A Muppet tackles AIDS attitudes in South Africa

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S a sunny day on the South African Sesame Street and Neno and Kami are singing a little ditty about "same" and "different."

"I have hair and you have hair, la dee dum, we are the same," croons the red Muppet. "I have AIDS and you don't, tra la la, we are different," hums his mustard-colored friend. The two burst into a song and dance routine: "Oooo, we love one another. Same and different, yeah."

In real life, it doesn't always go this way.

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On Noxolo Street, 7-year-old Siva and his sister Sarah are playing marbles. Around the corner from here, at the edge of Crossroads - a slum outside Cape Town - sits an orphanage with 40 HIV-positive children, ages 1 to 7.

Siva and Sarah know the place, but never venture near. They don't want any "sick friends," they explain, and giggle. "They are too thin," says Siva. "And if they hug you," adds his younger sister, "you die right away."

In spite of - or because of - the prevalence of AIDS cases in South Africa, the stigmatization of and discrimination against those diagnosed as HIV-positive begins at an early age. The latest government initiative to combat such attitudes began three months ago, with the addition of the character Kami to the television program "Takalani Sesame" (Takalani means "be happy" in local Venda). When Kami (the name is derived from the Tswana word for "acceptance") debuted, Education Minister Kader Asmal made a cameo appearance on the show to personally welcome the friendly orphan to the neighborhood.

"Education is the only socially acceptable vaccine available to our people and represents our only hope to save our nation," says Mr. Asmal, whose ministry, together with private funders and the US agency for development (USAID), supports the program - a coproduction with the American Sesame Workshop. "We can't continue to have HIV-positive children isolated, demonized, victimized. We want to make all of our children feel comfortable."

The need to address the problem was underscored anew by a South African Human Sciences Research Council study released last month. It found that 5.6 percent of South African children ages 2 to 14 are HIV-positive, and that 13 percent of children in this age bracket have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Government estimates indicate that about 4.7 million South Africans - 1 in 9 - are infected with HIV, more people than in any other country in the world.

Takalani Sesame's decision to tackle negative stereotypes has precedence in the Muppet world. On "Sesame Park," the Canadian version, a character zooms along in a wheelchair to encourage positive attitudes towards the physically disabled. On "Rehov Sumsum," the show that airs in Israel, Jewish and Arab Muppets are best friends who like to harmonize about tolerance. And in Egypt, where girls' school attendance lags far behind boys', the most popular character on "Alam Simsim" is she-monster Khocka, a know-it-all book-reader (and book-eater).

"In South Africa, when we sat down to work on characters, it was clear that we could not ignore the issue of AIDS," says Laverne Engel, the program's studio producer. "That is the issue here, and dealing with it is vital when we think about the future of the country."

Back on "Takalani Sesame," Kami is drawing pictures with a gang of other Muppets and chatting in Zulu. The segment is about the number five. There is no mention of Kami's HIV status. "If we hammer the message at the audience all the time, it would get boring," says Ms. Engel. "We simply want to show that these children are part of our community too."

While research on Kami's effect on TV audiences - some eight million children and adults in South Africa watch the program - is still being compiled, anecdotal evidence suggests that the new Muppet is reaching her audience. "I listen to my kids, who are 5 and 2, quoting messages from the program and experiments with new thoughts and new ways of looking at HIV, and I think, 'Yes, this is working tremendously well," says Nick Warren, the series producer and head writer.

Most stigmatization is perpetuated and projected by adults, says Mr. Warren, who encourages parents to watch the program with their children. "Kids don't have all those negative preconceptions," he says, "so they are open to new messages."

Next week, when schools open here in South Africa, five children from Beautiful Gate orphanage near the Crossroads slum will head off to their first day of classes at the local primary school. No child from the home has ever attended school, nor was it expected one ever would. "We never thought any of the children would live until school age," admits founder Aukje Brouwer.

Ms. Brouwer is concerned that the neighborhood children will make fun of a growth on Thabo's face, or get angry if Siphelo or Ruben throw up or need to use the bathroom too frequently. "Our own children, whom we work with all the time, make fun of Thabo and don't want to sit next to him in class - so how in the world can we expect 'regular' children to react any differently?" asks Brouwer. "These are traumatized children. Why put them through more?"

But the orphange children, secluded in the home their whole lives, have little notion that they are different, nor any fear of what is to come. "It so fun. A big school," says Siphelo. "Lots of new friends."

Zarkadis, one of the boys playing marbles around the corner from the orphanage, sometimes watches 'Takalani Sesame' on his great-grandmother's TV. He knows Kami. "Nice Muppet," he offers.

He does not seem to mind the idea of the children with AIDS coming to his school. "They are skinny," he tells Siva, "but at school you won't be able to tell. They are different but they have the same school uniform."

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