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Sim Sim Hamara: Sesame Street, Education, and Local Determinism in Pakistan

By Fatima Tuz Zahra

Non-formal education for children can come in a variety of forms now. The only limitation seems to be monetary: that is can parents – more so society in general – afford to give children these lessons outside the classroom? In this context, television continues to be the cheapest and most enduring form of non-formal education for children. This article will highlight the case of Sim Sim Hamara, the Pakistani version of the classic U.S. show Sesame Street, which began airing in Pakistan on December 2011, using a piece  in Time.

Source: Sesame Street in Pakistan, BBC.

A Classroom of Learning and Tolerance and No Schools in Sight

According to “Pakistan’s Sesame Street: Can Urdu Elmo Aid a Blighted Nation”, Sim Sim Hamara is directly connected to USAid and thus is a part of U.S. strategy to foster religious tolerance and fight against the commonly held conception of rampant Islamic extremism in Pakistan. However, the politics of the project pales in comparison to its exigency, which is that almost 60% of Pakistan’s school-age children cannot read, and nearly three decades of neglect have left the country’s educational system in a “parlous state”. As Faizaan Peerzada, a master puppeteer and one of the directors of the series makes clear: “People might have thought it was some kind of brainwashing project. But at the end of the day, all we are doing is teaching a child to count”

Using the Sesame Street model, Sim Sim Hamara utilizes “short skits, song segments, and celebrity appearances” to educate on matters of real world literacy, such as counting and basic reading.  Additionally the character of the heavily made up Muppet aunty who runs the dhaba – includes lessons on “manners, healthy eating, and safety.” The article also points out that what makes Sim Sim Hamara especially interesting is that it also argues for religious and communal tolerance by using “subtle creativity”, and women’s education through a 6-year old female Muppet, who is captain of the cricket team and is passionate about science and reading.

Hegemony vs. local determinism

The Sim Sim Hamara project is funded by USAid and therefore its objectives do reflect the U.S.’s stated goals for development in the region: increasing female education and decreasing Islamic extremism. Numerous articles have pointed out that the reason the U.S. is funding this program is probably to boost its own credibility in the country, which currently is quite low, and for the program to work as a sort of social-engineering tool that is a direct manifestation of soft-power or propaganda.

However, contrary to the charges of hegemony and machinations, the local staff working on the show report that their U.S. backers have been rather hands-off on the project. Rather than work under Sesame Street Workshop, the Sim Sim Hamara team has collaborated with the parent company to develop the content and lessons for the show. Sim Sim Hamara is based on careful research by local scholars, national seminars, as well as four provincial workshops that were organized to gather educational advisors from various fields and stakeholders in Pakistan’s education scenario.

Sim Sim Hamara is also notable because of its commitment to the multilingual reality of Pakistan. Over the four years of its operations, which have been funded by USAid, it will broadcast 78 episodes in Urdu, and 13 in Sindhi, Punjabi, Pushtun, and Balochi.

Ultimately, as Perzada makes clear in an interview on The Guardian, the goal of the show is to “…to prepare and inspire a child to go on the path of learning, and inspire the parents of the child to think that the child must be educated.” Taken at face value the goals are clear: to foster the capabilities and capacities of the children and – a point often avoided in the politics of children’s education – to teach the parents as well that education is an important tool for children.

In conclusion, Sim Sim Hamara seems to be a project that can genuinely affect the children of Pakistan. As evidenced by notable studies such as Georgetown University’s Early Learning Project, the Sesame Street model and show have had a lot of success in educating and forming children in the U.S. and around the world. In the region there are local varieties of the show in India, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan; the first two have been operating with great success for over six years and have become independent programs, which no longer rely on donor funding. With luck Sim Sim Hamara will have the same success, and Rani and the gang will become Pakistan’s piyaara dostos for years to come.


Pakistan’s Sesame Street: Can an Urdu Elmo Aid a Blighted Nation? in Time Global Spin on Feb 20, 2012:

U.S. Bankrolls Pakistani Sesame Street Hoping It will “Increase Tolerance” in Fox News on Oct. 31, 2011:

Sesame Street for Pakistan, studying the effect of cocaine on birds’ sex lives, and Stonehenge for Pagan Air Force Cadets: Billions of federal dollars ‘wasted’ as U.S. debt explodes in Daily Mail on Dec. 23, 2011:

US Spends $20M on Pakistan Version of ‘Sesame Street’ to Help Fight Terrorism in The Christian Post on Nov. 1, 2011:

Sesame Street International: Pakistani Edition Of Iconic Kids’ Show Launched in the Huffington Post on Nov. 1, 2011:

