Al-Ahram Weekly Online
29 Nov. - 5 Dec. 2001
Issue No.562
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Open sesame

With busy schedules, parents can often find it hard to ensure their children have proper access to basic education. But there is an answer, discovers Dahlia Hammouda. Simply switch on your TV set at 5.20pm every evening

Indigenous Sesame characters: (from left) simsim, khokha and nimnim
"Mummy! Put the TV on now!" screams Azza, my friend's five-year-old daughter. For once her mother is more than willing to comply: Alam Simsim is on, the educational programme enjoyed by parents as well as kids.

Alam Simsim, which airs at 4:15pm during Ramadan, is the local co-production of Sesame Street, the famous series made by the US-based Sesame Workshop. Alam Simsim aims to provide young Egyptian children and their families with an entertaining educational experience. The series explores a range of topics helping prepare children for school.

The series works on the premise that children learn best when shown topics in the context of the culture in which they live. Short stories are, therefore, set in "the street" (in fact a range of typical Egyptian locations), and combined with animation and mini-documentaries.

Two seasons of 65 programmes each have now been produced. Broadcast twice a day, five days a week, the first season premiered in August 2000. The second batch of episodes started to air in September, while an event on 31 October held at Alam Simsim's filming studio marked the beginning of production for the third season.

Mrs Suzanne Mubarak has hailed the programme as an example of "intelligent children's programming that can instill certain ideas and values that are indispensable in today's world." Attending the event marking the launch of the third season, Mrs Mubarak said the programme was a model of successful cooperation between business, government, local communities and international organisations.

USAID-Cairo has financed the first two years of Alam Simsim by way of a grant to Sesame Workshop. The programme was developed in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Education, which helps formulate the educational content of the show, and is supported by the Ministry of Information, which facilitates its broadcasting on Egyptian Television. Americana, a Middle East food company, is an official sponsor.

The company that makes Alam Simsim, Al- Karma Productions, was established in 1998. It was formed by a group of young professionals with experience in both advertising and commercial productions.

For the past three years, Sesame Workshop has provided technical assistance and training to Al-Karma Productions. The training has concentrated on script-writing, puppeteering, directing, production, editing and research. Throughout the development and production phases, Egyptian educators, linguists and child development experts cooperated with Egyptian programme writers and directors to ensure that the show's content is educationally effective, culturally sensitive and reflects Egyptian priorities.

Despite a rich pedigree in film production, Egypt has suffered from a dearth of media education resources for children. None approached the magnitude, innovation and ambition of Alam Simsim. The series tries to model positive images for girls and boys and promotes girls' education, healthy living and environment awareness, all the while celebrating Egypt's culture and tradition. The series particularly aims to encourage early and continuous schooling for girls.

One of Alam Simsim's leading characters is Khokha, a four-year-old female muppet (furry puppet) with a passion for learning. Curious and creative, Khokha loves to ask questions and to find out the answers. The portrayal of girls as active, equal participants in all elements of the series has been a pioneering advance in a culture that traditionally promotes gender stereotypes. Among the other muppets in the show are Filfil and Nimnim, all created by the Jim Henson Muppet Company. Filfil is an ageless muppet who has all the answers, even though he may not know what the questions are. Enthusiastic and easygoing, Filfil genuinely wants to help his friends in need. Nimnim is a young muppet, wise for his age. Gentle and patient, he finds his surroundings fresh and amazing, especially when it comes to nature. Surprise celebrity guests also appear in the series, along with the regular adult and child human cast.

A February 2001 household survey conducted by the Middle East Media Research Bureau reported that the series is watched by 61 per cent of children under age eight: almost three million children. Such extensive reach is unprecedented in Egypt. The survey also reported that a third of adults watch the series, whether they have children or not. The proportion of low-income families who view the series significantly increased in the three months leading up to the survey.

Amr Koura, the director of Al-Karma Productions, said he is astonished by the reactions of parents he meets and how attached they are to the show. Koura recalls that during a visit to a remote village in Nubia, he asked a group of boys and girls in first year primary about Alam Simsim. The whole class grew excited and started to tell him about Filfil's latest blunders and Khokha's most recent invention. "The climax, though, was when I asked them if they knew the Arabic alphabet. That was when they all started singing the alphabet song from our show. In one voice and in perfect tune. I cannot start to describe the feeling of pride I felt inside me," Koura says.

Donia, a young mother of two, says that watching Alam Simsim together with her children has become a ritual bordering on the sacred. Even if her seven-year-old is doing homework, or if her four-year-old is caught by the thrill of piecing together a puzzle, both are asked to switch to watching the show when it is aired: not that they need much persuading. "In a short half- hour, they receive the kind of knowledge that it would take me a whole lot more time to pass on -- and they get it in a much more attractive way. They completely identify with the muppets and they memorise every bit of information they learn through the show," she says.

In a country where less than an eighth of children receive formal pre-school education, but where TV penetration is universal, a programme like Alam Simsim can produce tangible and substantial results. Research conducted for the project found that some children in the rural communities of Upper Egypt had fewer literacy and numeracy skills than children in comparable countries or in better-developed parts of Egypt. World Bank statistics show that, nationwide, only 12 to 14 per cent of Egyptian children have access to pre-school education and primary school drop-out rates are high. Learners in the poorest communities obtain, on average, only three years of education.

But according to the year 2000 Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey, nearly all Egyptian households have access to television, which has a 96% penetration rate.

By improving children's readiness to learn, and by increasing the knowledge of their parents, Alam Simsim is designed to treat some of the underlying causes of Upper Egypt's low primary school enrollment levels, high primary school dropout and failure rates and low literacy among women.

In that respect, Egypt is in fine company. To date, 20 international co-productions have been built on the Sesame Street model, each a unique series reflecting local culture and traditions and with a curriculum emphasising local priorities.

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