- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2004

In war-torn Afghanistan, where 96 percent of adults are illiterate, American-produced children’s TV programs — including “Sesame Street” — are being used to teach reading and help Afghans learn English.

An award-winning program for toddlers, “F Is for Farm,” from GoBabies-Alphabet Road, is the first American children’s program to air on television in Afghanistan.

The Alphabet Road video was aired to about 1 million households in the city of Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, over Nangrahar TV on May 16.

Former Afghan radio personality Zeba Khadem brought the program to Afghanistan in May, while she was assisting her son, Baktash, in distributing livestock to the country’s war widows through the Afghan-American Peace Corps.

“I figured if there was a way to go to Afghanistan and help my war-torn country, then I couldn’t go empty-handed,” said Mrs. Khadem, who fled with her husband and two children after the 1979 Soviet invasion.

Mrs. Khadem, now a U.S. citizen and Virginia resident, has been a radio broadcaster for Voice of America for the past 20 years. She said her keen interest in children’s causes led her to contact GoBabies in a request for children’s programming to take to Afghanistan.

Mrs. Khadem showed the children’s program to Nangrahar TV chief Abdul Ghafar Pacha who, after seeing only a few minutes of the show, immediately directed that “F Is for Farm” be put on the air.

“This is the best way for [the Afghan people] to learn English,” Mr. Pacha said. “We would like to have more programs like this.”

The “F Is for Farm” video is a new type of program for children 18 months and older. It features GoBabies puppets acting as tour guides on the set of a real-life New Jersey dairy farm. The format incorporates original songs, interactive activities and sign-language interpretation.

Maura White, chief executive officer and founder of GoBabies Inc., said the idea for the program, to enhance language development among American children, came from watching a language specialist work with her son who has auditory processing difficulties.

“‘F Is for Farm’ is produced in a way that adults and children can learn together,” Mrs. White said. “It’s a live action program, involving a variety of forms of repetition, and will be perfect for teaching the English language.”

The Afghan government wants to begin teaching children the English language within the early stages of their development. Mr. Pacha said television would play a vital role in increasing the literacy rate in the post-Taliban era.

In 1997, Afghanistan’s radical Taliban regime banned television and movies, saying the prohibition would mean more time to pray and help reform society into a 100 percent Islamic community. The toppling of the Taliban in late 2001 by a U.S.-led military coalition has helped return television to the country.

Mr. Pacha’s request for more U.S. shows has led the producers of Alphabet Road to start an effort among the National Association of Television Program Executives in order to donate additional children’s programming to broadcasters in Afghanistan. Animation producers DIC Entertainment and Dynamotion have agreed to make donations.

A specially adapted version of “Sesame Street” is being shown in schools and other settings in Afghanistan. Sesame Workshop — the nonprofit educational organization behind the long-running public television program — and the Rand Corp. began an initiative in May to produce the Afghan edition of the show.

More than 400 multimedia educational outreach kits were accepted by Sekander Giyam, adviser to the Afghan minister of education. The program has been dubbed in Dari, one of the Afghan languages, and is called “Koche Sesame.”

“We are very pleased with this gift,” Mr. Giyam told the Associated Press in May. “We need our children to have their eyes and their minds opened to new ideas.” Mr. Giyam said the educational outreach kits would help Afghan teachers “move into a new century of education.”

Each kit distributed with the videotapes contains a teacher handbook illustrating ways to use the media as an effective educational resource, a poster and school supplies.

Both “Koche Sesame” and “F Is for Farm” will assist teachers in educating children and attempt to foster awareness of other cultures in a nation that has been isolated because of invasion, occupation, civil war and Taliban rule.

Mrs. Khadem said schools in Afghanistan are poor — some classrooms don’t contain chairs or tables, so children are forced to sit on the floor.

“We are not only helping these children learn, but we are providing them with entertainment, as well, because learning should be fun” Mrs. Khadem said. “We hope this will give the Afghan people a positive taste of American people and the English language.”

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