(CNN) — Big Bird and the Cookie Monster have some new friends, but they’re a long way from “Sesame Street.”
One of America’s best-loved children’s shows, which began life on a fictional New York street over 40 years ago, is about to land in Nigeria under the title of “Sesame Square” — bringing with it some distinctly West African twists.
The show stars Kami, a girl muppet who is HIV-positive, has golden hair and a zest for adventure; and Kobi, an energetic, furry, blue muppet whose troublesome escapades help others learn from his mistakes.
In a country with a population of over 150 million — where, according to the CIA World Factbook, nearly half are under the age of 14 — the show will address some of the biggest challenges faced by young people in the region: AIDS, malaria, gender inequality, religious differences — as well as many positive aspects of Nigerian life. In the case of Zobi, this is characterized by an obsessive love of yams — a staple food in the Nigerian diet.
“We have a very focused health and hygiene umbrella concept area that we’re concentrating on,” Naila Farouky, senior director of international projects at Sesame Workshop, told CNN. “This is something our local advisors have prioritized — something that absolutely has to be addressed on the show.”
In one episode, Zobi gets tangled up in a mosquito net, much to the amusement of the local kids. But there’s an important message behind the antics — mosquito nets are the best way to prevent infection from malaria on a continent where, according to the World Health Organization, a child dies from the disease every 45 seconds.
There are also an estimated 278,000 HIV-positive children in Nigeria, according to the National Agency for Control of AIDS.
However, like its American predecessor, “Sesame Square” is not solely focused on health and social issues, but a host of essential learning skills.
Farouky told CNN, “The thread of the show continues to be about basic life skills — literacy, numeracy and pre-school education.”
Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind “Sesame Street,” received a $3.3 million grant to produce the show for five years, from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and President Barack Obama‘s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief.
So how did the producers go about adapting such an iconic show for a Nigerian market?
“If we’re writing scripts for programs in Nigeria, the writers will be Nigerian scriptwriters,” explains Farouky. “We’ll often look for people who already have some experience in writing, but because we’re aware [of] the format that we use and the methodology that we use, we’ll provide training on how to write.”
According to Farouky, collaboration is at the heart of the production process. “We work with our local teams to find ways in which we take the content that’s important to them, to infuse the project with the cultural values, making sure we know which the taboo issues are and which are not,” she told CNN.
Farouky recalled how, when making an Egyptian version of Sesame Street called “Alam Simsim,” the character of Oscar the Grouch was firmly rejected on grounds that he glorified living in a garbage can — something at odds with the cultural values of the region. Were there any similar issues in the making of Sesame Square?
“Our program is hosted by two muppets, a boy and a girl,” she told CNN. “And because there is an entire region in Nigeria up in the North which is very Muslim, we had to be very sensitive. Even our publicity pictures could not have the muppets hugging, which we would normally have,” she explained.
Roughly a quarter of households in Nigeria own television sets, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics, which will inevitably limit the scope of its reach. However, the Sesame Workshop has used a significant proportion of its funding to produce additional learning materials, and is examining ways that it can use radios and mobile phones to help promote the messages in the show.
“[The material] has been developed in a way so it could stand alone, to reach out in communities where there is no broadcast,” Farouky said. “So even if a child is not able to watch a television show, they would at least be able to make use of the outreach material.”
Although the first adaptation to reach West Africa, “Sesame Square” will be the latest in a long line of region-specific shows around the world, which include “Sisimpur” in Bangladesh, “Ulitsa Sezam” in Russia, and “Takalani Sesame” in South Africa.