Construction blamed for traffic jam in China

By: Molly Farrell

BEIJING (UTC/AP) — A massive traffic jam in north China that stretches for dozens of miles and hit its 10-day mark on Tuesday stems from road construction in Beijing that won’t be finished until the middle of next month, an official said.

Bumper-to-bumper gridlock spanning for 60 miles (100 kilometers) with vehicles moving little more than a half-mile (one kilometer) a day at one point has improved since this weekend, said Zhang Minghai, director of Zhangjiakou city’s Traffic Management Bureau general office.

Some drivers have been stuck in the jam for five days, China Central Television reported Tuesday. But Zhang said he wasn’t sure when the situation along the Beijing-Zhangjiakou highway would return to normal.

The traffic jam started Aug. 14 on a stretch of the highway that is frequently congested, especially after large coalfields were discovered in Inner Mongolia, Zhang said. Traffic volume has increased 40 percent every year.

Drivers stranded in the gridlock in the Inner Mongolia region and Hebei province, headed toward Beijing, passed the time sleeping, walking around, or playing cards and chess. Local villagers were doing brisk business selling instant noodles, boxed lunches and snacks, weaving between the parked trucks on bicycles.

Though there were no reports of road rage violence, drivers complained about price-gouging by villagers who were their only source of food and water. A bottle of water that normally costs 1 yuan (15 cents) was selling for 10 yuan ($1.50), while the price of a 3 yuan- (45 cent-) cup of instant noodles had more than tripled, media reports said.

“A boxed lunch is 10 yuan ($1.50), and one box isn’t enough for me,” China National Radio cited a driver surnamed Lu as saying. “I’m spending up to 50 yuan (about $7.50) a day on food. It’s more expensive than eating in a restaurant.”

The highway construction in Beijing that is restricting inbound traffic flow and causing the jam “will not be finished until Sept. 17,” Zhang said.

Authorities were trying to speed up traffic by allowing more trucks to enter Beijing, especially at night, Zhang said. They also asked trucking companies to suspend operations and advised drivers to take alternate routes.

China’s roadways are increasingly overburdened as the number of private vehicles booms along with commercial truck traffic hauling materials like coal and food to cities. Traffic slowdowns because of construction and accidents are common, though a 10-day traffic jam is unusual even in China.

Reasons for the massive jam:

  • Construction
  • Increasing number of private vehicles
  • Traffic from commercial trucks

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

‘Sesame Street’ gets Yammed

By: Molly Farrell

LAGOS, Nigeria (UTC/AP) — It looks a lot like “Sesame Street,” only that’s no Cookie Monster.

“What is so exciting about yams? Everything!” Zobi, a taxi-driving muppet, shouts in a Nigerian lilt to anyone who will listen. “I can fry the yam. I can toast it. I can boil it. I love yams!”

“Sesame Street,” once a mainstay for a generation of Nigerian children who grew up with the U.S. show on the state-run TV network, will return to screens in Africa’s most populous nation this fall, funded by American taxpayers but distinctively Nigerian.

Produced and voiced by Nigerians in formal — if squeaky — English, the show aims to educate a country nearly half of whose 150 million people are 14 or younger. Its issues focus on the same challenges faced by children in a country where many have to work instead of going to school: AIDS, malaria nets, gender equality — and yams, a staple of Nigerian meals.

“Nigeria is diverse; we have 250 different ethnic groups, so many different languages. We don’t have the same customs; we do think differently,” executive producer Yemisi Ilo said. But “children are children. All children love songs and all children love furry, muppety animal-type things.”

Renamed “Sesame Square,” the show will air 26 episodes in the first of its scheduled three seasons, with one show for each letter of the alphabet.

The lead muppets are Kami, whose yellow fur matches the dandelion on her vest, and Zobi, who resembles a mint-green shag carpet. Kami is an orphan with HIV who explains blood safety to children through her own story. Zobi, whose yellow cab lacks an engine, teaches by ineptness, getting entangled in a mosquito net while explaining malaria prevention.

They live not on a fictional U.S. city street but in “Sesame Square,” whose concrete homes and slatted windows mirror those found in Nigerian villages.

“A village square is somewhere where people gather around, it’s the news and information,” Ilo said. “It’s all across Nigeria.”

The muppets’ adventures take place between original recorded “Sesame Street” segments, re-dubbed with Nigerians voicing the parts of familiar characters like Bert and Ernie. One live-action scene shows hijab-wearing girls in the Muslim-majority north kicking a soccer ball and proudly saying they can do anything a boy can do.

The Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that oversees “Sesame Street,” received a five-year, $3 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development. That comes after the government agency funded a 2007 pilot project featuring Kami and Big Bird discussing HIV infections and AIDS.

The new series underscores the ever-broadening reach of “Sesame Street” since it debuted in the U.S. in 1969. The Sesame Workshop has overseen short- and long-term productions of country-specific shows in more than 140 nations, ranging from “Rechov Sumsum” in Israel to South Africa’s “Takalani Sesame,” where Kami first appeared.

But Nigeria represents the first effort to bring a long-term “Sesame Street”-styled program to West Africa, said Naila Farouky, an international program director for the workshop. Discussions continue about potentially expanding into Ghana and Southern Africa, she said.

Nigerian grown-ups like producer Jadesola Oladapo can still hum “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?” The show marked the start of the broadcast day on state-run television into the 1980s and whenever the theme song came on, “I would run to make sure my chores were done,” she said.

“Sesame Square” still faces the challenge of winning a mass audience in a country where most people earn under a dollar a day. TV sets and DVD players aren’t enough; organizers bring generators to power them, in an oil-rich country whose national power grid is in shambles.

Still, for children gathered on the worn floors of community centers and rundown schools, “Sesame Square” offers a glimpse of something beyond crushing poverty.

“We had comments from children asking if these muppets are from heaven,” said Ayobisi Osuntusa, who oversees outreach for the program.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.