiqe Femme included. I plan to take pictures of the products and videos of the artists working to add to the website. This will give me the opportunity to work on a project that will help bring local Senegalese art overseas and it will also let me learn more about and explore different art mediums.

I have much free time here, which I take full advantage of.  I help my host-grandmother sell her Senegalese treats. I have set up a banking system for her. I once fabricated a convector oven to dry bananas (Justin, the other fellow in Joal, was the only one who would eat them). Occasionally I help collect clams, which is one of the most pleasant activities here. I have begun sketching and oil painting, and I am going to try out sand painting. I am studying science from an anatomy and biology book, and I am doing a sort of theological study by reading books on religion and learning about how religion and societies influence each other. I am learning Wolof, and I read and write incessantly.

At times I long for things beyond my control: An end to the calls of “White Person!”, a high tax on rice, couscous, sugar, and oil- the omnipresent ingredients that are causing my adipose cells to balloon, a big book to explain life, death to mosquitoes, parasite-free tap water, no more harassment from men, a way to bring that baby back to life. At times I want to retreat to my room and sleep until I forget the things I have seen. But sometimes plunging recklessly into the culture is the antidote to the occasional low.  Today I took a walk on the Island of Fadiouth, learned how to turn shark vertebras into beads and searched for clams in the ocean. A few days ago, I participated in a cross-dressing festival; I went door-to-door with a group of people and we danced for couscous and small change.

Living in Senegal has given me an entirely new perspective on what it means to live. Here I do not feel the need to constantly be productive, nor do I feel that I am obligated to live to help others.  It was surprisingly easy adjusting to the lack of amenities here. What has been the most difficult, in terms of lifestyle, is the lack of understanding caused by the difference in the European-American society I was raised in and the Senegalese society I find myself in now. However, as my Wolof improves, and my communication with Senegalese family and friends increases, we learn about each other’s cultures and question our own. From occasionally skyping with friends and speaking with my family, I realize that I have been changing. I have become more pensive, critical, and open-minded, all of which will enable me to live an autonomous life.

Michaela Kobsa-Mark