Tuesday, 25 July 2017

What I Learned On My Gap Year

1. The world is bigger than you realise

Now obviously I'm going to talk about Kenya here, but first, let's slip back to those far-off autumn days when I worked in a lowly shop. Last September and October, I was a shop assistant in a cheap little shop in Glasgow selling tacky jewellery, sparkly shoes and other low-grade paraphernalia. It showed me a side of the city I'd never seen before. If you have the opportunity to work in a shop, take it! Because meeting the general public each day, with their needs and their desires, is a wonderful way to learn about people.

Also I went to Kenya.

The clouds are different there. More tousled. The skies are huge, because so much of the land is so flat. Once in Tuum, Samburu (Kenya's the rural north), I stood upon a mountain and thought about the size of the view. Here in Britain, the horizon is always so much closer; my eye is brought to a stop by a mountain range, or mist, or the sea. But looking out over Samburu, the land rolled on for hundreds of miles. I have never seen the world like this before. It is vast and beautiful, and it made me realise how great and mighty God is, because He made it all.

2. A woman does not need money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction // you are capable of a lot

It was Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One's Own, who said that's what a writer needs. But in Kenya, sharing a tiny room of four, I wrote a novel. That's one of the things Kenya taught me: to make the best of any situation. Sometimes, what once seemed impossible becomes normal. You are capable of far more than you realise.

Really. I lived without electricity and running water for a month. At one point near the end of my trip, I slept in a goathouse for four nights. That is the weirdest place I have ever slept! When I got there, the man who owned it said, “you will sleep here. Sweep it, but don't sweep the yellow powder in the corner, it's toxic. Oh, and walk around to kill the goatworms." Yellow toxic powder? Goatworms?? But by that point, I was up for anything! And, by the light of a dodgy solar-powered lamp, I swept happily away. (Avoiding the toxic powder, of course.)

3. Books really are friends everywhere

When I slept in that goathouse, I was working on a farm in a village called Waso Rongai. I'd get up at 6:30am and hoe fields, and during the hot part of the day, I'd return to my raw mattressed goathouse bunk bed and read Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I remember, back in my long-ago no-thought-of-Kenya life, looking at Uprooted in Waterstones and thinking how I'd like to read it. Little did I know then that I'd plunge into Novik's fairytale world of trees and magic in between watering and planting kale in the wild north of Kenya! I loved that book. Similarly, I sat in the shimmering, solitary heat of the village of Keleswa, where I met tribespeople and had saw a life I had never imagined, and read The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan. Percy Jackson won't desert you, friends. Books are timeless.

Peter, me and Gerald in Keleswa. Not sure what I'm writing, but I can see my copy of The Idiot against the wall! (Cream/dun cover with a red border and a black circle in the middle. See it?) That was the book I finished before diving into The Son of Neptune.
4. Don't get dreads in Africa if you're white // your appearance is not the be-all and end-all

So a sad thing has happened to me. I no longer have dreadlocks.

Basically, Caucasian hair needs to be crocheted into dreadlocks, whereas African hair can just be backcombed, waxed and twisted. Because I got mine done in a salon in Nairobi, they did it the African way. But as the weeks and months went by, it became more and more apparent that the dreads were just unravelling. Also they were gross (full of sand from a recent beach trip, for example) and I was too scared to wash them.

So yesterday I washed/combed them all out!

MY HEART IS BROKEN I'm trying to take the philosophical view.

Which is that it's fun to do fun things with your hair when you're a teenager! It's good to experiment, and I'm still glad I got dreads in Kenya, for the story. Now I just have to live the short hair life for a bit until it thickens out again (I lost a lot of my hair yesterday in the combing process. I mean, a lot. My bathroom bin looks like it has a puppy in it), and then I shall merrily dread again! Properly, this time.

OK but you know the really important thing to learn? Your hair is not that important. It doesn't define who you are. Take risks with your appearance and have fun, because ultimately, it's what's inside that counts.

