Ethiopian orphans & teens give learning a chance through ‘kid inspired’ TV

Deborah Mazon – WNN Features

Ethiopian Television Producer Buktawit Tegabu surrounded by kids who are excited to touch on of the characters in her TV series 'Tsehai Loves Learning.'
Ethiopian Television Producer Buktawit Tegabu surrounded by kids who are excited to touch one of the characters in her TV series ‘Tsehai Loves Learning.’ Image: Whiz Kids Workshop

(WNN) Addis Ababa, ETHIOPIA, AFRICA: In an African country where HIV/AIDS orphans are a normal part of the landscape, one woman is working to create a new life for Ethiopian kids who live without their parents each day. Her work started as part of a grass roots-movement that began to use media, specifically television media, to reach children at all levels of Ethiopian society.

“Ethiopia counts one of the largest populations of orphans in the world: 13 per cent of children throughout the country are missing one or both parents. This represents an estimated 4.6 million children – 800,000 of whom were orphaned by HIV/AIDS,” said United Nations agency UNICEF in 2006.

As an elementary school teacher working in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Adaba in 2004, children’s rights activist Bruktawit Tigabu had an idea that would revolutionize the way children, who often face life conditions without parents, can learn.

Using television as the medium for education in 2005, Tigabu began a program that began to work by reaching long-range goals to bring Ethiopia’s orphaned kids more opportunity. How? – through pre-school education.

This new program designed and brought to the public in 2008 by Tigabu and her husband Shane Etzenhouser, an American software engineer, was the first program of its kind inside the region. As they set up what they named ‘The Whiz Kids Workshop’ they designed award-winning Ethiopian television with a show designed for ‘Sesame Street’ aged children called “Tsehai Loves Learning.” This unique program has now reached over 3 million kids. It’s also offered children a chance to learn visually at their own pace in their local language of Amharic, with some episodes dubbed to also reach a diverse Ethiopian kid audience who speak Tigrinya & Sudanese Arabic.

Today Ethiopia continues to suffer as too many children lose their mothers during childbirth. The odds against pregnant women, especially those in more rural areas who have little to no easy access to properly staffed and well supplied medical clinics, is partially to blame. Children often face an extra vulnerability in an uphill climb as the region has suffered for years under family displacement brought on by drought, flooding and conflict.

At the epicenter of Sub-Saharan Africa Ethiopia another nagging problem has also been a central challenge to the region. Those mothers living today with HIV in the region have greatly impacted the region’s children.

“The emergence of the HIV epidemic is one of the biggest public health challenges the world has ever seen in recent history. In the last three decades HIV has spread rapidly and affected all sectors of society- young people and adults, men and women, and the rich and the poor,” said Ethiopia’s federal HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office (HAPCO) more recently in 2012. “Sub-Saharan Africa is at the epicentre of the epidemic and continues to carry the full brunt of its health and socioeconomic impact. Ethiopia is among the countries most affected by the HIV epidemic,” continues the report.

The issues that Bruktawit Tigabu, and her husband Shane, have brought to the orphans of Ethiopia through innovative television is direct, clear and honest. Subjects such as protecting oneself from malaria, dealing with HIV/AIDS, missing one’s dead mother and even children trapped in the slave trade are not off-limit topics.

In 2010 The Whiz Kids Workshop worked to develop the first TV series for teenage youth. With a show created by students for students modern themes for teens has been brought to the screen for the first time. Tigabu was also honored as a Rolex Young Laureate for her outstanding work for children and youth in Ethiopia in 2010. In 2011 she was given a Microsoft Education Award.

Today Tigabu is working on a campaign to bring educational Amharic-language books to 4,000 school children in Addis Ababa with a program launch called Opening Books to Open Doors.

“For many of the children, these storybooks will be their first, and when we recently them to deliver the first batch of books produced by the campaign, they were so excited about being able to take the storybooks home and read them out loud to their families, friends, and neighbors!,” said Tigabu as she works to let the public know about the campaign.

