It’s not Big Bird. Meet Tilou and Lili in this Sesame Street-inspired Haiti series

A bespectacled blue-haired Tilou runs to the meeting spot beneath a towering mahogany tree seeking advice from his friends. He wants to make a surprise gift for twin sister Lili, he says, but doesn’t know where to begin.

“Do you have a plan?” a yellow Sponge Bob-like book figure asks before another character, an inquisitive lizard, chimes in, “Everything has a process.”

And so begins the lesson on pwosesis or process in Lakou Kajou (pronounced La-Kou Ka-jou), a new Kreyòl-language educational television program that recently began broadcasting on Télé Soleil, a family-friendly station run by the Roman Catholic Church in Port-au-Prince.

The Sesame Street-inspired programming — which combines colorful animation, 3-D graphics and live action with real kids and adults — is a first for Haiti, a country with one of the lowest literacy rates in the hemisphere and where animated television shows for children are as non-existent as adequate books and qualified teachers in many classrooms.

Aimed at young children, the 15-minute episodes focus on subjects such as photosynthesis, geography, evaporation, and process. And all of it is in the language of the masses, Haitian Creole or Kreyòl, as opposed to French, the prevailing language of instruction in most schools.

“Why it’s unique? Because it’s so Haitian. We don’t have that here,” said head writer Gilbert Mirambeau Jr., whose employer, Muska, co-produced the series along with Los Angeles-based filmmaker Linda Hawkins Costigan and Charlotte Cole, former Sesame Workshop senior vice president for global education.

Written and produced in Port-au-Prince , the series provides Haitian children with cultural references — and cartoon characters they can relate to.

Take, for example, the show’s name Lakou Kajou, which means the Mahogany Courtyard in English. The mahogany, or kajou tree as it is known in Kreyòl, is where Haitians often gather to tell tales in their lakou, the central space that’s an essential part of rural family life. It’s also the place where 6-year-old twins, Tilou and Lili, embark on adventures with friends in the series.

The two “have their ups and downs; they have their personalities and they are not perfect,” said Cole, who was in charge of curriculum development and research for Sesame’s international projects before leaving three years ago. “What we are trying to do is provide protagonist characters that look Haitian, that are relaying the stories and are relatable to kids.”

While television viewing in Haiti remains limited to those with access to electricity, there are no shortages of television channels in the country. But kid-friendly programs are scarce. Haitian airwaves are consumed by political talk shows, sleek commercials for products most people can’t afford, seductive MTV-like music videos and French-dubbed imported soap operas.

Of 128 authorized television channels, about 78 are on air, said Jean Marie Altema the head of CONATEL, Haiti’s version of the Federal Communications Commission.

Over the years, there have been some Haitian reference children’s shows and international quality kids’ programming. But they are mainly broadcasts from French TV. This is the first Haitian-produced program based on international standards and with educational value.

“We don’t have this kind of production in Haiti,” said Mirambeau.

The brainchild of Cole and Costigan, the series’ ultimate goal is to make learning fun, and to educate children through modeling as they watch their characters wash their hands or use a mosquito net, for example.

“Learning is beautiful in Lakou Kajou. That’s not an experience the majority of children have in Haiti where learning is usually painful and school is not pretty,” said Josiane Hudicourt-Barnes, an educator who recently chaired a workshop session focusing on Kreyòl use in the program to help formulate a new batch of episodes.

Hudicourt-Barnes, who also participated in the first curriculum seminar, said science was the series’ debut by Haitian educators because “very little [science] is available to the children in Haiti.

“One of the issues with education in Haiti is there is so little focus on understanding and more focus on memorizing words,” she said. “This TV program will help kids know what it is to understand a concept.”

The Rev. Claudy Duclervil, general director of Télé Soleil, which is airing the episodes for free, said the response has been positive.

“During the airing, people sent us emails and text messages telling us they are very happy,” Duclervil said. “I’m very happy with it.”

The idea of the show was born a decade ago while Costigan was producing and directing the documentary film, “The World According to Sesame Street.” Filming took her to Bangladesh, Kosovo, South Afrirca and El Salvador, during which Costigan observed the intense process in which Sesame Workshop tapped local educators to help it identify what the needs were to make the productions.

“I was really affected by how children from all of these countries got to see representations of themselves, their culture, and what was familiar to them on screen,” she said. “It’s a really empowering thing to see that rather than just getting imported television, imported ideas.”

So Costigan, whose mother is Haitian and had always had the country in her consciousness, thought to herself, “Why can’t we do this 600 miles off the coast of Florida? Why can’t we do this in Haiti?”

She approached Sesame Workshop where Cole championed the idea. But after several starts and stops, the idea of bringing Sesame Street to Haiti died.

Then three years ago, Cole, who had just left Sesame Workshop after 20 years, called Costigan. She wanted to know if the filmmaker was still interested in doing a project in Haiti. “Absolutely,” Costigan said.

The two soon flew to Port-au-Prince where they funded their own feasibility study before receiving funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to produce the series. Over the course of months, they brought together a team of researchers, educators, linguists, producers, directors and animators.

To create the character, the women tapped well-known Haitian illustrator and comic book artist Chevelin Pierre. For the animation, they turned to brothers Jud-Alix and John Francois of Ayitikomik. The brothers are the stars behind Haiti’s only other cartoon character, Ti-Joël. Unlike Tilou and Lili, however, Ti-Joël appears in one-minute animated spots focused on public service announcements about cholera and littering.

Former Haiti Education Minister Nesmy Manigat who championed the use of technology in the classrooms and Kreyòl instruction in science and math rather than in French — a language many children do not fully understand — said he’s excited about the series.

“It offers a constructive and engaging way to keep children occupied during their free time,” Manigat said. “In addition to reinforcing the fact that children can and do learn from different sources and in less formal settings, it is a less intrusive way to introduce technology in education in Haiti.”

And while Sesame Street inspired the production, it is anything but the popular PBS staple. There are no Muppets or even Big Bird. What there are, are lessons learned from Sesame’s success — and the window word ladies. An homage to Costigan’s tight Haitian family circle of instructive aunts and cousins, the ladies yell out the word of the day in each episode to reinforce learning.

Among the lessons, creators say: Children learn best when the educational material they are exposed to is relevant, mapped to their own experiences and related to the environment in which they are growing up.

“The closer it is to their reality, the easier the learning is,” said Cole, who holds a doctorate in human development and psychology from Harvard School and runs the nonprofit Blue Butterfly Collaborative. “Having them count things that are familiar — mangoes as opposed to apples — is easier.”

Another lesson is that young children learn best when they are learning in their home language.

Few issues get Haitians emotionally charged as the debate over Kreyòl vs. French. Both are the country’s official language, and both carry their own cultural significance and schools of thought.

But choosing to go with Kreyòl for the episodes didn’t put the debate to rest. In fact, some of the most highly charged discussions centered around the use of Kreyòl and its distinct grammatical structures and sound patterns. Among the issues: regional dialect and what word should be used when there is more than one word in Kreyòl or no word at all.

“The language was a major challenge because there are two types of schools within the academy,” said Mirambeau, recalling the debate over the word “stream.”

With no exact translation, the linguists tossed around and debated several words from ti rivyè, little river, to ti dlo, little water.

“Ultimately, we have to go with what’s best for the kids,” Mirambeau said, “because it needs to be fun at the end of the day.”

Follow Jacqueline Charles on Twitter: @Jacquiecharles