Muppet Diplomacy

Muppet Diplomacy



In the late 1990s, when word got out in Cairo that an Egyptian version of “Sesame Street,” the popular American television program for children, was in the works, the press response was not exactly friendly, recalled Amr Koura, chief executive officer of Alkarma Edutainment, a Cairo-based production company.

That certainly concerned him because Alkarma was developing the Egyptian show in partnership with New York City’s Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit educational organization that aims to make a difference in the lives of children worldwide by addressing their critical developmental needs. But instead of excitement that Big Bird, Elmo and other Muppets — the show’s fuzzy and lovable puppet critters — were coming to town, there was talk of “cultural imperialism,” Koura said.

Fortunately, Egypt’s first lady intervened. Suzanne Mubarak, a promoter of education, had suggested the cross-Atlantic collaboration years earlier. Koura said that she had “invited me and Sesame Workshop co-producer Robert Knezevic to her home. We were all photographed with the Muppets and that immediately quelled the criticism,” he recalled. “Once we were on the air in 2000, everyone realized the show was culturally appropriate, and the show was a hit.”

The Egyptian Muppets in fact became popular with adults and children alike, and in 2005, the program debuted in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates — reaching 280 million viewers through satellite broadcasts. “Eight Arab countries put it on the air,” Koura said.

Like all “Sesame Street” incarnations worldwide, “Alam Simsim,” as the Arabic version is called, is heavily researched, its education content and themes created by local experts, and its impact widely documented and dissected by academics. Koura’s company also does community outreach. “For example, we’ve trained 42,000 women in 146 communities to work with children and the shows’ messages,” he noted.

Independent research shows that the Egyptian approach works, increasing awareness of issues such as immunization, hygiene and nutrition, for instance, among both caregivers and kids.

The Egyptian example demonstrates the growing international power of “Sesame Street,” which has been an integral childhood experience for Americans since the show premiered in 1969, ushering in the pioneering concept of combining education and entertainment. Jim Henson’s iconic Muppets — along with a parade of celebrity guests — teach kids everything from math and reading to potty time, making friends and even coping with grief to better prepare them for both school and life.

Gary Knell is president and chief executive officer of Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit educational organization that has brought the iconic American children’s show “Sesame Street” to countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Kosovo and South Africa, whose “Muppet” characters are pictured on the previous page, including Kami, the world’s first HIV-positive Muppet.

It’s an extension of Sesame Workshop’s goal to develop innovative and engaging educational content delivered in a variety of ways — including television, radio, books, magazines, interactive media and community outreach.

“Alam Simsim,” like all Sesame Workshop co-productions, features not only the Muppets, who interact with real people, but also music, animation and filmed live-action segments with children in them. It teaches basic literacy, health and safety, and social and emotional skills. And like other Sesame co-productions around the world, “Alam Simsim” daringly deals with sensitive, culturally specific issues.

One of the most fervent advocates for these risk-taking shows is Sesame Workshop President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Knell, who is more than willing to run interference for his groundbreaking global partners. “We had to get around a lot of naysayers” to launch a Northern Ireland version of the show, he noted. The program offers positive images of both Catholic and Protestant children and emphasizes openness and sharing.

Another “labor of love” for Knell was the initiative that created the world’s first HIV-positive Muppet for the South African show. Knell personally pitched it to former President George W. Bush and helped to get the funding for the program rolling.

“We get fantastic production companies,” he said of the workshop’s global partners, describing the collaboration as “education for empowerment.” And although modern media is often criticized, Knell said it can be harnessed “to make the world a better place.”

Big Bird and Elmo of “Sesame Street” are taking on new teaching jobs in China as part of the “Magic Map Show” running at the 2010 Shanghai Expo through Oct. 31. New York City’s Sesame Workshop and the Shanghai Media Group teamed up to launch a new program for Chinese children ages 2 to 7 that features the familiar fuzzy characters in a variety of media, from TV to mobile phones to books to kindergarten classrooms in Shanghai.

Case in point: Because education for girls is a major focus of “Alam Simsim,” the show’s popular Muppet Khokha — Arabic for “peach” — is a little girl with an insatiable love of learning. The celebrity star of the show, she does things such as try to build a rocket to fly to the moon. Charlotte Cole, Sesame Workshop’s vice president of international education, research and outreach, has documented Khokha’s effectiveness, noting that children watching “Alam Simsim” are staying in school longer.

What’s the magic? Keeping a child riveted to the screen and entertained — Sesame’s formula — certainly helps. Koura of Alkarma Edutainment, for instance, has a background in advertising and TV commercials. So his shows are attention-grabbing, funny and entertaining. Koura describes his team as “the best.”

“I wanted people from all over the country as writers, and people from different backgrounds,” he said. “They all have a passion for children.”

The result is Egyptian characters such as Filfil, the fuzzy and improbably purple Muppet “apt to make a fool of himself,” and his friend Nimnim, a large and green Muppet that is a gentle giant.

Around the world, Muppets and real people mingle on Sesame’s streets. “Here in Egypt, people don’t focus on differences in skin color but animosity can arise between Muslims and Christians,” Koura said. “So on the show, a Christian grocer lives on the same street with others. They never talk about it directly, but they will mention religious holidays. We teach that different people have different holidays,” he explained, adding, “We have to address the issues of our people.”

At one point, the New York Sesame team wondered why “Alam Simsim” planned to repeatedly cover the topic of power outages.” We explained that they’re a fact of life here,” Koura said. “So we have segments where a Muppet in the dark will want to find a candle and another Muppet will tell the first to stay put, saying a candle’s not safe.”

As these examples demonstrate, there’s no preaching or chalkboards — just entertaining action, everyday examples, and diverse role models.

