For most young college graduates, the idea of cutting off your hair and living in a mud hut might not be very appealing. But that is exactly what Whitney Jenkins, of Callaway, wanted.
Whitney became a Peace Corps volunteer in 2011, and in August that year left for Senegal. A 2007 graduate of Callaway High School, Whitney is the daughter of Jim and Julianna Jenkins of Callaway. She credits her small-town roots and upraising on a cattle ranch for getting her where she is today.
Whitney currently lives and works in the small remote village of Sinchurio Samba Foula, in southern Senegal, Africa. She affectionately refers to the village as her second home, and has developed a deep bond with her host family and the people of the village.
Whitney’s “job” with the Peace Corps is agri-forestry extension agent, which means she works with local farmers to create and establish orchards that will help feed the people for many years to come. She and the farmers are preparing entire cashew and mango orchards for when the seedlings are strong enough to plant. Whitney has poured a lot of sweat and tears into the nurseries, and while she receives a deep sense of satisfaction from her hard work with the trees, it is another project that has tugged at her heart.
“Some of my fondest first memories are of me choosing a book, or two, or three (depending on the mood of my parents) and having them read those to me before bed”, Whitney recalls. “I would jump beneath the covers, throw the pile of books on my mom or dad’s lap and sit rapt, waiting for the story to begin. I took it so much for granted, those shelves of hundreds of children’s books that I could choose from and even the mere fact that my parents could read them to me in the first place. And because my parents could read them to me, I started reciting them by memory and believed that I could read too.”
Whitney says it was those early moments that fostered her love of reading, and eventually led to her love of discovering the world - a love that brought her to Senegal. However, not all children have had the opportunity to experience bedtime stories, or even have a book read to them, as Whitney soon learned.
“My mom (real American mother) had the brilliant idea to send me one of my own beloved children’s books in the mail to show to the children in my village. It was the age old fable of The Hare and the Tortoise and their epic race. At first I looked at it and immediately thought, ‘They are not going to understand this.’
“And then I started thinking. I reminded myself that I had now been here a year and my Pulaar wasn’t half bad. Maybe I could try and translate it. Would they pay attention? I read through the book, translating in my head the story into Pulaar. I admired the beautiful illustrations and the shiny pages. I breathed in the smell of books and bedtime stories that reminded me of my home and my childhood.”
Whitney was excited to share her story, uncertain of what kind of reaction to expect from the children.
“When my younger (host family) siblings came into my room that day I told them to come sit by me on the bed. I brought out the book. “Ko hondun nii?” they asked excitedly, running their hands up and down the cover. “What is it?”
“I started reading the story of Saari e Kekulu, otherwise known as the Hare and the Tortoise. As I turned page by page, I couldn’t believe how enraptured they’d become. Boye, who is 9, stared at the illustrations as if he wanted to eat them and Kumba, who is 3, pointed excitedly at each animal and wanted to know more about each drawing. “Quiet!” Boye reprimanded her sharply, “Let Mariama tell the story.” Once I was done reading the story, I thought Boye’s grin was going to stretch right off of his face. “Will you read it again?”
“Again?” I said.
“Yes, again!” squealed Kumba.” And so it was that I began reading them the story of the Hare and the Tortoise at least five times a day. Now Boye can tell it by memory and he tells it to me or his mother, who also loves the story.”
Whitney says that while she has been deeply moved by the children’s adoration of the book, it is her host mom, Mari, who has really made her appreciate the ability to read.
“Page by page, she slowly went through the book, staring at the pictures and running her finger along the English words at the bottom,” Whitney describes. “You do tali tali in America, Mariama?” she asked me in awe. Apparently she didn’t think that we Americans like to hear stories too. “Yes, but ours are often different because we read ours out of books like this one,” I told her, pointing at the book she still had clutched in her hands.
“Here Mom, let me read it to you,” offered Boye. I watched with amazement as he remembered the story almost word for word, turning the page at the right time so that she could follow along. The Hare and Tortoise story book has been a big hit in my compound. From the chief to the ever-incoming visitors, everyone is always fascinated by the book.”
“Every night the children run into my room, jump on my bed, and demand… “Tali Tali, Tali Tali!” “Story Story, tell us a story!” So the three of us lay there by candlelight under the stars, and I read them the story of the Hare and Tortoise. When we finish and they roll around my bed laughing and demanding that I read it again, I can’t help but think how similar children are all over the world. And then I read it to them again… because I’m a sucker.”
Because of the popularity of the Hare and Tortoise book in the village, Whitney has decided to ask for help from back home in developing a library in the village. You can help by donating story books that you think might be easy for Whitney to translate or particularly fascinating for children in Senegal.
“Remember that if you send stuff with lots of buildings or technical equipment, they are not going to understand anything. The Hare and The Tortoise was perfect because they know those animals and could understand the fable”, says Whitney.
If you would like to donate a story book to the “Tali Tali Time” project, you may drop them off at: Sennett, Duncan & Jenkins law office, 425 So. 7th Ave., or the Custer County Chief office, 305 So. 10th Ave., in Broken Bow. The books will then be forwarded to Africa, where the children of Sinchurio Samba Foula will enjoy them for many years to come.
“I really appreciate your help and the kids do too!”
- Whitney Jenkins