Culture / Education

Meet the Ethiopian Teacher-Turned-Entrepreneur Using Cartoons to Fight Social Injustice

Bruktawit Tigabu gets animated about ending gender inequality

Bruktawit Tigabu was wrapping up a week-long media training session with a group of teenage girls in Ethiopia when they made a shocking revelation.   

“These three girls came to me and said, ‘You told us to be brave and courageous, so we have something to tell you that you need to fix,’” Bruktawit says. They told her that one of them was being forced into marriage at 13. Her father had agreed to marry her to an older man in exchange for money and a cell phone. In a few days, the girl was going to drop out of school and move in with him. 

Bruktawit was floored. The former teacher turned film and TV producer had just spent all week helping the girls make films that explore social issues. “To know that the things we’re talking about and fighting about [through these films] is actually happening right there, I was heartbroken.”  

2 out of 5

girls are married before the age of 18 in Ethiopia

The next day, Bruktawit hosted a film screening where community members watched the films produced by the girls. Bruktawit addressed the audience, saying, “I can’t talk because I’m too emotional because I let these girls down.” When asked how, she replied, “Because one of them isn’t going to make it, because her life is already predetermined.”  

Bruktawit’s voice still cracks when she tells the story. She told the audience about the planned marriage and urged them to put a stop to it, which they did. Community members intervened, ensuring the girl was not married. In Ethiopia, two out of every five girls are married before the age of 18.

Courtesy Bruktawit Tigabu

During her time as a teacher, Bruktawit noticed that some children lagged behind their peers. There is no public pre-school in Ethiopia, and Bruktawit realized that children who were fortunate to attend private pre-schools were more developmentally advanced. Wanting to help close this gap and provide quality early childhood education for millions of children in Ethiopia, she quit her job in 2005 to start Whiz Kids Workshop, a company that develops educational materials. Bruktawit spent the next year studying children’s programs like “Sesame Street,” teaching herself animation, and turning her living room into a film studio. In 2016, she launched her first show, “Tsehai Loves Learning,” and more than a decade later, it’s Ethiopia’s longest-running children’s series, reaching over 5 million people weekly.

What do superheroes do? They stand up for others and they fight for what is right.

For years, Bruktawit had considered making a TV show about a cast of female superheroes.  After meeting the young woman facing child marriage at her workshop, she decided it needed to happen.  

“What do superheroes do? They stand up for others and they fight for what is right. The girls who came and confronted me saying, ‘You told us to be brave, so stand up for us’ — for me, they were the superheroes,” Bruktawit says.

She immediately began working on the concept, which became “Tibeb Girls” (Tibeb is Amharic for wisdom), an animated children’s program set to debut in mid-2019. The show centers around three friends and superheroes, Fithe, Fikir, and Tigist, who use their powers to fight social injustice.  

Fithe, who lost both of her parents due to HIV, raises her younger siblings while defending their land from relatives and others who want to encroach on their property. She has super strength and can fly. Tigist is an undiscovered child prodigy and inventor who struggles to be noticed as she is overburdened with chores by her large family. Her superpower is the ability to see into the future. Fikir, whose mother died during childbirth, deals with the emotions of this loss. Her superpower is empathy and projecting what others feel.  

In order for their powers to be activated, the girls must use their strength together. Throughout the show, they deal with personal issues, discover their powers, and use them to combat injustices. The show, set to air nationally in Ethiopia, will spotlight issues including childhood marriage, substance abuse, child labor, human trafficking, and gender-based violence.

In the long run, Tibeb Girls will learn that they are fighting for gender equality. In Ethiopia, women lag far behind men in terms of educational, economic and decision-making opportunities. They are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence (one in every three women will experience GBV), female genital mutilation, and forced marriages.

  

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“Half of the population has to come to their full potential, and we have to do everything possible to do that,” Bruktawit says. “We have to crystalize it for people that this isn’t negotiable. It’s a must.”

At the Whiz Kids office in an unassuming apartment building in Addis Ababa, a staff of 30 works on various projects. Bruktawit is hands-on with “Tibeb Girls’” development. She joins her team of five writers gathered around a table, plotting the details of every episode.

Bruktawit stresses the importance of messaging when it comes to impressionable children: “Everything matters — the words we use, the things we show on screens, the discussion we have.” This belief guides her team as they craft details of the show, from the outfits (the superheroes wear traditional Ethiopian clothing) to how the heroes look (they reflect a range of brown and black skin tones and sport cornrows, braids, and an afro).  

Bruktawit hopes “Tibeb Girls” will inspire real-life superheroes —  a generation of children across Africa who will champion gender equality. 

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