In Ethiopia, an educational TV show for children wins an audience and more

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - "Tsehai," a young giraffe, was born from the marriage of a local schoolteacher and an American software developer.

A hand puppet who is the star of her own Amharic-language television show, Tsehai went on to capture the imagination of children throughout Ethiopia - and two international awards juries as well.

"Tsehai Loves Learning" is the brainchild of Bruktawit Tigabu and Shane Etzenhouser of Addis Ababa, a married couple who are both Bahá'ís.

Styled after classic children's programs like "Sesame Street," "Tsehai Loves Learning" is designed to help youngsters with reading and also to develop other skills, including interacting responsibly with the environment. Indeed, the curious and adventurous Tsehai lives in a world of computer graphics fashioned to resemble the Ethiopian outdoors.

The program became a hit on Ethiopian TV after its premier in September 2006 - and has gone on to win several prestigious international awards. In June 2008, the show won the "Next Generation Prize" at the Prix Jeunesse International 2008, a biannual awards ceremony held in Munich, Germany, to promote excellence in children's television. And in October 2008, it won the "Pre-school" category at the Japan Prize 2008 International Contest for Educational Media.

The Prix Jeunesse awards jury was "hugely impressed by the program's ability to talk to children, to be creative as well as communicative, on an extremely limited budget."

Noting that the show is directed to Ethiopian children, the jury added that "'Tsehai Loves Learning' was inspired by a great idea born out of the needs of its audience - which after all is the basis of all great TV."

The prize brings a monetary award of 6,000 euros and a year of mentoring from the sponsors, which include the Australian Children's Television Foundation, the BBC, Disney Germany, KRO (Dutch Public Broadcasting), Nickelodeon International, and ZDF (German Television Network).

"The Prix Jeunesse prize recognized 'Tsehai Loves Learning' for its social impact as well as the quality of the production relative to its low budget," said Mr. Etzenhouser. "The Japan Prize focuses on the educational value of the content, so 'Tsehai' has now been recognized internationally for quality, social impact, and educational value."

"Tsehai" is the first TV program in Ethiopia to use puppets and animation to teach letters, numbers and shapes, with all instruction in the dominant language of the country. It also offers social and moral lessons, and introduces issues such as stress, the loss of a parent, even something as serious as the child slave trade in Africa.

"For many of Ethiopia's children, the show is the closest thing to early childhood education they have ever received," said Mr. Etzenhouser.

"Unless children are sent to private kindergartens, most will not receive the type of education they will need to become good students," said Ms. Tigabu. "Without this attention being given to these children at an early stage of their development, most will suffer during the rest of their school careers."

For most of 2006 and 2007, the show aired on weekends, with each eight- to 10-minute episode running for two weeks before a new show debuted.

"I myself have two children, and every morning they want to watch Tsehai," said Seifu Seyoum, head of program services for ETV, the national TV station, interviewed in 2007. "There are many children and parents who like this show."

UNESCO provided a grant to help with the first four programs. A private company, Jolly Jus, provides support in the form of advertisements, and DVD sales also generate revenue. Although the program is currently off the air, its producers are working with UNESCO and development agencies to have it shown in local cinemas and community halls.

For the couple, even the production of the show represents a love story. "We do it because we love the children of Ethiopia," Mr. Etzenhouser said.

Ethiopia, a country of 74 million people, has a literacy rate of 41 percent among people over the age of 15, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Mr. Etzenhouser and Ms. Tigabu created "Tsehai Loves Learning" to contribute to improving reading among children.

The couple met while teaching in Addis Ababa at the Two Wings Academy, a school inspired by Bahá'í principles, which place great importance on the education of children. They were married in May 2004. "Tsehai really is what we feel for each other," said Ms. Tigabu. "It is our personal love story."