Sim Sim Hamara: Sesame Street Comes to Pakistan in The Express Tribune Blog on Nov. 29, 2011:

Exclusive: A win-win with Sim Sim in on Dec. 11, 2011:

Pakistani Sesame Street Preaches Tolerance in on Oct. 31, 2011:

Educational TV serial for children from Dec 10 in on Dec. 2, 2011:

Sesame Workshop: Around the world:

Sesame Street goes to Pakistan in South Asia Investor Review on April 9, 2011:

Sesame Street comes to Pakistan in the Guardian on April 7, 2011:

Georgetown Early Learning Project:


ICTs and Prisons: Reflections on Technology and Injustice

By: Anna Greenstone

                      I initially found one, a little bit dated article for this topic—ICTs Training for Prisoners, but it interested me quite a lot and so I started searching for more recent and related media.  Unfortunately these were not easy to find… and my Internet perusing began to lose its focus.  As I looked through the most recent slew of TedTalks, I watched one given by lawyer Bryan Stevenson–an incredibly moving speech about the unjust prison system in the US.  And as I thought through his words, I began to recognize meaningful connections between his ideas and a blog entry about education for prisoners.

Briefly let me mention to pieces of media reviewing these initiatives in both East and West Africa before thinking more broadly about how they fit within the Stevenson video.   In a recent article by Chrispinious Wekesa, we learn about a promising initiative at Langata West Prison in Kenya, where inmates can now get a diploma in IT through Zetech College.  The slightly older piece from Ghana News Agency reports that the Ghanean Deputy Minister of Communications toured computer centers in several of the nation’s prisons.  He encouraged prisoners to learn ICTs, to help themselves successfully re-enter society.

In addition to shifting government policies, an important stakeholder in these changes seems to be African Prison Project who provide advocacy, legal, and other services to improve the lives of prisoners.

Lack of Media on ICTs for Prisoner Education in Africa

The topic of ICTs in prison education was not very well covered in the media.   As a novice media researcher I can only speculate to the reasons.  Perhaps the limited number of articles indicates there are only scattered projects of this kind; it is a limited initiative.  Perhaps the media continues to ignore more positive news and focus on more sensational items from the region: Somali pirates, famine or celebrity donors.  Although there is limited media coverage, I was happy to find it– to find some attention on positive news.  Its good that in developing countries that certainly struggle to provide basic public services,  efforts are being made toward prison reform.
Confronting Difficult Questions

Providing prisoners with not only basic education, but access to technology and skills that will help them better re-integrate into society, i.e. find employment, go back to school etc.  It is an important step in considering human rights and rehabilitation within the prison system and broader society.   But I also would like to consider points that Bryan Stevenson makes in his TedTalk.    As an attorney and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson’s main concern in this talk is helping his audience genuinely consider the implications of the US penal system on society, and its inherit unjust foundation and practices.

He does this through telling personal narratives and providing statistics and realities of the nation’s system that speak to its complete lack of humanity.   There are a couple of instances however, when he challenges our constant focus on other things, our look away from this painful injustice.  He specifically mentions technology and innovation.   Being that he is speaking to the Ted community which (rightly) celebrates innovation, he also challenges this community to look inward.   He asks that we confront the fact that Americans don’t like being uncomfortable, don’t like talking or more importantly dealing with racism, poverty or ways that we ignore injustice.  He notes that during or after the civil rights era, the US never went through a truth and reconciliation process, like South Africa for example, attempted.  Therefore, he challenges the value of creativity, innovation, and technology when we simultaneously ignore the suffering that many experience around us.

I think his insights are incredibly important in development work and would argue that the former colonizing and colonized countries never went through any sort of truth and reconciliation process either.  What’s more, neo-colonial practices perpetuated by the global north in some ways maintain global injustice.    It is too easy to get carried away with the fact that a new project or organization is helping the poor with ICTs, monitoring effectiveness with state of the art methods, or even using the latest technology in prison classrooms in African countries.  And those are good goals to strive for in public or non-profit educational work.  But Stevenson challenges—how can we be present to the injustice that grows or maintains a prison system, poverty, or racism?  What do we turn a blind eye to everyday?  I urge us to consider these questions always, particularly when we get carried away with innovation, technology, or development work and forget the real ‘why’ behind it.

Sources:  “Kenya: Prisoners Get Diplomas from Zetech College” AllAfrica  2/15/2012  “Prisoners asked to use time in prison to learn ICT” Ghana News Agency 8/2011  Link to Bryan Stevenson TedTalk  Equal Justice Initiative   Africa Prison Project

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