For Afghanistan's children of war, 'Sesame Street' could provide healing touch

Test series: Afghan kids watch "Koche Sesame," an adaptation.
Test series: Afghan kids watch "Koche Sesame," an adaptation. (Courtesy of Sesame Workshop)
By Emily Wax
Thursday, March 25, 2010

HERAT, AFGHANISTAN -- Today's letter is K. As in Kandahar. Or Kermit the Frog.

As U.S.-led coalition forces attempt to drive out Taliban insurgents from Afghanistan, the intrepid frog and his friends -- the 8-foot-tall goofy yellow condor, the two bickering bachelors and the trash-can-dwelling misanthrope -- could pick up where the troops leave off.

Some educators and television producers here hope that Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch of "Sesame Street" could one day be on screens across Afghanistan with their letters, numbers and messages of fair play, ethnic tolerance and national unity to help heal and shape the country's young minds.

Even the luckiest children in Afghanistan have childhoods defined by the specter of danger. Many parents limit their children's outdoor playtime because of fears about roadside bombs, land mines and shootouts, as well as thugs who take advantage of the lawlessness.

"Our children lack kindness because our society has seen only war and guns," said Latifa Akbari, a mother of six who works with an association for parents in Herat, Afghanistan's cultural capital. "Even our playgrounds have army soldiers and police officers with weapons. Maybe this 'Sesame Street' could help."

Afghan television is filled with U.S. imports featuring characters searching for ever more elaborate ways to pummel one another, such as the "Tom and Jerry" cartoons and World Wrestling Entertainment matches.

Inside a middle-class home tucked away amid the lively markets and ancient mosques in this western city, the Rahmani family's 10 children said they were captivated by the violent fare.

"I liked it when the mouse used some wires to electrocute the cat. That was funny," said Nawshir Rahmani, 10, as six of his brothers chuckled along with him.

Some child psychologists say the aggression in these programs is cathartic in a place where tanks, armed guards and roadblocks are posted in front of schools and near soccer fields. With television coverage spreading to more than half of the country's homes, children end up glued to the screen.

Some parents and educators say "Sesame Street," or similar shows, could kick-start the process of healing by targeting children before their brains are hard-wired with all the baggage left by three decades of war. Some children have been victims of sexual abuse. Others simply spend their days selling trinkets and candy at intersections or transporting brick pyramids on old wheelbarrows.

Parents approve

Throughout a trip I took across Afghanistan, "Sesame Street" kept coming up. Parents and educators said they thought the TV series was a genuine tool that could teach the children of war that revenge wasn't the answer, that every ethnic group had dignity and that female Muppets such as Maria or Miss Piggy could be forces of nature.

The program could "do everything from empowering women to teaching parents and kids not to throw trash on the ground," said Saad Mohseni, director of Tolo TV, a private station. "Sesame Street" had its origins in social engineering: The show premiered in 1969, during the social upheaval of the civil rights movement and the desegregation of American classrooms.

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