- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 1, 2010

LAGOS, Nigeria | It looks a lot like “Sesame Street,” only that’s no Cookie Monster.

“What is so exciting about yams? Everything!” Zobi, a taxi-driving muppet, shouts in a Nigerian lilt to anyone who will listen. “I can fry the yam. I can toast it. I can boil it. I love yams!”

“Sesame Street,” once a mainstay for a generation of Nigerian children who grew up with the U.S. show on the state-run TV network, will return to screens in Africa’s most populous nation this fall, funded by American taxpayers but distinctively Nigerian.

Produced and voiced by Nigerians in formal — if squeaky — English, the show aims to educate a country nearly half of whose 150 million people are 14 or younger. Its issues focus on the same challenges faced by children in a country where many have to work instead of going to school: AIDS, malaria nets, gender equality — and yams, a staple of Nigerian meals.

Nigeria is diverse; we have 250 different ethnic groups, so many different languages. We don’t have the same customs. We do think differently,” executive producer Yemisi Ilo said. But “children are children. All children love songs and all children love furry, muppety, animal-type things.”

Renamed “Sesame Square,” the show will air 26 episodes in the first of its scheduled three seasons, with one show for each letter of the alphabet.

The lead muppets are Kami, whose yellow fur matches the dandelion on her vest, and Zobi, who resembles a mint-green shag carpet. Kami is an orphan with HIV who explains blood safety to children through her own story. Zobi, whose yellow cab lacks an engine, teaches by ineptness, getting entangled in a mosquito net while explaining malaria prevention.

They live not on a fictional U.S. city street but in “Sesame Square,” whose concrete homes and slatted windows mirror those found in Nigerian villages.

“A village square is somewhere where people gather around. It’s the news and information,” Mr. Ilo said. “It’s all across Nigeria.”

The muppets’ adventures take place between original recorded “Sesame Street” segments, redubbed with Nigerians voicing the parts of familiar characters such as Bert and Ernie. One live-action scene shows hijab-wearing girls in the Muslim-majority north kicking a soccer ball and proudly saying they can do anything a boy can do.

The Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that oversees “Sesame Street,” received a five-year, $3 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development. That comes after the government agency funded a 2007 pilot project featuring Kami and Big Bird discussing HIV infections and AIDS.

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