September 20, 2010 / 3:49 PM / 8 years ago

Corrected: Yams and mosquito nets on Nigeria's Sesame Street

(Corrects statistic in paragraph 12)

Sesame Street characters are seen during the 40th anniversary street naming celebration in New York, November 9, 2009. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Yinka Ibukun

LAGOS (Reuters) - Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch have some new friends.

Meet Zobi, a yam-eating taxi driver, and Kami, a talkative five-year-old living with HIV.

“Sesame Street”, the U.S. show which started 40 years ago on state-run television as an attempt to help underprivileged children learn, hits Nigeria next month with some uniquely West African twists and renamed “Sesame Square”.

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and U.S. President Barack Obama’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Nigerian take on the hit series remains true to its educational roots.

“When we did the pilot, our focus was orphaned and vulnerable children and still is to a certain extent,” said Ayobisi Osuntusa, head of educational outreach for the Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind Sesame Street.

In one episode, children on the set make fun of Zobi, an ageless blue muppet, as he gets wrapped up in a mosquito net. There’s a serious message behind the silliness — a child dies of malaria every 30 seconds in Africa and encouraging kids to sleep under a net is one of the best ways to save lives.

Kami, a talkative yellow ball of fur, is an orphan whose mother died of AIDS. Her stories teach children not only about blood safety, but about acceptance of those living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.

“A lot of the advocacy that is going on is among adults,” said Agatha Nkiruka David, a consultant at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research in Lagos who runs a social club for HIV positive teenagers.

“So I think Sesame Street, targeted at children, will be very effective, especially if children come home and tell their parents that it’s okay to play with HIV positive children.”

Despondency is frequent among children living with HIV in Africa’s most populous nation.

Infected orphans are rarely adopted by family members, despite Nigeria’s traditionally strong family values, and once they reach their pre-teens, even orphanages rarely take them in.

The National Agency for Control of AIDS estimates (2010) that there are about 278,000 HIV positive children in Nigeria.

“A child in the studio was talking to Kami ... ‘I love you Kami,’ she said, and continued to chat. We all stopped and I thought, this is amazing,” said Yemisi Ilo, executive producer of Sesame Square.

Sesame Street, with its puppet-like characters the Muppets, has spread across more than 140 countries over the past four decades — from Rue Sesame in France, to Jalan Sesama in Indonesia and Takalani Sesame in South Africa.

Only around a quarter of households in Nigeria, a country of 150 million people, have televisions, limiting the reach of Sesame Square. But the Sesame Workshop is developing learning materials for more than 90,000 children and is looking into using radios and mobile phones to help spread its message.

“We’ve partnered with local NGOs in some states. They have TVs, generators and DVD players and they go around organizing screenings after school,” said Osuntusa, adding the Workshop was looking for corporate sponsors to expand the program.

Sesame Street taught generations of kids around the world their ABCs and 123s. Now, the makers of Sesame Square hope it can teach Nigerian children even more.

“There were a lot of issues that were subliminally ingrained into us when we used to watch Sesame Street as kids,” said Ilo.

“We were learning, but we didn’t know it at the time.”

Editing by Nick Tattersall and Paul Casciato

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