Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Orange, Fuzzy, Feisty, and HIV-Positive: Meet Kami

By: Adriana Ganci

Since its premiere on public television in 1969, Sesame Street has been a keystone program in teaching children about diversity and acceptance. The show has historically depicted people of different ethnicities, nationalities, religions and abilities. Sesame Street is, in fact, where many children begin their educational journeys. Big Bird and Elmo are household names. But how many Americans have heard of the Muppet, Kami? Chances are, not many. But everyone should.

Kami is a character who originated on South Africa’s Takalani Sesame in 2002. She has a feisty spirit and loves the outdoors and playing soccer. She is also HIV-positive. In a country where 5.5 million people are living with HIV, the social impact of this issue on children is not one that can be ignored. Because the show is aimed at little tykes aged three-seven, the goal of this programming is not to teach about the importance of protected sex or about the dangers of sharing intravenous needles. The goal, instead, is to portray the life of Kami in a way that resembles the lives of hundreds of thousands of children in South Africa – the life of a child who loves to have fun, the life of a child who lives with HIV, and the life of a child whose parent died as a result of having AIDS. For too long there has been a culture of stigma and silence regarding this globally pervasive issue. Kami seeks to reduce this HIV-related stigma by exposing children to a friendly, likeable, and relatable character from a very young age.

How exactly does Kami work to fight against stigma? She loves playing the train game where everyone holds each other’s shoulders and pretends they are a train. In sharing this game – which, of course, involves physically touching your friends – Kami teaches us that playing games and giving hugs and high fives cannot transfer HIV. Kami also has a memory box that her mother left her before she passed away, filled with happy mementos like pictures of the two of them and her mom’s favorite scarf. Grieving is a very important process for children who lose parents, and Kami teaches us that, while the process is very difficult, evoking happy memories is a very good way to cope. When Kami isn’t singing about keeping the earth clean or kicking a soccer ball around, she is talking with the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Former President Bill Clinton, and thanking them for the work they’ve done for children like herself living with HIV. Both men have told Kami that she is the real hero. Kami’s accolade doesn’t end there – UNICEF also named Kami a “Champion of Children” in 2003. [1]

Kami was created by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the 45 years of work that Sesame Street has done to acknowledge key critical educational needs in the now 150 countries in which the show airs. [2] Sesame Workshop brings in experts to consult on creative ways to relay these important lessons to children. Projects by Sesame Workshop include an entire array of academic, social and emotional topics: they run the gamut from introducing a Muppet whose father is in prison to airing episodes discussing the importance of improving the education of girls worldwide.

Each project includes extensive post-production research on the actual educational impacts of the programs. Through this research, Sesame Workshop discovered that parents who have seen Kami on television are twice as likely to talk to their children about HIV and AIDS than parents who do not know Kami. Sesame Workshop has also concluded that since the introduction of Kami into the cast, children exposed to Takalani Sesame have demonstrated measurable increases in their knowledge of HIV, de-stigmatization of HIV, and the ability to cope with illness. [3] Due to Kami’s success in South Africa, producers who were creating Nigeria’s Sesame Square decided to also use Kami with the show’s launch in 2010.With nearly 278,000 children in Nigeria living with HIV, there was a need for a character like Kami. Bearing in mind that only about a quarter of Nigerian households have a television, the show’s creators have also created a campaign that extends to radio, cell phones, publications and school materials. [4]

When a person is able to closely identify with something like HIV they are generally able to understand it better. It also makes good sense that we, as humans, are less fearful, and thus less stigmatizing, of things we clearly understand.  Thus, using someone who is vibrant, young, and fun-loving like Kami to introduce the subject of HIV to children of a young age helps to reinforce the idea that those living with HIV are people just like those not living with HIV. Aiming these lessons at children will help South Africa and Nigeria to end the culture of silence and stigma surrounding HIV which, in turn, has the potential to lower the infection rates in those countries. Kami has the potential to help the next generation of South African children become the most accepting generation yet. This is fitting since “Kami” is the Setswana word for “acceptance”.

When Kami joined Takalani Sesame in 2002, some conservative legislators in the U.S. sent a letter to PBS stating that if PBS were to utilize the HIV-positive character in the American show, their funding would be threatened. [5] American children have come to love Muppets who are in wheelchairs, Muppets who are blind, Muppets who are different colors and those that practice different faiths. Hiding the idea of HIV from children will only continue to feed ignorance and fear and encourage stigma towards those living with HIV for years to come. There is no reason that American children would not come to adore Kami, just as others did in South Africa and Nigeria. With a name that literally means “acceptance”, it sounds like it is definitely time to make Kami a household American name.

1.  http://www.unicef.org/media/media_16631.htm
2. http://www.sesameworkshop.org/what-we-do/our-research-model/
3. http://www.sesameworkshop.org/what-we-do/our-research-model/
4. http://www.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/TV/10/06/sesame.street.nigeria/
5. http://www.queerty.com/could-hiv-muppet-kami-ever-move-into-americas-sesame-street-20100104

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