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Volume 3 Issue 6 | June 2008



Original Forum Editorial

Month in Review: Bangladesh
Month in Review: International
Masters of Our Own Fate-- Shayan Khan
Where is the Conscience of Our Nation? --Tazreena Sajjad
The Rights of the Rohingyas-- Ziaur Rahman and Mahbubul Haque
Women Warriors--Sharmeen Murshid
Photo Feature -- Climate Refugees --Abir Abdullah
The Maobaadi Triumph-- Kanak Mani Dixit
Lessons from the Women Development Policy Debacle-- Jyoti Rahman
Going Underground-- Yasmin Chowdhury
No Room for Complacency -- Zaid Bakht and Md. Nazmul Hoque
Fear of a Muslim Planet-- Naeem Mohaiemen
Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sisimpur? -- Asrar Chowdhury


Forum Home


Can you tell me how to get to Sisimpur?

Somewhere, sometime in Bangladesh there's a fairy tale land. If you're lucky enough to reach this magical place, you'll find the classrooms have no walls. The sky is the limit and the earth is the floor. Halum, Tuktuki, Shiku, Ikri Mikri and friends wait on their chariot to take you on a "magical mystery tour" to places beyond your wildest imagination.

Yes, imagination is indeed the key word to enter and travel in this magical land -- a land where all entrants are treated equally. The way it should be.

In just three years, Sisimpur, the Bangladeshi adaptation of the US's Sesame Street, has itself become a phenomenon. Sisimpur has opened a whole new world of imagination to children who will soon be going to school. And also, to those who may never be fortunate enough to ever go to school!

(From top to bottom)
Lal Mia was the postman of Sisimpur. Unfortunately, he died (in reality and in Sisimpur). The Sisimpurians have dedicated an auditorium in his memory.
Mukul is a university graduate who has come back to Sisimpur to start a business.
Sumona is the local school teacher. She loves reading and has a knack for D-I-Y activities.
Guni Moira is the owner of the sweet shop. He distributes free sweets whenever he hears good news.
Asha is Guni Moira's wife and the local librarian. She is a role model for the children, especially her son, Polash.

It's almost universally accepted that benefits from investment in education usually outweigh their costs. Empirical evidence suggests education has direct impacts on poverty reduction. Since independence, with generous help from friends in the outside world, government and non-government institutions have made impressive strides in enrolment of children in primary education. The performance has been more impressive because special emphasis has been placed on girls, the future mothers of our future generation.

But then the question remains -- do the numbers really add up? Statistical figures on absolute progress can be misleading. In spite of all of our efforts in primary education, the crisis remains. One out of five children fail to go to school. Further dropouts emerge among the "fortunate" who do go to school. Not too many see themselves beyond primary school!

How do we reach out to this left-out group? It's not that this question hasn't been addressed. The economic condition of the masses in Bangladesh restricts many development initiatives in fulfilling their potential outcome. Social and political factors create more restrictions. Alas! For logical reasons, theoretical possibilities may and can fail to meet their evidential counterparts.

In spite of all our efforts we haven't succeeded in truly reaching the masses of children. However, there is one medium that can take educational projects to every neck of the woods -- Bangladesh Television, BTV. A nation where the public sector raises suspicion at first impression, BTV has proved it is possible to fight against the odds and make a difference. One potential and virgin area of childhood education lies in pre-school education. This is where Sisimpur fits in so well. And of course "with a little help from (our) friends."

The US phenomenon Sesame Street burst out in the 1960s. Since then, Sesame Street has been instrumental in educating pre-school children. Through their caricatures, the Muppets have educated generations of children worldwide. Sesame Street is one of the few children's programs that shows playing and learning can co-exist. And when they do, the sky is the limit. Imagination simply takes over. Unfortunately, even a program like Sesame Street has its limitations!

Rabindranath Tagore once said: "Languages and cultures have strictly guarded boundaries. A passport is seldom granted to a traveller." Although Sesame Street has a universal appeal, it's pre-dominantly for the US or western society. Language holds the passport to hop on to "Star Ship Enterprise" to enter a culture and "go where no man has ever been before." To reach wider audiences, Sesame Street had to blend with the local culture. Bangladesh is one of the many countries where Sesame Street has been indigenised. In Bangladesh, Sesame Street is known under its Banglicised name, Sisimpur. It's located somewhere, sometime in Bangladesh.

Sesame Workshop in the US teamed up with Nayan Tara Communications in Bangladesh to produce Sisimpur, financed by USAID. Sisimpur is sponsored by Unilever's health brand Pepsodent, and first aired on BTV in April 2005. All Sisimpur content is researched and vetted by the Nayantara Education and Research team.

Sisimpur was one of the first initiatives in Bangladesh in pre-school education. Why pre-school education and not primary education? Why not? It's a well-documented fact that as much as 80 percent of the total development of the human brain happens in the first 5-6 years of a child's life, starting from the mother's womb. Contrary to popular belief, with proper guidance and a safe environment, children can absorb much, much more than adults think they can. Small wonder, Aamir Khan declared that "every child is special" in Taare Zameen Par. Yes, every child is special. It's amazing that after infancy we don't improve too much for the rest of our lives! This is why the importance of pre-school education is paramount.

Sesame Street has shown how the power of television can introduce young children to the power of imagination to broaden their horizons, preparing them for school. Indigenisation of Sesame Street to Sisimpur meant indigenous Muppets and indigenous stories. The inner philosophy remains unchanged -- Sisimpur seeks to catch the attention and imagination of "every" child in Bangladesh because "every child is special."