“Sesame Street has a presence in 140 countries,” Knell pointed out. “In more than two dozen countries, we have locally built, indigenous co-productions that show the power of TV as a teacher.”

In Jakarta, Indonesia, Muhammad Zuhdi is the director of education, research and outreach for “Jalan Sesama,” launched in 2008 by Sesame Workshop in New York and Jakarta’s Creative Indigo Production.

“Jalan Sesama” features four Indonesia Muppets: Tantan, a wise-woman orangutan character; Momon, a little boy; Putri, a little girl; and Jabrik, a single-horn rhino with grey fur (rhinos, like orangutans, are endangered species in real life). Another character is Gatot Kaca, a strongman who teaches letters and is based on a legendary Javanese hero and Indonesia’s shadow-puppet tradition.

“Alam Simsim,” the Egyptian version of “Sesame Street,” features characters such as Nimnim, a gentle green giant, and culture-specific topics such as girl’s education, religious tolerance and even power outages.

The Sesame Workshop model for international co-productions has three components: production creativity and expertise, educational content, and research with children, explained Zuhdi, a professor of education and curriculum specialist who trains teachers at Jakarta’s prestigious Universitas Islam Negeri. “We use their model and consult with New York in a team environment. We set the educational goals and the curriculum for each season here, create the stories, and write the scripts. Sesame Workshop reviews the scripts and offers comments, but we decide whether to use the feedback or not.”

Added Knell: “The secret to success is localism. We’re not dictating from New York.”

As a result, each country’s production team develops its own themes, possibly tackling controversies untouched by other local media or even society as a whole. Sesame productions are known for broaching sensitive areas where others fear to tread, incorporating humor, imagination and a light touch to ease the tension.

Zuhdi noted that Indonesia has some 250 ethnic groups and even more languages and dialects. The country is also home to Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists. Thus, many of Indonesia’s thorniest cultural and political issues involve diversity and unity, so the show grapples with the notion of identity on a daily basis.

“With the live-action films, we try to create as many segments as possible from different regions. We sent the Muppet Momon to Papua to interact with local people,” Zuhdi explained. The show still uses the national language, Indonesian, or Bahasa Indonesia, translating (but not dubbing) local segments if needed.

Respecting religious sensibilities means, for example, not depicting children playing with a pig, which could upset Muslim parents. The show concomitantly teaches tolerance. For instance, a child who might say, “I like red and I won’t play with kids who like yellow” will wind up feeling lonely. So in the end, the child discovers, “Why don’t we play together, sometimes with red and sometimes with yellow.” The message, Zuhdi notes, is simple: “Don’t exclude people with a different background.”

These sober messages come in colorful packages geared toward specific customs and cultures. Putri Rahartana, Indigo Creative Production’s senior producer, says the New York office “reviews the scripts but they don’t try to make them Western. They might advise on an education aspect or offer comments on story structure.”

This painstaking process includes a Sesame Workshop hallmark: research. For example, Zuhdi’s team fanned out to find out what letters and words young Indonesian children knew best. Now, the show’s Gatot Kaca character exposes viewers to the less familiar ones. The team also shares draft show segments to groups of children and assigns each child a researcher who records the child’s reactions to the show. “Do they pay attention? Are they enjoying it or not? You learn a lot,” Zuhdi said.

Initially supported by USAID, “Jalan Sesama” is now self sustaining through donor fundraising and advertising.

In South Africa, “Takalani Sesame” has also experienced success. Producer Patronella Sello is relatively new to the job, though she clearly relishes it. “Most children’s television shows just slap it together and throw something on the air. But every time we film, I know that we’re opening doors. ‘Takalani Sesame’ gives children hope. It introduces them to new worlds. It’s not fluff.”

Sello works with Jean Baxton, the show’s educational content director, to select a season’s themes and story lines. For example, “Under the Sea” has been helpful for poor children in South Africa who’ve never been exposed to the ocean or to those living inland — perhaps in landlocked Lesotho — “where the language doesn’t have a word for fish,” Sello said.

“We got a sponsor and took 20 kids out on a cruise where we filmed their encounters with dolphins and a couple of whales, and included lessons on conservation,” she recalled. The water theme also depicted “less expensive” activities, such as a child fetching water from a stream and boiling it, providing lessons on health and the environment.

The program’s most noted innovation was the introduction of an HIV-positive Muppet in 2002, a little girl called Kami, who is outspoken and open about her HIV status. Kami got the disease from her mother, who died. She’s living positively, taking her medications, and when she gets sick her friends support her.

“We deal with HIV/AIDS on a regular basis here,” Sello explained. “Everyone knows someone who has died or is taking drugs for the disease. Parents die and children are left behind. Formerly it wasn’t openly discussed, and Kami has lifted that veil of secrecy. She has reduced the stigma and increased support for people with the disease, giving them a better chance of living.”

Kami’s impact is one reason why Sello is now working to bring “Takalani Sesame” to neighboring nations. In fact, Kami is a key part of the new Nigerian program, “Sesame Square,” set to launch this November. The Nigerian production is working with Sello in Johannesburg and the Sesame Workshop in New York, expanding the collaborative model.

“Sesame Square” will also be a local adaptation. According to Ayobisi Osuntusa, the production’s director of education and outreach, “Kami is the star of our show and the other prominent Muppet is Zobi,” both from the South African production. “They are handled by Nigerians and have our peculiar accent. An expert from the original Sesame Street production in New York trained the puppeteers.”

“There’s a lot to be learned from the Workshop’s approach,” mused Egypt’s Koura, recommending it to anyone who wants to enter a new country’s marketplace or undertake technical, corporate or nonprofit international work.

If Sesame Workshop, an American group, can come to the Middle East, with its sensitivities, and manage to succeed, Koura said they “definitely have the right approach.”

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.