SEATTLE — Since its debut in 1969, “Sesame Street” has helped educate and entertain children across America with their iconic puppet, or Muppet, characters. From Big Bird to Elmo, Bert and Ernie, it is rare to find someone not familiar with the friends found on “Sesame Street”.
While the original “Sesame Street” debuted in the United States, other countries have contracted with the original team in creating co-productions of the show. These co-productions use the same flexible formula of the original and tailor it to the children in those specific countries. The co-production in South Africa, “Takalani Sesame”, made international news in 2002 when it introduced Kami, the first Muppet to be HIV-positive.
How South Africa talks about HIV is important to note. In the U.S., there is still a large stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS. The fact that there was a character meant to represent HIV-positive individuals on a children’s show made headlines and created some controversy. However, regardless of personal stances on HIV/AIDS in the U.S., the origin of this Muppet needs to be understood.
In South Africa, children being HIV-positive is very common. In 2016 alone, 160,000 children contracted HIV, leading to about 438 children a day becoming HIV-positive. A majority of these children are infected with the disease through their mothers. This is commonly referred to as parent-to-child transmission.
Because so many children in South Africa are HIV-positive, seeing a character on their favorite TV show that is so much like them is immensely important, and illustrates how South Africa talks about HIV. For example, the show is not afraid to talk about the stigma behind it.
One segment from the show directly addresses this stigma. Starting with a few of the other Muppets playing a train game, they stop and notice that Kami looks upset and left out from the fun. When asked, the Muppet explains that she is upset because the other children do not want to play with her because she is HIV-positive and they think that they will contract HIV from her. The other Muppets explain to Kami that they know that they cannot contract HIV by just touching Kami or being her friend, and say that they want to play with her. The clip ends with all of the Muppets happily playing, with Kami included.
Kami has become a huge icon for HIV awareness campaigns, even outside of South Africa. From hanging out with Whoopi Goldberg at World AIDS Day at the U.N. to making a video message about HIV/AIDS with former president Bill Clinton, Kami has made a huge impact when talking about HIV and AIDS with children.
Not only has Kami helped children within South Africa accept and learn more about each other, but how South Africa talks about HIV has helped parents outside of Africa better understand the illness and how to talk to their own children about it.
“Sesame Street” is no stranger to tackling difficult issues, from talking about bullying to including a Muppet who sometimes goes hungry because of her family’s financial issues. “Sesame Street” is continuously trying to teach children about difficult issues while also accepting others for whom these issues are their reality.
But children from developing countries will often have to deal with issues that might not be common for other children. Including an HIV-positive Muppet in a country where it is very common for children to be HIV-positive shows how “Sesame Street” has learned to adapt to its audience and tackle an issue shrouded in stigma.
– Marissa Wandzel