Bruktawit Tigabu

2010 Young Laureate, Science & Health
Ethiopia, Born 1981

Project Goal

Tackle the high child mortality rate in Ethiopia through a television series designed to teach children about health

Location: Ethiopia

Putting Good Health into the Hands of Children

In Ethiopia, 300,000 children under the age of five die every year from preventable illnesses such as diarrhoea, malaria, pneumonia and measles. The best way to combat these health risks is, Bruktawit Tigabu firmly believes, through education and training. “Sickness and poverty are things I would see every day,” she recalls of her childhood in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. “Sadly, too many children and their parents still do not understand the importance of good personal hygiene and clean drinking water in preventing the spread of disease. Many children here are dying, but these deaths could easily be prevented.”

Filling a Preschool Gap

Brought up in a poor neighbourhood, Tigabu, 28, is painfully aware of the inadequacy of education in the poorer communities of Ethiopia, which often leaves parents, and their children, unaware of basic hygiene. Resolving to help these children live longer, she came up with a deceptively simple, but effective, solution to encourage children to take care of their own health. In 2005, with her husband, Shane Etzenhouser, she set up Whiz Kids Workshop, a children’s television production company. The company creates pre-school television shows and education-themed documentaries aimed at filling the educational void for Ethiopia’s three to six-year-olds.

“Free education here is only offered to children once they turn seven,” explains Tigabu, who is a teacher and educational advisor. “Very few people can afford to send their kids to private kindergarten, so most young children stay at home or play on the streets. Seven is too late to start learning about how to care for oneself — it is the vacuum of these earlier years that we need to fill."

Success from the Start

The company’s first production, launched in 2007, was Tsehai Loves Learning, an educational programme hosted by a hand puppet named Tsehai (which means “sunshine” in Ethiopia’s official language, Amharic). Fashioned out of an old yellow sock, Tsehai is an inquisitive, six-year-old, wide-eyed, female giraffe who speaks to children. Together with her family and friends, including her parents and grandparents, an elderly tortoise, a dog and a sheep, Tsehai talks about the dangers of drinking unclean water, littering and deforestation, and offers lessons on values and culture.

This was the first programme of its type to be created in Ethiopia, specifically for Ethiopians. Despite the challenges Tigabu faced to produce and market the show (making a programme for children in Ethiopia is expensive and, as a new concept, it was initially difficult to persuade television stations to show it), Tsehai Loves Learning has become a national hit — each broadcast is watched by between 2.8 million and five million children. In rural areas, where few families have television, Tsehai Loves Learning is shown at community screenings, health clinics and alternative education centres, while in refugee camps the programme is made available to audiences on DVD and VCD.

Keeping it Simple

Every episode of Tsehai Loves Learning is written by Tigabu and her husband, who then involve health experts and psychologists in the process to help hone their message before filming and editing the episode. “Using puppets is cost-effective compared to a classical animated film, so we think this is within the grasp of what could be economically sustainable in this country,” says Tigabu. “We always do the shows from a simple children’s perspective, but that doesn’t stop us from tackling serious health and social issues such as diarrhoea, HIV/AIDS, loyalty and truthfulness head on. I think this is why our show is also popular with older children — we ratchet up the complexity.”

Each 10-minute episode opens with a song about the show’s topic before proceeding to discuss the day’s theme in more detail. When possible, celebrity guests such as Ethiopian long-distance track and road-running star Haile Gebrselassie put in an appearance to help reinforce the day’s message.

Reaching Farther

In early 2010, Whiz Kids launched a second programme, a reality-based series called Involve Me, which is proving just as popular. Involve Me promotes the notion that the voice of children really matters by inviting teenagers to capture their own personal life lessons on film in one-minute segments. “One episode in particular, about a 14-year-old running away from her marriage, was groundbreaking and very powerful. It garnered national interest,” says Tigabu.

The simple approach Tigabu has taken to educate children has proven remarkably successful and a radio version is being developed for nationwide broadcast to a potential audience of more than 25 million. The Rolex Award will fund six new episodes of Tsehai Loves Learning, to be produced in 2011 and focusing on diarrhoea and malaria (raising awareness, identifying the causes and symptoms, preventing and treating these diseases). In addition, Tigabu plans to implement an impact study to assess changes in behaviour and measure any decreases in child mortality in areas where Tsehai is broadcast.

Tigabu has her heart set on expanding Tsehai’s reach to touch children in neighbouring countries where the population face similar health issues. The Tsehai series, which is produced in Amharic, has already been dubbed into languages used across the wider region, Somali, Tigrinya and Sudanese Arabic. “This is not just an Ethiopian problem, it is an African problem,” concludes Tigabu.

Rachel Kash

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