Sisimpur aims to make learning a joyful experience in early childhood and has been designed to meet the needs of three- to six-year-old across various social classes and regions of Bangladesh. From its outset, Sisimpur assumes Bangladesh is a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society. At the same time, we don't live in a secluded island. We are members of a global village. Sisimpur seeks to create an environment where a child experiences total childhood by growing up within Bangladesh and outside Bangladesh.

Each episode of Sisimpur is designed to engage children in basic language and mathematics through stories, songs and rhymes. This prepares for children to appreciate education is an important part of growing up. Children are encouraged to learn a new concept in each episode. This includes vocabulary, adult professions, caring for the environment and self-expression. The tools of learning are as old as the mountains -- observation, listening, imitating, but above all asking questions. Each episode of Sisimpur aspires to make children inquisitive about the environment within their boundaries and about environments beyond their boundaries. The classrooms in Sisimpur have no boundaries. Imagination can't have boundaries.

Sisimpur provides children with basic education on health, hygiene, nutrition, and safety. Children appreciate the importance of brushing their teeth and washing their hands. They discover how physical exercise is important, but so is also getting enough rest. Children find out the importance of vitamins, proteins and other food components and their sources in common and affordable fruits, vegetables, fish and meat. Diversity points towards tolerance and respect to others. Children are exposed to urban and rural communities across different occupations. Children come to know we live in a society where racial, religious and ethnic traditions and values of families are different. Accepting and appreciating these differences is one area where Sisimpur places special emphasis. Art, culture and heritage of Bangladesh and the outside world are the "final frontiers" of Sisimpur's educational goals. Children are exposed to both Bangladeshi and non-Bangladeshi forms of art and culture. They are also exposed to music, song, dances. The imaginary world of Sisimpur is the platform for children. The whole world is their stage.

To achieve the educational objectives, Sesame Workshop in New York crafted the Muppets with input from our very own world famous puppeteer Mustafa Manwar. With the power of the ruby glass slippers, the Muppets transform a world of imagination into a world of reality.

The Muppets may be imaginary characters, but Sisimpur does have its own human characters that interact with the Muppets. The human characters educate the Muppets and open new worlds to them. With each episode and each season, the Muppets and the human characters of Sisimpur gradually and slowly have become a part of the lives in the imagination of children across Bangladesh.

There are three aspects of Sisimpur that merit attention. The first is Live Action. These are little documentary films. Un-tapped talent in children across Bangladesh is the ingredient of these documentaries. Under the guidance of M Ali Haider, 18 novice adolescent children from three districts of Bangladesh have contributed to recent Live Action documentaries that focus on children's activities and life styles across Bangladesh. These trainees have also contributed in some recent music videos. This component of Sisimpur is unique among all Sesame Street versions across the globe. Small wonder, our children have shown the potential un-tapped talent can hold.

The second aspect is Outreach and Walk Around. True, the power of BTV can take Sisimpur to every neck of the woods, but then the problem of numbers adding up arises again! Many children and their families don't have access to any kind of telecommunication in Bangladesh. Even if some do, their families may not be aware of the benefits of a pre-school program like Sisimpur. USAID teamed up with Save the Children to take Sisimpur "where no man has ever been before."To remote villages where children don't have ready access to a TV set or even electricity. Under Outreach, a traditional rickshaw transforms into a mobile theatre. The children eagerly wait for Halum, Tuktuki, Shiku, and Ikri Mikri to take them to places no other educational program has ever had the power to in Bangladesh. Small wonder, just a few months from its inception in a small town in Savar, Outreach regularly attracts more than 100 children in each of its shows. Under Walk Around, live Muppets visit various areas of Bangladesh. Because every child is special, yes, every little child! Even if this means some of the children in the audience may never have the good fortune of setting foot in a proper classroom.

The final aspect is the potential of pre-school education. Sisimpur has been on the road for only three years now. It may be too early to call the cards. Nevertheless, the evidence of one experiment "begs" to speak. Two groups of children were chosen. A group of 240 children watched ten episodes of Sisimpur over 20 days. Another group of 240 children watched an animated series, Tom and Jerry, over 20 days. Children in both groups were then tested on skills related to the educational goals of Sisimpur. No doubt, more research is needed to establish theoretical evidence with empirical experience, but it was found that the group of children who watched Sisimpur showed better vocabulary skills, counting ability, cognitive skills, and cultural knowledge and life skills. Small wonder once again. Sisimpur's recent crowning glory came with winning the Cine Golden Eagle Film and Video Competition for Children's Programs.

The concept of pre-school education is new in Bangladesh. Sisimpur is only three years old. Even then. "With a little help from (our) friends" in the outside world (USAID), our local experts (Nayan Tara), and BTV, Sisimpur has shown it is possible to make a difference. Sisimpur has come a long way in just three years to show the potential pre-school programs in Bangladesh have in addressing "equity" a challenge for any educational program. Sisimpur has the potential to really show that every child is special. If we don't invest in our children first, does it really make sense to talk about other development goals? Which reminds me. Halum has just blown the whistle. Can you tell me how to get to Sisimpur?

The Muppets
Halum is an ageless friendly tiger. Although Halum loves fish, he's learning the benefits of vegetables.

Tuktuki is a five-year old girl. She wants to learn everything. When she learns something new, she likes to share with friends.
Shiku is a five-year-old jackal. He's also inquisitive. Shiku wants to become a scientist and a detective.

Ikri Mikri is the youngest, three years old. She's always asking questions. Ikri Mikri knows she can count on Halum to make her feel better.


Asrarul Islam Chowdhury teaches economics at Jahangirnagar University and North South University.

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