Feature story

South African Muppet Kami speaks the language of acceptance

17 December 2009


Sesame Street fans across the world are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the popular children’s television programme this year. In South Africa, the programme’s local version called Takalani Sesame is revelling in the popularity of its mustard-coloured furry Muppet, Kami, who is openly living in HIV.

Sesame Street originated in the United States and has since adapted to fit the culture and needs of the 140 countries where it has been exported. In South Africa, too, where an estimated 5.7 million people live with HIV the inclusion of the character Kami who is HIV-positive aims to counter stigma and discrimination through creating awareness and addressing fears and misconceptions about HIV.

The introduction of Kami, which means “acceptance” in the South African language Setswana, is an effort by the South African government to bring to the fore issues related to HIV. Kami was created at the behest of the South African government, which sponsors the show, in an effort to change perceptions of people living with HIV through edu-tainment

Takalani Sesame is the most ambitious project outside the US . No other country version has pushed at the boundaries of the United States model quite as much as South Africa.

Gloria Britain, head of the Muppet Workshop Project Office in Johannesburg

On the show, Kami is a five-year-old orphan whose mother died of AIDS. Part of her character’s role is to destigmatise those living with HIV, and to open discussion about sensitive issues including coping with illness and bereavement.

Talking about the Kami, Takalani Sesame producer Naila Farouky says, “Her whole intention is that she lives positively despite the fact that she has this virus.”

The idea of an HIV-positive Muppet began to take shape early in 2002, when Sesame Workshop and South African partners met in South Africa and New York to discuss their commitment to addressing the HIV issue on the show.

Since September 2002, Kami has helped dispel the culture of silence that prevents so many South Africans from seeking and receiving care for their illness. “Sometimes when you’re ill, you mustn’t keep it a secret, you must tell people,” Kami says in one episode.

Takalani Sesame is the most ambitious project outside the US,” says Gloria Britain, who heads the Project Office in Johannesburg. “No other country version has pushed at the boundaries of the United States model quite as much as South Africa.”

Although prevalence of HIV along people below the age of 20 in South Africa has been declining significantly, an estimated 280,000 children still live with HIV in the country and up to one million have been orphaned by the epidemic.

HIV prevalence among children aged two and older also varies by province, with the Western Cape (3.8%) and Northern Cape (5.9%) being least affected, and Mpumulanga (15.4%) and KwaZulu-Natal (15.8%) at the upper end of the scale.

HIV in South Africa is transmitted predominantly heterosexually between couples, with mother-to-child transmission being the other main mode of transmission.

Incorporating all 11 of South Africa’s official languages into its scripts, Takalani Sesame is seen by an estimated half-million kids a week. Its audience is pre-school children aged between three and seven years and their caregivers. As 30% of homes in South Africa do not have television, a radio version of the programme and an outreach initiative have also been launched.

Sesame Street runs through 140 countries, is broadcast in over 30 different languages, and provides the foundation for a truly powerful educational programme that directly addresses the challenging issues of global awareness and appreciation.