Ayobisi Osuntusa is executive director of education, research, and outreach for Sesame Workshop’s Nigerian co-production, Sesame Square, currently funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with additional support from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Since 2008 she has been part of the team helping to teach Nigerian children the basics of literacy and numeracy as well as encourage greater appreciation of Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage. Recently we spoke with Ayobisi to learn more about the unique joys and challenges of working to educate the youth of this diverse African nation.
Sesame Workshop: Tell me a bit about the day-to-day operations in Nigeria. What does being executive director of education, research and outreach entail, specifically?
Ayobisi Osuntusa: We do a million things. Day-to-day, the focus right now is to develop our second set of outreach materials for health, numeracy, and science. We’re also looking for sponsors to advertise and essentially take some of the responsibility for helping us to broadcast nationwide and paying for that. We are looking for ways meet the demand for education reform in the North. Study shows that formal learning in the local languages at an early age can help boost the level of English literacy and understanding. We hope to be able to dub the television episodes (currently in Nigeria’s official language, English) into the local language to assist in this goal.
SW: As you suggest, Northern Nigeria is very different from the South. Tell me more about the cultural diversity of Nigeria and what your team does to ensure Sesame Square’s curriculum is effective no matter which region of the country the child lives in.
AO: Nigerians are all very different, our views, our cultures, so we have to be respectful of what we say and how we say it. Nigeria is divided into six geopolitical zones. We have about 500 languages in Nigeria, if not more.
To celebrate this diversity, we decided to introduce different live action films from all around Nigeria. We have live action films from the North, from the Southeast, from the Southwest. If you see a child dressed up in their traditional clothes, you will know from which part of the country they are from. In these films, children greeted members of their family and community in various languages and motions. This we felt was a great way to introduce the various greetings across Nigeria, so children could be exposed to their country’s rich cultural and linguistic diversity.
AO: There is a lot of room to improve education in Nigeria. Our program isn’t just about ABCs and 123s. We infuse it with thinking and reasoning skills; health, hygiene, and nutrition; child, family, and social relations; understanding, respect, and diversity; and finally arts and cultural heritage. Nigeria is blessed with a wonderful culture in which the community is concerned about each person and each child. We try to bring that back: respecting your elders, loving your community, and assisting the less fortunate. At the same time, we’re trying to teach the basics that children need to grow and succeed in school.
Another part of our project is about HIV/AIDS. It caused quite a stir, because people thought we were planning to teach small children about sex education. Eventually they realized that we are teaching them about loving everyone around you (reduce the stigma of HIV), that even if someone has HIV, you can love them, share food with them, and most importantly, play with them. We inform the children that their bodies belong to them, and if anyone does anything negative to their bodies, they have a right to say no and inform their parents/guardians.
We talk a bit about malaria; the number of children who die of malaria in Nigeria is large. We teach children to make sure there is no stagnant water in their compound, we encourage them to cover open water containers, and to sleep under a treated mosquito net.
Another interesting thing about the program is we try to promote girls’ education, by encouraging girls to go to school and stay there. Sesame Square features women who have succeeded to become important contributors to the society, like female pilots. We show a live action segment where a little girl goes to the airport and meets a female pilot. We also introduce a woman in the North who is a carpenter. We show and share situations where women have done very well for themselves in what is perceived as a “man’s” profession.
SW: Nigeria is a complex place, not only culturally, but also politically and economically. Tell me about that complexity and what the Sesame Square team does to overcome it.
AO: There seems to be a lot of problems in the Northern part of Nigeria right now with the bombings. It is a bit scary when you hear what’s going on, but like my husband who works in that part of the country, people still go about their day-to-day lives.
Another challenge we have is the fact that TVs are not in every household. We’re trying to find ways to around this. In most communities, you do find people with TVs, and as we’re working within the communities, we are identifying people who could share the use their TVs, whether it’s “come to our house and watch TV once a week,” or donate a television set.
Right now we have a little pilot project in Kano State in the North. We partnered with International Foundation for Education and Self Help (IFESH) and Intel. For this activity three pilot sites have been identified to receive our materials. Intel has donated laptops, and we’ve supplied Season 1 episodes of Sesame Square as well as a set of literacy activities on external hard drives for each laptop. IFESH has supplied reading materials and built a reading corner at the sites, and all three partners are conducting training on how to use their materials most effectively.
We are continuing to look for creative ways and additional platforms including radio to share the Sesame Square learning experience with children who otherwise might have little access to our show or other early education opportunities.