Monday, Nov. 09, 2009

Kami the HIV-Positive Muppet

How do you teach kids about AIDS in a nation where thousands of children are afflicted and millions orphaned by the disease? Create a new Muppet, of course. That was Sesame Street's response in 2002, when Takalani Sesame, South Africa's version of the show, introduced Kami, the franchise's first HIV-positive character. A furry, golden 5-year-old, the character contracted AIDS at birth through a tainted blood transfusion. Apart from her cropped hair and constant sniffles, there are no outright signs that she lives with the disease — in fact, her healthy appearance and fun-loving personality are meant to challenge the presumption that HIV-infected children are sickly and miserable. Kami — the word means "acceptance" in Setswana — is still a fixture on the show, on which the character helps explain to viewers the perils of living with the disease. Despite the seemingly beneficent motive — in 2003, she was named a UNICEF ambassador to children — Kami's debut triggered a flurry of criticism from Republicans who feared the introduction of an American equivalent — a gay Muppet — and threatened to withhold funding for the show if such a character was introduced. (Sesame Street has denied having any such plans.)