Recently WNN – Women News Network content manager and human rights reporter Deborah Mazon had a chance to interview Tigabu about the programs she and her husband have created. The following words are  part of this engaging interview:


Deborah Mazon for WNN:   When you realized that Ethiopia offers challenges to so many, how did education become personally important in your life?

Bruktawit Tibabu: It’s been important in my life because it’s enabled me to help and connect with people, and I don’t think I would be where I am today without education. It plays a big role in my life, and I couldn’t do what I do without education. It’s not only formal education–I know how to read and write, and that helps me do what I do—but it’s education in general.

WNN:  What obstacles did you encounter on the path and what or who helped you over them? Was there a tech component to the learning you received?

BT: During my time it wasn’t easy; it was hard for me to not have many choices. I learned what I wanted to learn during college, and the only thing available to me was to be a teacher. I didn’t think it was a great thing at that time. There were also financial issues; I went to a public school, and it was difficult to be educated or get an education. But I always liked to learn new things; I was always curious and motivated. I remember there was only one place in town to use computers; along with myself, there were 50 others who wanted access to a computer. But there were only 5 computers, each one rotated every hour. I was the only girl amongst them. I always dared to challenge my surroundings, and to learn more, even though the situation was not ideal.

WNN: When you recalled your childhood, you have said that many parents and children in large parts of Ethiopia don’t understand the importance of good personal hygiene and clean drinking water to stop the spread of disease. How did the important facts surrounding science and hygiene become important to you?

BT: All parents want to take care of their children properly. I know, I’m a parent myself. But even when we parents want to, we don’t always know what to do. That’s the case with hygiene and dehydration, and things of that nature. When kids die of dehydration, parents don’t know if giving them water or drinks makes it worse or helps. Whether we are talking about hygiene or reading, either way, it’s a way to improve people’s lives, and you need education to reach them.

Ethiopian chlidren's TV producer Brukawit Tigabu's show for teen youth called 'Involve Me'
The third episode of another popular Ethiopian youth series by TV producer Brukawit Tigabu called “Involve Me.” Episode three features the first film story about the life of Yemeserach, and her amazing courage in the face of significant challenges. This is one of many TV series created by Tigabu, and her software engineer husband Shane Etzenhouser, to help Ethiopia’s disadvantaged pre-schoolers and teenage youth deal with real-life situations like early marriage, a situation that causes most girls to discontinue going to school all togethe. Image: Whiz KIds Workshop

WNN: In 2010 you created a second show called ‘Involve Me’, addressing issues facing Ethiopian teens from all parts of life in the region today. What do you feel are some of the most important current issues for teens in Ethiopia?

BT: We trained about 16 kids two weeks. It’s hard to generalize, but in the last workshop we trained young people how to express their views and the issues they wished to raise awareness about. They created one-minute films on topics such as corruption, equality, the environment, traditional practices such early marriage, and economic equality. Most young people are aware of situations and if you give them a chance, they have a lot to say, and that’s what Involve Me does. We don’t need to wait until they are adults to be involved in critical issues. They should be given a chance to talk about it now and get involved.

The other show, Little Investigators, is led by 3 young kids who make their contemporaries more curious about science and the social issues around them. It’s not only about being aware, but suggesting solutions as well. It can be about environment, electricity, and so on so that they understand science and how that translates into their social life; how they can improve it, and engage with it in their everyday life. This way, science is not just on paper and strange to them; they can be a part of it. Not only do they observe science and technology, but they can also be the creator of technology. They travel, run small experiments with other youth, and be innovative. It’s quite a challenge to raise money for this show, but hopefully, we’ll be able to secure some funds because the kids love it.

WNN: What kinds of specific improvements and help, for the kids you worked with, have you observed since you started walking the education through media trail in Ethiopia?

