KABUL Children in Afghanistan soon will be able to start their education the same way as millions of preschoolers elsewhere in the world: by watching the TV series "Sesame Street."
Makers of the show worked with two Afghan television channels and the ministry of education to produce the Afghan series, which begins on Thursday and features footage of Afghan life and the Muppets from the original U.S. version.
The series aims to encourage a love of learning in Afghanistan's youth. Around 45 percent of the population is under 15 and many will struggle to get an education, said Masood Sanjar, channel manager at TOLO TV, which will broadcast the show in Afghanistan's Dari language.
"Less than two-thirds of children are enrolled in primary school," he told reporters and children who had been invited to meet characters Grover and Ernie at a briefing in Kabul.
"'Sesame Street' is undoubtedly the most influential children's television program in the world. It was the first show to effectively use television as education," he said.
The series, funded by the U.S. embassy in Kabul and known in Afghanistan as 'Baghch-e-Simsim', will also be broadcast in the Pashto language on another channel, LEMAR TV.
"'Sesame Street' is not just for children," said Ryan Crocker, the United States' ambassador to Afghanistan.
"Teachers will discover that the characters in 'Sesame Street' can help children start school well prepared ... Afghan children who watch 'Sesame Street' will be ready to start school knowing the alphabet and knowing their numbers."
The Afghan education system, like many of its government functions, suffers from shortages of cash, and infrastructure shattered by years of war.
Earlier this year, a senior NATO commander said that only one in 10 Afghans who sign up for jobs in the army and police can read and write.
On Wednesday, Crocker said that when he first came to Afghanistan in 2001, only 900,000 children were in school, but that number has risen to more than 8 million.
A sample film displayed at the briefing on Wednesday showed a 6-year-old Afghan girl making friends on her first day at school, and red furry character Elmo searching in vain for someone who looked sad.
"Children will learn about the great diversity in this country," said Charlotte Cole, vice president for international education at Sesame Workshop, a not-for-profit organization that originally devised the series, first broadcast in America in 1969 and now screened in more than 100 countries.
"It's an opportunity to see a positive image of children like themselves on the screen."
(Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Paul Tait)