When children around Kinshasa started to sing a song from the teaser for their new TV show—even before the first episode was broadcast—Susan and Jason Sheper knew Bobo & Kipi would be a hit with Congolese kids.
Aimed at the three-to-six age group, the show uses puppets, live action and animation to educate children about virtues like honesty, forgiveness and sharing. Bobo & Kipi is now shown 18 times a week on 10 channels, both in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's capital, Kinshasa, and in 11 urban centres around the country.
The Shepers, Canadian Baha’is who have lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for more than 20 years, were inspired to produce a children’s program 10 years ago while visiting the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, Israel. In their annual message to the Baha’is of the world in 2000, the governing council of the international Baha’i community urged Baha’is everywhere to intensify their efforts to love and nurture children, which they described as “the most precious treasure a community can possess.”
Inspired by this message, the Shepers began the lengthy process of putting their children’s TV program together. They faced a number of obstacles such as television channels tend to broadcast sports, music videos or imported programming that is inappropriate for children either culturally or because of violent or sexual content, and because of the structure of the industry—producers pay TV stations to air their shows—the few programs made locally tend to have low production values. With a limited indigenous industry, very few Congolese have skills in media production.
The Shepers decided to aim for a program with high technical qualities, including high definition video. They were able to find a local commercial sponsor and assembled a team that included an Australian and a Canadian producer, an Australian director of photography and a French sound engineer. One of the goals of the project being the development of local human resources in children’s educational media production, it was important to the Shepers, for the rest of the 22 program staff to be Congolese.
“Like many Baha’i projects,” said Susan Sheper, “this is an international effort. A number of Canadian Baha’is who are media professionals were incredibly helpful, both with technical assistance and moral support. But the key is the involvement of the local staff who helped make the program culturally appropriate.”
The program, which assists children to build their character and make positive decisions by applying virtues, has four segments. The first uses hand puppets—a novelty in the DRC—to set up a scenario for the application of a virtue. Next, a song celebrates the virtue. Viewers are then taken on a “magical voyage” to a live action sequence using local children, which again reinforces the virtue. Finally, the puppets visit a talking tree that tells a story illustrated by animation.
The program is broadcasted in French, the language of the school system. The target audience often has minimal French skills—the DRC has four national languages and 400 dialects—so the program also helps kids prepare to enter school.
The Shepers are receiving reports of a positive reception for Bobo & Kipi from around the country.
“One friend doing supply teaching in a school asked her students to tell a story,” said Susan Sheper. “She was surprised when one boy retold a story from Bobo & Kipi so accurately that it was quite clear which episode it came from.
“The program is of such high quality that often people don’t believe it was made here,” said Sheper, who noted that production problems include an erratic power supply, with many blackouts and surges.
“We took Bobo & Kipi to MIPCOM, the international media market in Cannes, France, in October. It was selected as one of 5 finalists for the Kids Jury. It came in second with the kids but the media professionals gathered for the screening actually voted Bobo & Kipi as the winner for the 3-6 age group.
“At MIPCOM, we had interest in the show from the likes of Cbeebies, Sesame Street and Disney. So we have high hopes for our little show from the DRC.”
The Shepers put up most of the money for the project from their other business ventures, including a hotel. In addition to producing Bobo & Kipi, they are partnering with an American NGO funded by USAID to produce radio programs supporting the national curriculum, which are broadcast in 3000 schools. They will produce 600 programs over three years.
While the Shepers say Kinshasa is normally a safe environment despite the conflicts that have plagued the country for many years, they have had to flee the DRC with their children four times. On one occasion their home was even hit by artillery shells.
“That provided an opportunity to remodel,” quipped Susan.
A trailer for the show is available at http://www.youtube.com/user/MagicTreeMedia.