Thursday, November 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

The Muppets tutor the world in tolerance

This photo from a video by Boko Haram allegedly shows some of the kidnapped girls at prayer.
This photo from a video by Boko Haram allegedly shows some of the kidnapped girls at prayer. AP

The kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls are fading from the international limelight - even though they have not been rescued.

Military efforts have not slowed: two weeks ago, the U.S. government sent 80 troops to Chad, to help free almost 300 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. The troops are using Predator surveillance drones to search in the remote forests of northeast Nigeria. Thirty other American specialists from the State Department, FBI, and the Pentagon have joined experts from around the world to advise the Nigerian government and military.

The Nigerian military has said it has located the girls, but they have yet to provide any evidence of the girls' location. But even if they find the girls, military intervention is a short-term fix to a problem with deep roots.

Literacy rates in Northeast Nigeria - where Boko Haram is most active - are 17 percent, compared with 79 percent in other Nigerian regions. The U.S. government understands the correlation between low education levels and terrorism, and has allocated significant funding to educational projects, especially in northern Nigeria.

One such initiative is the Nigerian version of Sesame Street, called Sesame Square, which has been promoting education and peaceful coexistence in Nigeria since 2011. The program was given $3.3 million to produce three seasons, from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Sesame Square's funding expired last month, but this is exactly the type of program USAID needs to continue to support.

Big Bird and friends may seem like weak weapons in the face of Boko Haram. I am not suggesting that Sesame Square can help to fight a terrorist group whose name means "Western education is sinful." But the program is sending an essential countermessage to Nigeria's youngest citizens:

Everyone - boys and girls - should go to school.

I spent nine months in Nigeria, investigating how Sesame Square teaches about diversity and tolerance. The program is one of more than 30 international coproductions of the popular American television show - several of which are funded by USAID. Your tax dollars are paying to export Elmo, and all of his furry friends, to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Southern Africa.

The programs are cocreated by Sesame Workshop and local production companies, and tailored to meet local needs. Sesame Square has an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami, and a blue monster (a distant cousin of the famous cookie-eating American) who loves yams. Sesame Square teaches preschool academic skills, and also tackles tough issues like malaria and intergroup tolerance - and the education of girls.

The "localization" of Sesame Square is key. Even though the program is funded by the United States, the writers, producers, puppeteers, and actors are all Nigerian. Viewers see Nigerian children - including girls in hijabs - learning in classrooms and playing in schoolyards. Kami stresses that she can do anything boys can do. The program features female role models, including a pilot, a singer, and a newscaster, who emphasize the importance of going to school.

Unfortunately, television access and electricity are limited. Only about 47 percent of Nigerians watch television regularly, and the numbers are lower in the north. When children do watch TV, they are bombarded with news reports and images of the wreckage caused by Boko Haram. The group has not just kidnapped schoolgirls; they have bombed schools, churches, mosques, marketplaces, bus stations, and police stations - killing thousands since 2009. The Nigerian government's response to Boko Haram has been critiqued for violating human rights, and civilians are often caught in the cross fire. Going anywhere - even to school - is a decidedly dangerous endeavor for anyone.

But for those who can watch Sesame Square, the messages about the importance of girls attending school are essential. Nigerian girls and their families need to see that the international community and other Nigerians - Muslims and Christians alike - support the education of girls. When (hopefully) the kidnapped girls come home, they and their sisters and brothers need to see that other Nigerians and the international community will fight for their right to an education.

Clearly, Nigeria has a massive amount of work to do to reestablish order and security, and the international community should continue to provide military assistance. In the meantime, USAID should renew its contract with Sesame Square and support its messages of equality and tolerance.


Naomi A. Moland is a postdoctoral research fellow at New York University.

Naomi A. Moland
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