BT: One of the exciting things for me is to see people paying attention to childhood education. It’s exciting because I believe that it’s the basis and foundation of a child’s life. We have to nurture them and guide them to be the person they can be by empowering them so that they can reach their full potential. The only people who can afford to give education–whether it’s great or not—are those who have money. Before, school started at age 7, but now, the government is attempting to get children enrolled a year earlier, at age 6. There is still a lot of to do, like improving the quality of education, but it’s still a big step from before. I’m not trying to take credit for that, but my big push was to have kids be introduced to education in an interactive way, and that’s why we created Tsehai Loves Learning. As a country, we’re moving in that direction, and that’s exciting.

WNN: We heard you might be branching your programs out to Ghana. Is this true?

BT: I’m not branching out to Ghana, but I am definitely trying to branch out to different African countries. I haven’t decided which ones yet. I’d like to for many reasons. One is that many of the things we do are relevant to other Sub-Saharan African countries, as we share the same issues. Right now we lack the financial resources to do that, but once we obtain some, we will include other countries.

WNN: Is there a special reason you chose Amharic as the base for many of the children’s books you’re now publishing. Is one particular language over another part of the foundation of the program?

BT: We are giving kids these books because almost all children speak Amharic, and this will allow greater reach. We have books in English and other languages appropriate to a locality.

WNN: For children who have never seen  your pre-school TV show production Tsehai Loves Learning, how ’bout introducing us to your main characters and the roles they play in the show.

BT: Tsehai is a 6 year old giraffe who lives with her parents and is close to her neighbors and friends at school. She’s curious, always learning and finding a way to learn about something new. This season we are focused on issues affecting children up to 8 [years old]. Tsehai faces challenges at home, school, in the garden and other various places. She goes to Book Land, where everything is made out of books; the books talk, she listens, and comes back with the solution. Through this, we teach the alphabet, a love of reading, and using books for pleasure and to solve problems. In that sense, we are also trying to create a reading culture. With the All Children Reading Grant, we have been able to do the production for this year.

WNN: What about your recent project, the Opening Books to Open Doors campaign? You were able to recently produce 460 storybooks to distribute to 230 schoolchildren, and we’ve heard you hope to do that for 4,000 children in the region.

BT: It’s amazing. I love kids; I miss kids, and I miss teaching in the classroom. When I gave them the books, I read them out loud to the kids first. The first thing they asked is “Can we take these home?” It’s cute. For 99 percent of them, this is their first storybook. It makes my work worthwhile, and it makes me happy. It makes them more curious to read and learn.

They loved the stories told through these books. They want all the books, which is hard for them, because we make them choose. If the children know how to read well, we let them choose themselves. The stories are a creation of mine with an artist friend of mine, but they convey very universal values like honesty, collaboration, hard working, not giving up, and persistence. The expressions used might be different, but the values are universal. Any child would love these stories. It’s a great gift to give, so it would be wonderful if anyone could help out with the campaign.


A preview of the award winning Ethiopian educational children’s video series “Tsehai Loves Learning.” In this episode, Tsehai learns how difficult it can be, and how important it is to tell the truth. She tells a story to avoid upsetting her neighbor and it grows out of hand. This episode has been selected as a finalist for the best educational television program at the Baka Forum Festival to be held in Basel, Switzerland, Jan 30th to Feb 2nd 2009. Full episodes are available on DVD at Episodes are in Amharic with English subtitles.


As part of newer TV shows designed for young teens as an extension of the original ‘Tsehai Loves Learning’ programs, a new series created by teen students for teen students called the ‘Involve Me’ series was put together by Tigabu and her husband. This video shows television episodes with 36 youth who create and tell their own stories with their own film.


For more information on this topic:

WNN – Women News Network content manager and human rights reporter Deborah Mazon is a dedicated rights defender who actively assisted and participated in Cesar Chavez marches and apartheid South Africa protests. She has been involved in numerous campaigns to empower women through the use of media. Her current work for women in development includes: “International Women in Photography,” published through PNN – Personal News Network (founded by award winning journalist, Lauren Elliot, creator of the educational global geo-game series, “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”).


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