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How a Hand Puppet Is Helping Millions of Ethiopian Kids

In a country with high mortality rates, a TV show giraffe is educating youngsters by showing them healthy habits.

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Former schoolteacher Brutawit Tigabu (center), greets children with giraffe puppet Tsehai, star of Tigabu's hit Ethiopian TV show, Tsehai Loves Learning. The show promotes health and disease prevention.

Former schoolteacher Bruktawit Tigabu is an unlikely media mogul.

But on Ethiopian TV and radio, Tigabu has become a major force in improving kids’ lives.

Tigabu’s Addis Ababa-based production company, Whiz Kids Workshop, produces children’s TV shows that promote early education, literacy, health education, and gender equality. Among them: Tsehai Loves Learning, Ethiopia’s first educational TV preschool program; Little Investigators, the country’s first kid-oriented science show; and the recently launched animated series Tibeb Girls.

Tigabu, raised in poverty, had no intention of becoming something of a media magnate. But after three years as an elementary school teacher, Tigabu realized that she needed a bigger venue to address widespread illiteracy and hygiene issues, as well as the mortality rate—over 300,000 Ethiopian children under the age of five die every year, most from malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, measles, and malnutrition.

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Tigabu and her husband, Shane Etzenhouser, record music for an episode of Tsehai Loves Learning.

“Free education here is only offered to children once they turn seven,’’ says Tigabu, 35, a Rolex Laureate. “Very few people can afford to send their kids to private school, so it’s the vacuum of these early years that we fill.”

Tsehai Loves Learning, which features a Sesame Streetstyle talking giraffe puppet, began airing in 2010 and is now a national hit watched by more than five million Ethiopians. The more than hundred-episode series promotes health through songs, storytelling, and simple graphics. (The Rolex Award helped fund episodes that focused on malaria and diarrhea). Field tests ensure that viewers are absorbing the show's learning objectives.

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Children in Sendafa, a small town north of Ethiopia's capital, screen a TV show produced by Tigabu's Whiz Kids Workshop production company.

Whiz Kids has since developed two additional series, Tasha's Fidel School, which promotes reading and writing skills, and Involve Me, a reality series featuring films of personal life lessons created by underprivileged youths.

Tibeb Girls, which launched last month, is an action-drama about three young girls who use their superpowers to fight against gender inequality, child marriage, and the educational and sexual issues facing adolescent girls.

Tigabu and her husband and Whiz Kids production partner, Shane Etzenhouser, are planning a 2018 TV series targeting adolescent girls.

“We want to give more kids the tools to help them think better,’’ says Tigabu.

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.