Ethiopian giraffe captures children's hearts

February 11, 2007

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The marriage of a local schoolteacher and an American software developer has resulted in the birth of a young giraffe that has captured the imagination of children in Ethiopia.

Tsehai, a hand puppet and star of a new television show in the Amharic language, is the brain-child of Bruktawit and Shane Etzenhouser.

Styled after classic children's programs like "Sesame Street," "Tsehai Loves Learning" is designed to help youngsters with reading and also 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 show is performing well so far," said Seifu Seyoum, head of program services for ETV, the national TV station. "I myself have two children, and every morning they want to watch Tsehai. There are many children and parents who like this show."

"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. The program 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.

The show airs on weekends, with each eight- to 10-minute episode running for two weeks before a new show debuts. Children who want to see it more often can watch reruns on DVDs, which the Etzenhousers sell.

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.

He and his wife, both members of the Baha'i Faith, met while teaching in Addis Ababa at the Two Wings Academy, a school inspired by Baha'i principles.

Mr. Etzenhouser, 35, had studied multimedia in university and hoped to work in television. "I came to Ethiopia to volunteer at Two Wings and to explore avenues of making an Ethiopian children's TV show," he said.

For his wife, who is 25, the idea of a television program was something new.

Bruktawit and Shane Etzenhouser pose with puppets Tsehai, the yellow giraffe, and Tsehai's younger brother, Fikir. Slideshow
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Bruktawit and Shane Etzenhouser pose with puppets Tsehai, the yellow giraffe, and Tsehai's younger brother, Fikir.

"I have always wanted to do something big in education but never thought it would be a TV show," she said. "But when I met Shane I thought there was something great in this idea he had."

The two were married in May 2004 and joke that Tsehai is their first child.

"Tsehai really is what we feel for each other," Mrs. Etzenhouser said. "It is our personal love story. A lot of people ask us why we don't have kids. It's been more than two years, and in Ethiopia a lot of couples would have had a child by now. We say, 'We do. Look -- we have Tsehai!'"

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. The Etzenhousers hope "Tsehai Loves Learning" will contribute to improving reading among children.

"Unless children are sent to private kindergartens, most will not receive the type of education they will need to become good students," Mrs. Etzenhouser said. "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."

Shlomo Bachrach, an economic and educational adviser to the Ethiopian government who lives in Washington, D.C., recently discussed "Tsehai Loves Learning" with the Associated Press. "The show is perfectly pitched to the Ethiopian audience," Bachrach was quoted as saying. "In a culture where TV is still pretty much a novelty, it has a great impact. When kids watch it, they watch it with an intensity you wouldn't believe."

Dagmawit Eshetu, the mother of children ages four and six, is among the many parents who have written letters to the Etzenhousers.

"This program really engages them," she wrote. "They learn to think and participate in the program. We see a change of character in them, especially in applying simple but very important rules such as washing with soap and water before and after eating and the need to drink pure water."

The Etzenhousers noted that the Baha'i teachings place great importance on the education of children.

"My inspiration is from the Baha'i Faith," Mrs. Etzenhouser said. "It helps me remember that we are all connected and that it is important for us to care for each other."

The couple did their homework before launching the program.

"We did a lot of internet research," Mr. Etzenhouser said. "We got a lot of data from universities. We watched lots of shows like 'Sesame Street,' 'Blues Clues,' 'Oobi' and 'The Wiggles.' We tested the shows at local schools so we could see what material worked with the children."

"Tsehai Loves Learning" is designed primarily for children aged three to six - children too young for government schools in Ethiopia. The couple felt their combined skills - his as a software developer and hers as a teacher of young children -- were right for the project.

"The show addresses the needs of children at a critical age," Mrs. Etzenhouser said. "It helps them see the value in academic accomplishment. It also helps them to have a positive attitude and to see giving back to their communities as a good thing."

Nine episodes of "Tsehai Loves Learning" have been aired since its premier last September.

"We are working on our 10th episode right now," Mr. Etzenhouser said. "We are stepping up production and have hired three more people. We have created stories for the next four episodes and have outlined the stories for episodes 15 through 18."

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.

The couple said they hope to announce soon the details of a new grant from an international nongovernmental organization that will help keep their dream moving forward.

"It's so cute to see the kids in our neighborhood being proud of us and saying 'We know them!'" Mrs. Etzenhouser said. "I just really want to keep it going. I can't imagine doing anything else."

"To see it out there is super rewarding -- to see kids singing the songs," her husband added. "We go around town and people ask us what we do. When we tell them that we work on the show it feels as though parents and children change in the way they see us."

But Mrs. Etzenhouser said much work remains.

"We are still at the baby stage of 'Tsehai,'" she said. "We still need to get to the remote areas. We need to get it on radio. We are on the road though. We are watching our baby grow."