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Ethiopian 'Sesame Street' teaches life-saving lessons

From Diane McCarthy, CNN
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Revolutionizing education in Ethiopia
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bruktawit Tigabu is the co-creator of children's TV show "Tsehai Loves Learning"
  • Show uses puppets, animation to teach health lessons
  • Program's characters use Amharic, Ethiopia's most widely spoken language
  • For children who don't have access to TV, Tigabu takes the show on the road

Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week we profile Bruktawit Tigabu, co-creator of Ethiopian children's TV show "Tsehai Loves Learning."

(CNN) -- For millions of Ethiopian children, it's the most cherished moment of their day: a wide-eyed, smiling giraffe hops in front of them, crooning funny songs in a language they can understand.

The beloved sock puppet, known as Tsehai, is the star of a ground-breaking TV show that's been revolutionizing childhood education in the east African country.

The brainchild of Ethiopian educator Bruktawit Tigabu and her husband Shane Etzenhouser, "Tsehai Loves Learning" is the only children's TV show in Ethiopia in Amharic, the nation's official and most widely spoken language.

The show uses puppets and animation to teach young Ethiopians about sanitation and hygiene as well as the importance of culture and honesty.

"They don't realize that they've been taught on TV," says Tigabu from her cramped studio in suburban Addis Ababa where awards share space with the paraphernalia of puppetry.

Creating a makeshift film school
Children learning through TV
Gallery: Empowering young Ethiopians

"They're just having fun, they're just watching their favorite show but at the same time they're learning about germs, they are learning about being truthful, they are learning about numbers and knowing their letters and getting ready for school."

As a school teacher, Tigabu noticed early on that many students couldn't travel long distances to get to their classes. Inspired by the success of popular U.S. children's TV series "Sesame Street," she and her husband decided to create a puppet show to promote early childhood education.

In Ethiopia, where diseases such as malaria and diarrhea contribute to high child mortality rates, the show's health lessons can be life-saving.

"If they understand what germs are and how they can keep them off," they can stay healthy, says Tigabu.

"If you do it in a way that's very interesting and interactive for them, then they will do it. So for us the knowledge is key and the media is a tool to communicate those interesting messages."

The show, whose puppets and characters speak the local Amharic language, reaches up to 5 million children. Tigabu says that having the show in Amharic is something she's very proud of as she believes it's important to address children in their mother tongue.

"Having their own language has huge values in terms of believing in their identity and in terms of knowing that their language matters," she says.

Knowledge is key and the media is a tool to communicate those interesting messages.
--Bruktawit Tigabu
RELATED TOPICS
  • Ethiopia
  • Children's Books
  • Malaria

"When you learn with your language, you don't have issues like being inferior or whatever, you believe in yourself and you respect your identity."

For the many children in Ethiopia without access to TV, Tigabu and her team have come up with innovative ways to bring Tsehai and the other characters of the show to them, including books, community screenings and traveling road shows.

"When there is no TV we try to do it through books. When there is no electricity we take the generator sometimes and have like five episodes in a village and they watch it with their parents and everyone and have discussion afterwards," she says.

"So we're trying to reach out as much as possible with our capacity, but we know that TV is not the only option in Ethiopia."

Tigabu's work hasn't gone unnoticed by the international community. The program has won a number of awards, including the "Next Generation Prize" at the Prix Jeunesse International, which honors innovative children's TV programs.

"The awards, next to the children's happiness, is another satisfaction we're getting because it's just recognizing that we are on the right track," says Tigabu.

Tigabu, who has a daughter who is nearly 3 years old, is driven by her deep affection for children.

Her work not only makes vital information about health dangers easy to grasp, but also empowers young Ethiopians, helping them rediscover themselves and their world.

"The key for development in our country is education and focus on our children, so if we have those two going together, we will have a better Ethiopia, better Africa and a better world," she says.

"That's why we want to invest in a young mind, in children with quality education as much as possible and motivate young people to serve humanity with the best knowledge they have and equip them with that knowledge so that they can be empowered to take action in everyday struggles."

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report.

 
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