Associated Press Writer

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Ethiopian TV has an unlikely new star. From an unexpectedly riveting new show.

It's Tsehai, a perky, curious, talking giraffe who has captured the imaginations of young fans and helped fill educational gaps in an impoverished country where most adults cannot read and many school-age children aren't in school.

A typical seven- or eight-minute episode of "Tsehai Loves Learning" finds Tsehai gathered with her family and friends on a computer-generated set evoking Ethiopia's mountains, plains, valleys or deserts. Since debuting in September, the show on Ethiopian state television has focused on the environment while trying to instill the Amharic alphabet and other fundamentals.

Bright sock puppets and sophisticated computer graphics draw on the skills of the show's creators: an Ethiopian who once taught grade school and her American husband, a computer engineer. Brucktawit and Shane Etzenhouser sunk their savings into the project, then found additional U.N. funding.

"We feel like this is something that needed to be done because only a few children get to go to private schools and most kids don't go to school at all here," said Brucktawit, who designed and sewed the puppets and, along with her husband and a few friends, provides their voices.

Brucktawit provides the squeaky voice for Tsehai (the name means sun in Amharic), a brown and yellow puppet with eyelashes of multicolored glitter adding an impish touch. Brucktawit also comes up with themes for the shows, with a little help from her husband. Shane provides computer animation, and tapes and edits the programs.

"Most couples are separated because of work, but we're able to work together because we created this whole thing and so we have fun doing it," said Shane, originally from Topeka, Kansas. "We tell people that the show and Tsehai are kind of like a first child."

The show is aimed at 3- to 6-year-olds, but doesn't shy from weighty issues. In one episode, Tsehai, depicted as a 6-year-old, loses a dear friend, Grandfather Tree, to a farmer's ax.

Tsehai's grandmother, a recurring character, consoles her. And a new friend, Granddaughter Tree, sprouts in Grandfather Tree's place. The show is for children, but the themes are for kids and adults alike.

"We hope to teach both children and parents to be more environmentally and socially aware," Shane said. "The show can accomplish this."

Ethiopian Television, the staid home of traditional music and dance programs as well as official news, has been branching out lately. Last year, it had a hit with a homegrown "American Idol"-type show.

"Tsehai Loves Learning" was first shown on Sundays within an hourlong children's program on the channel.

"After the first episode, we received so many letters and phone calls from children and their parents," said Seifu Seyoum, head of programming at Ethiopian Television, explaining why "Tsehai" is now aired up to three times a week.

Seifu said the program was helping to fight illiteracy in Ethiopia, and "was a good opportunity to help out those who can't afford school."

According to the latest complete government figures, about 68 percent of 7- to 14-year-old Ethiopians were enrolled at the start of the 2004 school year, and many are believed to have dropped out over the course of that year. Enrollment in secondary school was just 22 percent. Adult literacy is less than 40 percent.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which gave the Etzenhousers $6,000 to produce half the eight episodes so far completed, estimates the show was reaching more than a million Ethiopians. That may not sound like much in a nation of 73 million, but UNESCO spokesman Paul Hector said a small investment "is being strategically used."

Hector said his and other U.N. agencies were interested in supporting the program further, even trying to show it on a movie-theater-size screen in Meskel Square, the Times Square of Addis Ababa, where hundreds of street children spend their days and nights.

The Etzenhousers hope Ethiopia will serve as the pilot for something larger. They envision better production quality -- they spend about $1,200 on each show now, but say they could do with 10 times that -- and an expansion into other languages to take the show to other African countries.

They figure Tsehai the giraffe could stick her neck out even farther for kids' literacy.

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