TV saves lives of underserved children

Diverse programs educate millions of needy kids

In a small, top-floor production studio in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the patter of rain on the metal roof means an unwelcome break in production for the children’s show, “Tsehai Loves Learning.”

“We can’t record our audio, the rain is too loud,” says Shane Etzenhouser, who with wife Brukty Tigabu created the show in their living room in 2004. Now they and a three-person staff produce the Prix Jeunesse- and Japan Prize-winning program. It features a hand-puppet giraffe girl, Tsehai, and her friends, and is the world’s only educational program for preschoolers in Ethiopia’s official language, Amharic.

But the producers’ challenges pale compared with the obstacles faced by their young viewers. All over the world, television is reaching out to millions of underserved children, who like those in Ethiopia have no public preschool and also have low literacy rates. Using puppetry, animation, scripted drama and kids’ news, television is tackling not only literacy but issues like health, gender inequality and conflict resolution.

And it’s changing lives. In Ethiopia, “Tsehai” reaches 5 million kids who otherwise wouldn’t get anything close to preschool.

At the other end of the continent, in South Africa, a more pressing problem than low literacy is HIV/AIDS. According to UNICEF, an estimated 240,000 South African children ages 14 and under are HIV-positive, and the disease is the leading cause of death in children under 5. To educate kids about the epidemic, “Takalani Sesame,” the country’s locally produced version of “Sesame Street,” features a groundbreaking girl puppet, Kami, who is HIV-positive and asymptomatic.

“The sensitivity towards kids with HIV and AIDS was significantly higher in kids exposed to Takalani,” says Sesame Workshop CEO Gary Knell, referring to surveys done since Kami (the name is derived from the Setswana word “kamogelo,” meaning “acceptance”) was introduced in 2002.

“Kami has helped destigmatize the disease and give people a lexicon for talking about it,” says Charlotte Cole, vice president of education and research for Sesame Workshop.

Getting kids and parents talking is one goal of another South African program, “Soul Buddyz,” a popular scripted drama for 8- to 12-year-olds about a group of young friends. Upcoming storylines focus on two issues: HIV and alcohol abuse.

“We take (HIV) from different perspectives: gender issues, stigma, prevention, how children can help each other with treatment,” says Sue Goldstein, senior executive of South African programs for Soul City health and development. “Our idea is children watch with parents or caregivers. Parents say they have learned a huge amount.”

Empowering children is part of the philosophy at Kids News Network, a project of Free Voice, a Netherlands NGO. Produced locally in eight countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa by professional journalists, it mixes hard and soft news for youths 8 to 14.

“A lot of news items are from children who call or email the program,” KNN program manager Ole Chavannes says. “After a child emailed about an abusive teacher, a crew investigated and did a segment on classroom violence. Another recent segment featured Peruvian girls who started their own soccer team.”

Positive role models are crucial for both girls and boys. In Egypt, with a 60% female literacy rate, Sesame Workshop’s “Alam Simsim” features Khokha, a book-loving girl puppet. The Workshop’s Palestinian program shows boys live-action footage of men working as doctors and teachers, so they can have something to aspire to.

“If you’re working on conflict resolution, between Palestinians and Israelis, let’s say, you can’t really like your neighbor unless you like yourself first,” Knell says.

It isn’t always easy to get the message out. In Myanmar, with limited press freedom, KNN footage is smuggled into neighboring Thailand, edited and broadcast via satellite. In Bangladesh, where few have TVs, Sesame Workshop attaches monitors to rickshaws that are driven to villages for community screenings.

Producers keep working through the challenges. “Tsehai” is trying to fund episodes that show children how to make a simple rehydration formula that can stop diarrhea and save lives.

Sesame Workshop aims to become more active in the Gulf. “Soul Buddyz” starts a new season in 2010, and KNN’s next stop is Mozambique.

“You address heavy subjects,” Chavannes says, “but you never portray children as victims, always as victors. You always give them hope.”

What: Mip Junior
When: Oct. 3-4
Where: Cannes
Who: Keynote speaker is Al-Jazeera Children’s Channel exec g.m. Mahmoud Bouneb

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