Nigerian Sesame Street Subs Yams for Cookies

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A project called Sesame Workshop, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and run by the people behind Sesame Street, is teaming up with Nigerian TV producers, actors, and government officials to produce three seasons of a Sesame Street specifically designed for Nigerian children. The Associated Press' Jon Gambrell reports that the show will be the 140th such international Sesame Street program done by the Sesame Workshop, but the first in any West African nation.

What makes Nigerian Sesame Street, which is being titled Sesame Square, different from the original? For one thing, they've replaced the cookie monster with yam monster, who advocates something a bit healthier and more accessible for young Nigerians kids. And malaria and AIDS come up frequently as part of the national effort to educate citizens on what does--and doesn't--cause the two dreaded diseases.

"What is so exciting about yams? Everything!" Zobi, a taxi-driving muppet, shouts in a Nigerian lilt to anyone who will listen. "I can fry the yam. I can toast it. I can boil it. I love yams!" ...

Produced and voiced by Nigerians in formal -- if squeaky -- English, the show aims to educate a country nearly half of whose 150 million people are 14 or younger. Its issues focus on the same challenges faced by children in a country where many have to work instead of going to school: AIDS, malaria nets, gender equality -- and yams, a staple of Nigerian meals.

Executive producer Yemisi Ilo, citing Nigeria's disparate and often violently clashing religious and ethnic groups, said the show can bring kids together. "Children are children. All children love songs and all children love furry, muppety animal-type things." That universality will be crucial in the show's attempt to bridge two of Nigeria's most problematic divides: Christian and Muslim, men and women. Gambrell describes one such scene: "One live-action scene shows hijab-wearing girls in the Muslim-majority north kicking a soccer ball and proudly saying they can do anything a boy can do."

But one of the biggest challenges facing the Nigerian project may not be gender inequality or even the plight of AIDS. Simply reaching viewers is a tremendous task in a country with vast oil resources but scant national infrastructure.

"Sesame Square" still faces the challenge of winning a mass audience in a country where most people earn under a dollar a day. TV sets and DVD players aren't enough; organizers bring generators to power them, in an oil-rich country whose national power grid is in shambles.

Still, for children gathered on the worn floors of community centers and rundown schools, "Sesame Square" offers a glimpse of something beyond crushing poverty.

"We had comments from children asking if these muppets are from heaven," said Ayobisi Osuntusa, who oversees outreach for the program.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.