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Reaching and Teaching Ethiopia’s Girls Through TV

Whiz Kids Workshop has captured the imagination of Ethiopia’s young people with its innovative TV and radio shows. The company’s Tinbit Daniel explains how they’re helping improve literacy rates and promoting health and confidence in girls.

Written by Gemma Newby Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Bruktawit Tigabu, left, creator of Whiz Kids Workshop, poses with Tsehai the talking giraffe, seen on the right, held by co-founder Shane Etzenhouser. Tsehai, who has captured the imagination of young fans, has helped fill educational gaps in an impoverished country where most adults cannot read and many school-age children aren’t in school. AP/Les Neuhaus

It used to be that if you were a child in Ethiopia, state-run television did not have much to offer you. There were only one or two programs per week made for children and broadcast in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language.

That was until Whiz Kids Workshop came on the scene. Former primary school teacher Bruktawit Tigabu created the television and radio production organization in 2006 to improve literacy skills for children with limited access to education.

Not only do Whiz Kids shows reach children in areas where they have little opportunity to access education, they cover topics many parents and communities aren’t comfortable discussing openly, subtly encouraging children to know and claim their rights.

The company developed Ethiopia’s first educational TV show for preschool children called “Tsehai Loves Learning,” which has drawn comparisons with “Sesame Street.” Broadcast in schools, refugee centers and clinics, the show is watched by approximately 5 million children on TV, while 25 million children tune in to hear the radio version of the show. Tsehai, the show’s giraffe puppet, has become a household name.

Now Whiz Kids Workshop is developing a new civics-focused animation program aimed at 10–15-year-olds – starring three female superheroes.

Tinbit Daniel, business development associate at Whiz Kid Workshop, spoke with Women and Girls Hub about how education as entertainment can help girls grow up healthy, confident and informed.

Women and Girls Hub: Tell me about the new female superheroes Ethiopian children are about to meet.

Tinbit Daniel: They are powerful girls called Tigist, which means patience, Fikir, which means love, and Fiteh, which means justice.

We also have male characters who are strong and very supportive of women and gender equality: They are very nurturing to the girls and see their potential. We’re trying to create role models for boys so they will grow up to be better people.

That’s because this world won’t be safe just by empowering girls themselves. They need an environment in which they can exercise their rights. When they say no, they need others to go with that and not abuse or violate those rights. Men and boys need to be engaged and need to be educated, so that they can see women differently, and really appreciate their qualities and respect them for who they are, and understand where they’re coming from when they say no.

Women and Girls Hub: What topics will your new female superhero show for young adolescents explore?

Daniel: We’re trying to identify topics that are relatable and really challenging for young girls in Ethiopia and in Africa.

For example, menstruation is one of the challenges girls face as they reach puberty. During the series we’ll have one of the characters go through her period and try to give [the girls watching] insight as to how she feels, so that girls can relate to that and realize, “That’s how everyone feels when they’re having their period for the first time.” They’ll find out how she manages to keep herself clean, and how she manages to create a pad that’s homemade, kind of go through the process so that when they are having their period for the first time they don’t have to feel awkward, they don’t feel like, “Oh, this is a disaster, what is happening? I don’t know what is going on.”

We’re trying to give them information on things that they will face in the future, even if they’re not facing them now. For example, the first episode is about child marriage; one of the girls’ classmates is given for early marriage, and we see them trying to stop that.

Women and Girls Hub: How do parents react? If they see their daughters watching it and they don’t approve, do you think they’ll just switch the television off?

Daniel: We’re trying to give out information that is really important for the children, but when they act on the information it might affect a good relationship with their parents.

For example, if you’re teaching your child viewers that going to school is their right, but their parents want them to work at home rather than go to school, that can create a very huge conflict in families.

So we’re trying to include the parents in the conversation that the kids are having, so that their parents understand where their children are coming from, and can try to manage it better.

The reason we’re doing an animation series is because if we made a television drama, parents would be interested in watching. With cartoons, we’re assuming that they will be less interested.

Women and Girls Hub: So you’re trying to create discreet spaces for children to learn?

Daniel: Exactly; that’s what we’re trying to do. This is kids’ stuff.

The kids will have that private space where they can really listen and see things that are not accessible to them. If talk about menstruation came up on the radio, no mother or parent would allow them to sit and listen.

We’ll slip things throughout the series so that girls – not only girls but also boys – can be like, “What is this? I need to know more.” We’re trying to provide those spaces where they can learn more.

Women and Girls Hub: What are the most critical issues facing girls in Ethiopia today?

Daniel: More than anything, the fact that not a lot of people believe in girls is the issue.

When girls aren’t confident enough and don’t believe in themselves then they cannot really speak up and make a difference in their lives and the lives of others.

If we can work on their confidence and give them information as to their rights and how they can demand them, how they can exercise those rights in a very subtle way rather than being silent, then maybe we can make a difference little by little.

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