With yams, mosquito nets: Nigeria adapts Sesame Street

A yam-loving muppet and another who's HIV positive romp about a set filled with an old drum of oil, a raffia basket and a heap of ubiquitous hot red peppers.

Welcome to Sesame Street, Nigerian style.

The local adaptation of the legendary children's educational television series hits Nigerian screens at the weekend with the same vocation as its award-winning American model: give pre-schoolers a head start in learning their letters and numbers - and lots of fun while doing so.

But Sesame Square, as the show is called, has a definite African twist - and not just Big Bird's Nigerian-accented English.

Focus is also placed on malaria prevention in a country where the disease kills around 300,000 people a year - or nearly a third of one million malaria deaths on the continent.

And it seeks to get the HIV and AIDS message across in an easy-to-understand way for children in Africa, the continent worst hit by the virus.

One of stars, golden furry five-year-old Kami, a girl muppet, is HIV-positive herself. Another, fuzzy blue male muppet Zobi, owns a yellow taxi and has an obsession with yams, a staple food in Nigeria.

In one episode Zobi gets entangled in a mosquito net, insisting he's protecting himself from catching malaria. Kami admonishes him, saying he's is not supposed to "wear" it but to sleep under it.

"It's fun, it's humorous but it gets them (children) thinking about a mosquito net and why there is a mosquito net in the first place," said Yemisi Ilo, executive producer of the Nigerian series.

"Statistics show that at the end of the day malaria and HIV kill more people in this part of the world than anything else," said Ilo.

Some 75 million Nigerians, or half of the population, get malaria at least once a year while children younger than five - around 24 million - suffer up to four bouts annually, according to official statistics.

- Big Bird with Nigerian accent -

------------------

Muppet Kami's own mother died from HIV and she always wears the symbolic red ribbon. But she's a resilient, jovial and affectionate little character, a role aimed at fighting stereotypes about people with HIV and AIDS rather than lecturing small viewers about the disease.

The 30-minute series to be aired twice weekly on Nigeria's national public television, Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), premieres this Saturday.

Three seasons are planned, with the first entitled "We Can" to celebrate the self worth and heritage of Nigerian children.

For US ambassador to Nigeria Terence McCulley, Sesame Square is set "to inspire children to perceive learning as fun and a necessary pathway to success, and to echo President Obama's 'Yes, We Can'."

The Nigerian series, funded by the US government development agency, USAID, and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), is the latest of some 20 international Sesame Street versions broadcast in 140 countries from Bangladesh to Kosovo.

Some of the Nigerian segments will feature original Sesame Street muppets but with voice overs.

"What we have done is to dub over the American accented voices with Nigerian voices so we have our own Nigerian Elmo, our own Nigerian Big Bird, our own Bert, Ernie, Grover," said Ilo.

"That way we have consistency," she said, to avoid "watching the studio segment of Kami and Zobi talking with Nigerian accents and then suddenly it turns into an American accent."

Sesame Workshop CEO Gary Knell has said with Sesame Square, Nigerian children "will see other children just like them engaging in exciting activities and lessons that have the potential to foster a lifelong love of learning."

Another African twist has been taken into account. In a country where many of the 150 million people have no access to television or if they do, don't always have electricity to power their sets, Sesame Square will also distribute literacy kits targeted at some 80,000 children.

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