THE latest dastardly US plan to win over the hearts and minds of Pakistan's youth involves a six-year-old girl with a passion for music and reading, a friendly donkey who likes to sing, and a boy who loves numbers.
A furry, red monster called Elmo is also involved. Pakistan is about to get Sesame Street, but with a makeover that makes it unique. There will be the familiar tips on reading and writing and messages about health and hygiene. But gone are Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, the two stalwarts having been replaced by Pakistani characters.
The US agency for international development (USAid) is spending about (pounds sterling)12m to produce and broadcast the show in a nation where up to a third of children do not go to school. Filming at locations around Pakistan took place last month, and last week work got under way at production studios in Lahore. The first episode is scheduled to be broadcast later this month.
"The key areas of the show will focus on language and literacy, maths and science, as well as respect for diversity," said Faizan Peerzada, of the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, which is working with the American authorities on the project. "We have the original Sesame Street template but more than 90 per cent of the characters are local."
A deliberate decision was taken to make a young girl, Rani, the star of the show. Complete with a blue and white school uniform and pigtails, the young girl loves cricket and captains the school team, and plays traditional Qawwali music. She even plays the harmonium.
The show's producers said that by selecting Rani as the main character, they were trying to promote the message that young girls were as deserving of being sent to school as boys. While educational facilities in Pakistan are poor, for girls the situation is far worse.
Mr Peerzada's family-run theatre workshop has put on cultural events and puppet shows in Lahore for more than 20 years.
While Elmo is the only character from the original show making the transition to Pakistan, there is a flurry of other, new creations. Baily is a musical donkey, while Haseen O'Jameel is a crocodile who lives at the bottom of a well. Rani's best friend, meanwhile, is Munna, a five-year-old boy who enjoys mathematics as well as playing the traditional tabla drum.
Larry Dolan, who until recently was an education officer for USAid in Pakistan, said: "One of the key goals of the show in Pakistan is to increase tolerance toward groups like women and ethnic minorities."
Sesame Street first aired in the US in 1969, and the US government has worked with the company since then to produce shows in about 20 other countries, including Indonesia and Bangladesh. The Sesame Workshop, a non-profit co-operative of writers, artists and educators, is involved in initiatives in 140 nations.
The Pakistani version of the show, Sim Sim Hamara (roughly "Our Street"), will be broadcast in Urdu as well as a number of regional languages. It will also be heard on the radio and for those who have access to the internet, there will be a dedicated website. Mr Peerzada and his colleagues will also be involved in thousands of outreach initiatives based on the concept in towns and villages across the country.
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