Thomas & Friends have a new, Kenyan gal pal. Meet the woman who helped create her

Hello, my name is Nia
Hello, my name is Nia
Image: Mattel Inc.
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It’s been a big year for diversity in films—from the wildly successful Marvel superhero film Black Panther to Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, two romantic comedies that some say are kickstarting the golden age of Asian-led films. The success of these movies has given new energy to conversations about the importance of representation in popular culture—particularly for kids and young adults.

Tolulope Lewis-Tamoka, the Africa program advisor for UN Women, is at the forefront of the push for greater diversity in children’s TV. A Nigerian lawyer with a background in women’s rights and human rights, she worked with the children’s toy company Mattel to create Nia, the first African, female character on the popular children’s show Thomas & Friends. Nia is part of the UN’s larger push to promote its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with Thomas & Friends serving as an entry point for parents who want to introduce young children to the concept of “global citizenship.”

Lewis-Tamoka, who has worked at the UN for 15 years, focuses on programs that aim to end child marriage and female genital mutilation and to increase women’s political participation, and economic empowerment. She spoke with Quartz about why representation on kids’ TV is an issue that’s worth taking seriously, and why it’s important to expose young preschoolers to characters that reflect the diversity of the world around them.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: Who is Nia?

Lewis-Tamoka: Nia’s character is actually from Kenya, and she really takes an authentic Kenyan representation, not only with her look, with the design of her train, and with her bright, sparkly, curious eyes, but also in terms of what she holds as important, [including] climate change, which is important in a country like Kenya, and protecting wildlife.

What are some of the considerations you had in mind when creating Nia?

Lewis-Tamoka: One, moving away from the often-negative representation that African girls have … [by] showing a positive image of an African girl who is confident, a goal-setter, and who is a friend, a good buddy to Thomas.

The other aspect that we wanted to get out through the series was representing the diversity of Africa, and showing off the diversity on the continent, and the fact that the continent is made up of several countries at different developmental stages, but also bringing their own comparative advantage to making the world a better place.

Why is representation on TV and other popular media so important?

Lewis-Tamoka: I’ve got girls myself, and … I want them to grow up, having a real, diverse representation, in terms of gender, in what they absorb around them. And TV is definitely a strong platform for sharing, and engaging, and teaching, and learning, so it’s important that girls also see themselves well-reflected, in a positive light, and not in a way that is stereotypical, and has often been the norm, which is that it’s more about women’s looks and appearance, but not so much about what they contribute to society. So that shift, which is happening now, is a really welcome shift, and I hope that TV continues to provide that platform.

Is it just about gender equality, or can TV serve as a platform to increase representation of racial minorities as well?

Lewis-Tamoka: Definitely. It’s all a package, because human rights … are a body of different forms of discrimination that people face around the world. Whether it’s race, gender, age, or because of a disability, all of this really marginalizes girls and women, and particularly for African women and girls. They face particularly more serious challenges, because often times, they do not have as much access to resources, information, and knowledge as other girls in developed countries. So it is important to show that women and girls in Africa also have their potential, also have a lot of value to contribute to the world, and that spaces have been provided for them to display this.

Thomas & Friends is a show for preschoolers, so three-to-five-year-olds. Were you aiming to target early childhood because it’s a particularly susceptible time to shape perceptions on these issues? 

Lewis-Tamoka: I think so, I really do. This is why we jumped on board at this opportunity to work with Mattel, because normally we work with an older age group, but this is an opportunity to work with preschoolers, age three, who are beginning to form their opinions about life, and are very much influenced by what they see on television and around them. So, it’s very important that we provide a platform where they can also receive positive messages.

Were there any particular challenges to working with this age group?

Lewis-Tamoka: One of the biggest challenges we had with this partnership was being able to talk in a way that a young audience will understand the messages that we were trying to put out there. And I think the Mattel experts worked very well in ensuring that issues around gender equality, non-discrimination, and stereotypes were broken down in a way that kids would understand.

It’s not only the kids that we hope will be impacted through those messages around the sustainable development goals, but also the families … who also watch the show with their kids.

The Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved by 2030, [which] is 12 years to go, and so these three-year-olds today will be the next young people to really ensure that these global goals are really achieved. And so it’s important that we really begin to create that space and that opportunity for them to take on these goals when they become young adults and when they become adults themselves.

Today is the International Day of the Girl. What does that day mean to you, in the context of your work on gender equality and representation of women and girls?

Lewis-Tamoka: The theme of this year’s International Day of the Girl Child is “With her, a skilled GirlForce.” This day is an occasion for all of us to stand together with the billions of girls around the world who are challenging the status quo and asking for equal opportunities and a fair future. This really resonates with me.

Today, I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to pay tribute to girls around the world who are redefining girlhood, and who are doing so against all odds. My wish, and my desire for girls around the world is to be able to fulfill their potential, and really helping in any way they can in helping us to create a better and safer world for all.