It’s Not Big Bird. Meet Tilou and Lili In This ‘Sesame Street’-Inspired Series For Haitian Children.

A bespectacled blue-haired Tilou runs to the meeting spot beneath a towering mahogany tree seeking advice from his friends. He wants to make a surprise gift for twin sister Lili, he says, but doesn’t know where to begin.

“Do you have a plan?” a yellow Sponge Bob-like book figure asks before another character, an inquisitive lizard, chimes in, “Everything has a process.”

And so begins the lesson on pwosesis or process in Lakou Kajou (pronounced La-Kou Ka-jou), a new Kreyòl-language educational television program that recently began broadcasting on Télé Soleil, a family-friendly station run by the Roman Catholic Church in Port-au-Prince.

The Sesame Street-inspired programming — which combines colorful animation, 3-D graphics and live action with real kids and adults — is a first for Haiti, a country with one of the lowest literacy rates in the hemisphere and where animated television shows for children are as non-existent as adequate books and qualified teachers in many classrooms.

Aimed at young children, the 15-minute episodes focus on subjects such as photosynthesis, geography, evaporation, and process. And all of it is in the language of the masses, Haitian Creole or Kreyòl, as opposed to French, the prevailing language of instruction in most schools.

“Why it’s unique? Because it’s so Haitian. We don’t have that here,” said head writer Gilbert Mirambeau Jr., whose employer, Muska, co-produced the series along with Los Angeles-based filmmaker Linda Hawkins Costigan and Charlotte Cole, former Sesame Workshop senior vice president for global education.

Written and produced in Port-au-Prince , the series provides Haitian children with cultural references — and cartoon characters they can relate to.

Take, for example, the show’s name Lakou Kajou, which means the Mahogany Courtyard in English. The mahogany, or kajou tree as it is known in Kreyòl, is where Haitians often gather to tell tales in their lakou, the central space that’s an essential part of rural family life. It’s also the place where 6-year-old twins, Tilou and Lili, embark on adventures with friends in the series.

The two “have their ups and downs; they have their personalities and they are not perfect,” said Cole, who was in charge of curriculum development and research for Sesame’s international projects before leaving three years ago. “What we are trying to do is provide protagonist characters that look Haitian, that are relaying the stories and are relatable to kids.”

While television viewing in Haiti remains limited to those with access to electricity, there are no shortages of television channels in the country. But kid-friendly programs are scarce. Haitian airwaves are consumed by political talk shows, sleek commercials for products most people can’t afford, seductive MTV-like music videos and French-dubbed imported soap operas.

Of 128 authorized television channels, about 78 are on air, said Jean Marie Altema the head of CONATEL, Haiti’s version of the Federal Communications Commission.

Over the years, there have been some Haitian reference children’s shows and international quality kids’ programming. But they are mainly broadcasts from French TV. This is the first Haitian-produced program based on international standards and with educational value.

“We don’t have this kind of production in Haiti,” said Mirambeau.

The brainchild of Cole and Costigan, the series’ ultimate goal is to make learning fun, and to educate children through modeling as they watch their characters wash their hands or use a mosquito net, for example.

“Learning is beautiful in Lakou Kajou. That’s not an experience the majority of children have in Haiti where learning is usually painful and school is not pretty,” said Josiane Hudicourt-Barnes, an educator who recently chaired a workshop session focusing on Kreyòl use in the program to help formulate a new batch of episodes.

Hudicourt-Barnes, who also participated in the first curriculum seminar, said science was the series’ debut by Haitian educators because “very little [science] is available to the children in Haiti.

“One of the issues with education in Haiti is there is so little focus on understanding and more focus on memorizing words,” she said. “This TV program will help kids know what it is to understand a concept.”

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SOURCE: Miami Herald – Jacqueline Charles