Bobo & Kipi is a children’s television show unlike any other. Produced by Susan Sheper, a Baha’i pioneer to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this virtues-based puppet show was an instant hit with my children. They love the characters, the songs, the animated stories and as a parent, I love having a reference point for when we discuss specific virtues such as generosity and sharing, perseverance, and trustworthiness. Although originally produced in French and aired in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 9StarMedia recently released the first season of the show in English for purchase and download and if you’d like a taste, here’s the link to the show’s English trailer. I felt like I was in the presence of a celebrity when Susan agreed to tell me a bit more about the fabulous show!
Baha’i Blog: Hi Susan! Thank you for spending some time chatting with us! To begin could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work in television?
I actually began my artistic life as a potter, but photography was always a keen interest of mine. In 1983, I moved to Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo) as a Baha’i pioneer. In 1999 a few local friends had the idea to start a TV show to share Baha’i thought with the population. They had some great ideas and lots of initiative, but no materials or technical knowledge to create a show. In those days, I had a little video camera with a built in microphone that I used for home videos. I offered to help with the project and our living room soon became a makeshift studio. We took the mattresses from our beds to line the walls to try to improve the sound. Remarkably, in spite of the rudimentary materials we had to work with, the show was a hit. We managed to produce a show a week for about 2 years. This experience convinced me that I needed better equipment and some training to be able to edit our shows more professionally. A filmmaker friend of mine in France kindly offered to give me some training in computer video editing, and I bought some new, better equipment and the quality of our productions suddenly improved drastically.
Baha’i Blog: What inspired you to create ‘Bobo & Kipi’?
In the Ridvan message from the Universal House of Justice in 2000, five full paragraphs were dedicated to the subject of children. The message outlined the deplorable state of so many of the world’s children, while at the same time framing the children as being “the most precious treasure a community can possess.” This weighty message prompted me to turn the skills that we were learning on the Baha’i TV show, toward creating a television program for children that would be entertaining, but that would also impart an understanding of the virtues that are so essential for children to learn, in order to grow up to become happy and useful members of society.
Baha’i Blog: I received a DVD of some episodes without knowing anything about the show but the moment I heard the opening jingle in French, I knew there were Baha’is involved! How does the Faith influence your work and how has it affected the show?
The basic teachings of the Baha’i Faith colour everything I do. It is impossible to separate belief from action. You mentioned the opening jingle which talks about everyone in the world being from one big family – and that is, I think, an important message to get across to children from a very early age. Each episode is based on a virtue such as honesty, forgiveness, generosity or humility. My hope is that through modelling these virtues in a way that children can understand, they will try to practice them themselves and become the noble beings that they were created to be.
Baha’i Blog: What were some of the challenges and some of the victories of producing this show?
Well, there were so many challenges, it is hard to know where to start! This was the first children’s show to ever be produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so there was absolutely no local expertise. We really had to figure everything out as we went along. There were no puppeteers in the country and I really wanted the show to be puppet based – so we needed to find people who seemed to have a knack for voices and puppeteering, and then train them. The same was true for props makers and animators. Finding funding to make the show happen was one of the biggest challenges! In Congo, producers have to pay broadcasters to play their shows, so producers have to find sponsors in order to cover production costs. We eventually found a sponsor, but it meant adding a little product placement in each show, which I wasn’t a fan of! Electricity in Congo is very unstable, and we would often lose power in the middle of a take! We lost many hours of shooting time due to electricity cuts. In spite of all that, the show got made and that victory was due to the amazing talents of the Congolese actors, animators, builders and props makers and also to the very timely help of some international crew members – notably, Sabour Bradley from Australia, who just happened to be living in Kinshasa at the time, and who had extensive experience producing television in Australia and other parts of the world. We also had two fantastic Directors of photography – Jake Simkin from Australia for the first season and Ryan Lash from Canada for the second season. And the unflinching support and encouragement of my husband, Jason Sheper was key to overcoming practically every challenge we faced along the way.
Baha’i Blog: Every episode we’ve watched is fantastic but we have a particular soft spot for the warthogs and for the song about persevering. Do you have a favourite character or song?
Naming one of the characters as a favourite would be, for me, a little like saying that one or the other of my children is my favourite. (In fact, at one point during the shoot, Ryan pointed out to me that the characters of Bobo and Kipi were entirely based on my own son and daughter! He may have been right about that.) I think all the characters live in me to a degree so I love them all. That said, I do kind of have a soft spot in my heart for Tinyo, because his development through the series took me a little by surprise. Bobo, Kipi and Gronyo’s personalities were so well established when I started to write the scripts and they stayed fairly constant and true to their characters throughout. But Tinyo, in spite of being Gronyo’s sidekick, seemed to have more opportunities to display some hidden and delightful characteristics that, I think, would be very confirming for children who are sometimes challenged by older, more assertive siblings or friends.
The toughest part about translating and dubbing the shows from French into English was to make the songs feel right. So I would say my favourite songs were the ones that sound equally as good in French or in English; “Tell the truth”, “Wash your Hands”, “Courage”, “Justice”, and “Soldiers for Peace” all work really well. I also really like the song about Compassion – because Bobo is playing guitar and Lokole has dreadlocks. I laugh every time I see it.
Baha’i Blog: How has the show been received so far?
In the Congo, it was a huge hit across a fairly wide demographic. As I mentioned, electricity is very unstable in Congo and whole neighbourhoods will often have their electricity cut for hours, days or even weeks. We had reports that the children across the city of Kinshasa, set up a system of signals to let other children know what neighbourhoods had electricity at the hours when Bobo & Kipi was on air. There were plenty of anecdotal stories of how children had been impacted by the show and how their characters were being influenced by the messages in the show. It would be fair to say that if a child in Kinshasa had access to a television, he was watching ‘Bobo & Kipi’!
Since doing the English dub, ‘Bobo & Kipi’ has also aired in Canada on CTS – a Christian Broadcaster who broadcasts in southern Ontario and in parts of Alberta. The French version was also picked up by TFO, Ontario’s French TV network, for inclusion in their educational website.
It is now available on 9StarMedia: https://9starmedia.com/bobo-and-kipi-season-1
Baha’i Blog: ‘Bobo & Kipi’ was originally produced in French. How many episodes are there and what was the process like to translate the show into English?
Although I communicate in French very well – having lived in a French-speaking country for over 30 years – I still think best creatively in English, so I actually wrote the scripts in English first to be sure that I was getting everything I really wanted to get out of the characters. I then worked with a French translator to translate all the scripts and songs into French. So, when the time came to dub them into English, we already had the original English scripts as a base from which we could work. Of course when you do a dub, you have to match the words said to the movement of the mouths, so a lot of fiddling had to happen to match the number of syllables, which wasn’t always easy. For example, in the courtesy episode, we constantly had to battle especially in the song because the one syllable word “Please” translates as the three syllable “S’il vous plait!”
Baha’i Blog: Thank you so much, Susan, for sharing this with us! I feel really privileged to hear about the process of a show our family has come to admire and love so much!
Season 1 of ‘Bobo & Kipi’ is now available for purchase or download from 9StarMedia and if you have a young child in your life, I think they’ll quickly come to love Bobo the bonobo, Kipi the okapi, and all their friends!