5. God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good

That's a saying in Kenya. One person says, “God is good!" and the crowd replies, “all the time!" “All the time!" cries the leader, “God is good!" choruses the crowd.

Really. I have learned so much about God's sovereignty. The two weeks we spent running kids' camps in Samburu were some of the hardest two weeks of my life, and I remember looking at the clock during sessions and literally just praying, “Lord, please get me from now until lunchtime." And He did! Every time! The more I live my life, the more I can praise God for being with me every step of the way.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
(Psalm 139:16)

Isn't that verse amazing? God has planned it all. Yesterday, today and forever.

6. It's OK not to swim in the mainstream

I used to think that taking a gap year was a horrific perversion of the True Course of Life. “But I want to go to uni!" I said. “Not put my life on hold for a year!" Here's what I've learnt: you do not have to sit on a conveyor belt like a bit of sheep intestine being turned into a sausage. You do not have to do what everyone else is doing. Sometimes the unexpected path is the most fruitful.

7. Don't take education for granted

Having a Proper Adult Job like a Proper Adult is exciting. Getting paid is exciting. But sometimes I used to stack shelves in my shop jobs, or wash plates in my Kenya school job, and think, “remember when I used to go and paint and learn about books every day?" When I was at school, I think I took my education for granted. And I cannot wait to start uni, to be back in the world of academia! I want books.

Sunset in Keleswa
8. Don't settle

Why did I take a gap year?

In 2015, when I was still at school, I applied to read English at Oxford. I got rejected.

Before the rejection, I was quite philosophical. Here's what I said on this very blog, December 23rd, 2015:
 I'll find out next month if I have a place or not. A lot of people have said things to me like “It must have ruined you for anywhere else", or, “you'll be so disappointed if you don't get in." I loved it so much that it must be easy to imagine crushing disappointment. But the truth is I won't be heartbroken, not in the slightest. Before I'd even sent my application I knew very, very well that the chances of my being accepted are extremely small. This doesn't upset me, because I think it's very foolish to stake all your hope on something you might not get. If I don't get in I'll still have my family, a country at peace, my novel, books, Jesus. It's called perspective.
At that time, I really did think I'd go to uni in 2016 regardless! But when the rejection came ... I mean, in one way, my past self was right. I wasn't heartbroken. But I did have a strong feeling: this isn't over. So I took a year out, I reapplied, I worked, I went to Kenya. And guess what?

I'm going to study in Oxford in October.

Oxford - Bridge of Sighs Less than an hour and a half, makes a great day out
[source] // The Bridge of Sighs
The other day I was in Waterstones in St Andrews and, on the table beside which I sat, there were some lovely red hardback editions of a book called Lyra's Oxford by Philip Pullman. I've never read any Pullman, but I picked it up and read the epigram, which quoted from Baedeker (a historic travel guide):

“Oxford, where windows open into other worlds ..."

It was a moment of serendipity, a breath of the future with its beautiful cobbled streets.

So don't settle, because if you pursue what you want, you might just get it. (A side note: if I hadn't got into Oxford, I'd still be mightily glad to have done this gap year. It was not a means to an end. Getting into Oxford is just an extra gift God has given me. Isn't He amazing?)


What have you learned in the past year?

Cow/unicorn, I love it.


  1. I wish gap years were a thing in the US...


    1. Are they not?!! What up, America, sort it out!

  2. Congrats on Oxford! It should be a bonaventure. That perspective could prove very important going into a university setting. Keep hold of it, s'il te plait. In the last year (or maybe fourteen months) I've learned a lot about how the world works, how perspectives can be limited, and how distant we can become with each other. I've learned how big the world is, how small the world is, and how history is more complex than a simple line with years and centuries sectioned off of it. I've learned more about my identity as a man and as a man of God. But I still have a whole lot more to learn. Cheers!

    1. Thanks, Patrick! I can't wait. Thank you for sharing your lessons! “History is more complex than a simple line with years and centuries sectioned off." Very true!

