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April 09, 2012

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On the Ground with Rafi Peer, Sesame Workshop’s Partner in Pakistan

Ed. Note: Charlotte Cole is the Senior Vice President of Global Education for Sesame Workshop.

The gates of Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop in Lahore are a portal into a rich celebration of Pakistan’s culture. The compound, which houses a Museum of Puppetry, a crafts exhibit and a restaurant, is also the location of the home office for Sim Sim Hamara, the Pakistani version of Sesame Street. And it was there that I and two colleagues, Sadaf Sajwani, Assistant Director and Lilith Dollard, Educational Content Specialist, spent the past week. We were in Lahore to forward the work on a coproduction partnership that began two years ago when Rafi Peer received a grant from the United States Agency for International Development to create a multi-platform educational initiative known as Pakistan Children’s Television (PCTV). Sim Sim Hamara is a key component of that effort.

This is not an easy project. The challenges of providing a high quality educational experience to children living in a populous country where one-third of primary school age children are not in school are great. Yet, the creative energy that resides on the Rafi Peer grounds and the drive of the people working there make it apparent that, however difficult, the team will find a way to deliver on its promise.

A walk around the compound helps to explain how. A tree-lined space populated by artwork of various forms invites the visitors to engage in its creative energy. It is a place fueled by the joy of innovation and it is that spirit that permeates the Sesame Street project. Admittedly, much of our agenda on this trip was on the dry side. But as we walked through the status of the project work plan, a day-long meeting with USAID to discuss project specifics, and hours devoted to aspects such as planning the project’s community outreach program and the production of a new television season, we were energized by our surroundings and the optimism they impart.

Members of Sesame Workshop and Rafi Peer discuss the many complex issues that arise when producing a children's television program.

Ascertaining how to move forward with the radio platform was one key focus. There are many factors to weigh, such as the fascinating complexities of producing in multiple languages and the best ways to give the radio a Sim Sim Hamara essence. While the primary target of the radio program is mothers of young children, the program will also include elements directed to children. Another consideration, therefore, is how to make the production designed for two distinct audiences work for both as a seamless whole.

Like all Sesame Street projects, Sim Sim Hamara harnesses children’s natural attraction to television and other media to bring them an engaging, enriching educational experience.  The program emphasizes literacy, math, and socio-emotional basics. Its specialness, though, comes from the fact that a local organization (Rafi Peer) has created a uniquely Pakistani vision of the beloved Sesame Street. When children watch Sim Sim Hamara they join a Sesame Street experience shared by children in 150 countries while, at the same, they become part of something that is decidedly Pakistani. The series presents familiar aspects of their lives: an environment that they know, foods they eat, celebrations that are recognizable and characters whose antics are relatable and appealing.

Live action films, which are featured in the program’s format, are one of the ways in which Sim Sim Harmara opens a window into the daily lives of children from all over the country. These mini documentaries, which are filmed in real communities and homes, explore child-friendly, educational themes. One recent episode promoted the importance of play and underscored the country’s great diversity by highlighting traditional games, such as a street stick ball game called gilli-danda that children play across the country.

On the last day of our trip, the production team showed us a video they had just finished of one of the Sim Sim Hamara songs. The lyrics of the song use the colors of the rainbow as a metaphor to celebrate unity and a sense of community. The song projects a message of hope and peace which above all else is at the heart of this creative endeavor.

You cannot visit Pakistan without being reminded of the conflict ridden world we live in. And yet, songs like the rainbow song and the many others which appear on Sim Sim Hamara offer critical respite from that reality. While there is much in the world that divides us, there is unity in a desire for a better future for our children and the Sim Sim Hamara program, which has been designed for children, offers hope for a better tomorrow.

How wonderful that Sim Sim Hamara, which means “Our Sesame” is truly that: a Sesame Street for Pakistan’s children.

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