There’s A New Character On Plaza Sesamo And She Happens To Be HIV-Positive
Sesame Street has long been known for its inclusive agenda, not only in its United States iteration but also in the many versions of the show worldwide. The show was originally released in the 1969-1970 season in the United States, and uses puppets, live action actors and celebrities to convey educational and inclusive messages through songs, dance, laughter, some mild cheekiness and a lot of love. Characters such as Cookie Monster and Elmo have inspired generations of little children and their parents to be kinder, more resilient and overall awesome.
Sesame street just turned 50 and its cultural saliency cannot be underestimated. Among its many celebrity guests we have seen Muhammad Ali, Burt Lancaster, David Beckham, Beyoncé, BB King, Robin Williams, David Bowie, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift, among many others.
So it came as no surprise when the South African version of the program announced the launch of their new character, a girl named Kami (we just love her name yo!).
Kami loves to dance, dress with cool streetwear and, by the way, she is HIV-positive.
The show is called Takalani Sesame in South Africa and its producers describe it as a show: “Promoting literacy, numeracy and basic life skills. A distinctly South African television, radio and community outreach program.”
This type of advocacy is key in a country like South Africa, where Apartheid is a not-so-distant memory and racial conflict is sadly still an important challenge for social cohesion. HIV levels in the country are also high, and some children are born with the virus as there is perinatal transmission from mother to child which is not always prevented due to limited access to the proper health services.
Kami is five-years-old and lives a happy and giving existence.
The HIV virus is part of Kami’s family life and the show tried to educate young audiences on the facts and myths about HIV-positive people. Her name is derived from the Setwani word kamogelo, which means acceptance. She is a healthy carrier of the virus but knows well how it can affect lives, as her mom died from it. Her mission in life is to inform others about what an HIV-positive status means, but also how to be accepting towards others, particularly if they are different.
Kami was revealed to the world in 2002, but her message is more relevant today than ever before.
Kami is a real celebrity and has been named a “champion for children worldwide” by UNICEF. the UN agency in charge of promoting children’s wellbeing. It is amazing to see how directly they deal with the issue, without sugarcoating reality, while at the same time keeping the show child friendly. For example, in this episode Kami is sad because other kids don’t want to play with her, so her friends clearly explain that touching an HIV-positive person would get you sick. It is heartwarming and poignant at the same time.
Sesame Street uses puppets to teach kids about harsh realities worldwide.
Kami is not the only Sesame Street character that has taught kids about concepts that are hard to grasp because they belong to the realm of death, war and disease. As Hank Stuever reminded us in a 2019 article in The Washington Post, producers have dealt with social issues for years, which is one of the reasons why the show is so endearing.
He writes: “‘Sesame’ has helped its viewers cope with divorce, the incarceration of a parent and the deployment of family members in the military. Julia, a Muppet with autism, made her 2017 debut on the TV show to wide acclaim and gratitude from parents. The Workshop reaches children affected by war or hurricanes and other disasters. In Afghanistan, it showed that girls can and should go to school”. The show is good in measuring the cultural temperature of the times and dealing with issues that affect kids and kids care about.
Besides Julia, a character with autism, the show made an important inclusion in the United States, as reported by Vancouver Province: “Sesame Workshop, the non-profit behind the show, has welcomed Karli, a Muppet in foster care, as well as her “for-now” parents, Dalia and Clem. All three Muppets appear in videos posted online as part of an initiative to provide free resources to caregivers navigating difficult issues, such as family homelessness, foster care and trauma.”
This is what children’s programming should be all about: issues that are complex to understand and explain, and finding ways to make things approachable for the little ones. Last year the show introduced the first muppet to be experiencing homelessness, a growing problem among struggling families in the United States and elsewhere.