  3. Ah, so you've learned the African "God is good," phrase xD

    Cpngratulations for getting into Oxford! Whoa, OXFORD! o.O So many brainy bloggers around me...

    1. GOD IS GOOD ALL THE TIME AND ALL THE TIME GOD IS GOOD AND THAT'S HIS NATURE WOW AMEN! That's what we chanted A LOT on camp in Samburu ... XD

      Thank you!!! :D

  4. Congrats on Oxford! That is amazing, I'd say your gap year was worth it. What an adventure sleeping in a goat house, I can't imagine.

    1. Thank you Skye! 9000% worth it. I loved that goathouse ...

  5. TOUSLED CLOUDS! Yes! Really, really miss Texas skies.

    I'm sorry about your dreads. But I agree. It's just hair. I remember being super nervous the first time I got my hair cut short because I was donating it, and then I was, like, "What the heck! It'll grow back and when did I start caring about my appearance? I wear jeans, old T-shirt, and an bed head to church."

    #5 made me smile so much. I had know idea they say that in Kenya! They say that in the US too. I've not noticed it so much in the churches I've attended in Florida, but people always say it in Texas. Particularly the church I attended. It was a very regularly thing.

    The part about the sheep intestine being turned into sausage made me laugh so loud and hard (I'm also sitting on the carpet, so I *might've* been rolling around the floor laughing). It painted a very amusing picture in my head of a person sitting on this giant convey belt with one leg crossed over the other and their arms crossed over their chest as the convey belt took them and they waited impatiently to be turned into a sausage. It also made me think of when you and I were talking about something and had mentioned sausage or made some metaphor with it, and even though that made me laugh, I don't remember what exactly we were talking about. . . XD

    1. I want to see these fabled Texan skies, after all your descriptions!

      Ooh, when did you get short hair? Like, how short? (I'm trying to visualise your hair, I feel it is about shoulder length? Obviously wasn't paying #1 attention to it, which just goes to illustrate what we're saying!)

      I had no idea they said it anywhere other than in Kenya! Hahaha. I loved it. In Samburu it was extended to: “GOD IS GOOD!" “ALL THE TIME!" “AND ALL THE TIME!" "GOD IS GOOD AND THAT'S HIS NATURE WOW AMEN!" My Kenya friends and I always say it to each other XD

      I'm so glad! I have the image of you literally ROFL-ing in my head XD (And your mental conveyor belt picture is amazing ...) I vaguely remember this sausage related chat? Sorta? But I can't for the life of me remember what it was about! XD

    2. Might be planning a TX vlog. But I make no promises. . .

      It's around my shoulders. But the first time I had it cut, it was short enough to be off my shoulders. (Precisely!)

      That's awesome!

    3. Yass! Plz!

      I think mine is growing. Roll on the new dreads!

  6. Wow you had some amazing experiences! Congratulations!


  7. It's amazing how MUCH one can learn in a year! I loved your list! I do a similar journal entry every year around my birthday, and I'm shocked at how far I come some years.

    Anyway, props to you for roughing it so thoroughly in Kenya! I very much like the idea of being tough enough to go without modern conveniences, but I don't even like camping in a tent... XD

    And your description of such distant horizons in Kenya made me think of the Canadian prairies!

    Too bad about the dreads, though! But you're right, it's just hair. :)

    Am looking forward to catching up on all your posts!

    1. I know! That's so fun about your journal entry. It must be so great to read back over. I write myself a letter at each New Year (at least, I have done the past two years). Reading my letter from New Year 2016 at the start of this year was amazing! How times change. Wow.

      Haha, you get used to stuff really quickly when you have to! Once our water was out for a week. You just deal. Like when I had to sleep in a goathouse with toxic dust and worms. (Think I may have shared this story with you but I can't remember?) The goathouse came in late April, a while into our Samburu trip, and by that point I was up for anything! XD

      AAahh, take me to Canada! (I guess it is a frigging huge country. Unlike Scotland. Haha.)

      It's just hair! XD



Thanks for commenting! :)