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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. http://goo.gl/YMZRx

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.

Sources:

Pakistan’s Sesame Street: Can an Urdu Elmo Aid a Blighted Nation? in Time Global Spin on Feb 20, 2012: http://goo.gl/W7Me8

U.S. Bankrolls Pakistani Sesame Street Hoping It will “Increase Tolerance” in Fox News on Oct. 31, 2011: http://goo.gl/5Du65

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: http://goo.gl/O2SJc

US Spends $20M on Pakistan Version of ‘Sesame Street’ to Help Fight Terrorism in The Christian Post on Nov. 1, 2011: http://goo.gl/Ic5Qc

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

Sim Sim Hamara: Sesame Street Comes to Pakistan in The Express Tribune Blog on Nov. 29, 2011: http://goo.gl/jX4vt

Exclusive: A win-win with Sim Sim in http://www.dawn.com on Dec. 11, 2011: http://goo.gl/3kfkB

Pakistani Sesame Street Preaches Tolerance in http://www.dawn.com on Oct. 31, 2011: http://goo.gl/z1l2S

Educational TV serial for children from Dec 10 in http://www.dawn.com on Dec. 2, 2011: http://goo.gl/4xD4g

Sesame Workshop: Around the world: http://goo.gl/anfb0

Sesame Street goes to Pakistan in South Asia Investor Review on April 9, 2011: http://goo.gl/JbjXc

Sesame Street comes to Pakistan in the Guardian on April 7, 2011: http://goo.gl/uDSqI

Georgetown Early Learning Project: http://goo.gl/9xPRm

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