Kami to the rescue!

Today, I was deeply inspired by a five-year-old named Kami. Kami is a bright child who can read and speak well, loves nature, and has a caring heart.

Kami is an orphan.

She is also HIV-positive.

Where did I meet Kami? On Sesame Street! Well, on the South African and Tanzanian versions of Sesame Street.

Kami is one of the newest additions to the Muppet cast of Takalani Sesame (South Africa) and Kilimani Sesame (Tanzania). She is a cute orange character, rather like the American Sesame Street character Zoe, and the first preschool children’s television character that has HIV-positivity as one of her main character descriptions.

Globally, Human Immunosuppressive Virus (HIV), and the disease caused by the virus (AIDS), affects millions of children. Children themselves are infected, and/or their lives are indirectly affected when family members have HIV/AIDS. The majority of these children live in Africa, and many are orphaned because their parents died of AIDS.

The impact on children and adults who are HIV-positive goes beyond the physical hardships of the illness. Kids and adults alike are socially ostracised, and have to constantly deal with the emotional distress over deaths of family members by AIDS.

Kami the Muppet has the incredible role of raising this important issue of HIV/AIDS awareness and understanding among young children in South Africa and Tanzania. She is involved in stories that teach kids about HIV/AIDS, how to relate to HIV-positive children (e.g. “What do I do when you cut your finger?”), demonstrate ways for HIV-positive kids to cope with their difficulties (especially social and emotional), and cultivate positive attitudes among children towards others who are HIV-positive.

Here is Kami’s English-language appearance on American TV (although it sounds very scripted, I am heartened by the message of this video):

A recent study – “The role of Kilimani Sesame in the healthy development of Tanzanian preschool children” – found that kids’ knowledge of AIDS, and their own positive attitudes towards individuals with HIV/AIDS, increased significantly after watching the programme (Borzekowski & Macha, 2010). Kami certainly had an important role in this, because the study also found that kids who could remember the names of the characters had a higher level of knowledge and positive attitudes regarding HIV/AIDS (and of other diseases prevalent in Africa such as malaria).

I’d like to use this blog-post to commend the people who took this courageous step to address a topic that is largely “taboo”. Indeed, doing so on nothing less than a preschool children’s television programme, and in such an appropriate and creative manner. You are model Science Communicators.

How inspiring it is to know that Science Communication isn’t just about disseminating scientific information, but it has so much potential to do something more to change the world. Call me idealistic, but I reckon Muppets like Kami will go a long way in changing people’s awareness, understanding, and attitudes towards HIV/AIDS.

Kami & Neno (South African "Elmo")

Science Communication GMH.



Borzekowski, D. L. G., & Macha, J. E. (2010). The role of Kilimani Sesame in the healthy development of Tanzanian preschool children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31(4), 298-305. Retrieved 26 October 2011, from ScienceDirect.

Lim, M. (2002). A-B-C, 1-2-3, H-I-V: Sesame Street tackles AIDS. Virtual Mentor, 4(9),  Retrieved 26 October 2011, from http://virtualmentor.ama-assn.org/2002/09/ebyt1-0209.html.

By yveee

11 comments on “Kami to the rescue!

  1. Wow, Yvee, this is an amazing topic, and you have covered it so well. This has just blown me away. I remember when Play School aired a story about a little girl and her two mums, and the out cry that followed it. This is so much more controversial than that, but has the potential to do so much good!

    The character is adorable, and I think it would be well worth seeing Kami appear in American Sesame Street!. This is such a good way to communicate HIV information to children, and the public as a whole. Wow. Just wow.

  2. Yvee, your blog on this interesting issue of how to disseminate a very relevant science/health issue to preschool kids follows on very nicely to Kate Vyvyan’s guest lecture in yesterday’s class. She stressed that finding a main character of the same age as your target audience seems a key to success. Well, here the evidence for that argument! Great job!

  3. Great topic Yvee!! Again, I like your post because I don’t need to open my English & Japanese dictionary. It has strong message with the passion and your writing style is pretty much understandable.
    We used to learn about HIV and AIDS at the junior high school since kids start thinking about sex around age 13-16. Also, because my period started before I became 10 years old, my teacher taught me about HIV at that time. It is because HIV is related to blood and people can also get infected by having sex.

    In Japan, since Sesame Street.is not as popular as it is in America, most kids learn about it from their teacher, parents or even friends. I would not say it is bad because at least, we are aware of what HIV and AIDS are. However as you mentioned, sometimes people don’t even know about it in some countries and die from it. It is sad and I reckon this is not only the job of medical people but also science communicator to spread the fact as well as what people can do to avoid it.
    Sesame Street is really good example. I reckon it should be really hard topic to choose for them because it is such a shocking subject for kids. Great job they did indeed.

  4. This really is an excellent means of communication I think, particularly since elements that are averse to HIV education (Of which, regrettably, there are a number) are less likely to crack down on this kind of positive message. You can address some of the prejudice at the root of society, in children, to get an improvement in adult society come 10 years or so time. Not to mention the immediate benefit to marginalised children right now.

  5. clayte01 – Thank you for your kind comments! I was blown away by it as well when I found out about Kami. It gives me so much hope to know that we could really make a difference as science communicators. I do think it would be great to see Kami on American Sesame Street as well.

    ankev – Thank you, yes I was super excited when I heard Kate’s lecture because I was planning to write about children’s TV without knowing that we were going to get to hear about it in class this week. Kami was an “accidental” find as I was planning to write about health messages regarding Cookie Monster (hehe).

  6. KeikoK – It is an honour to be able to write something that is understandable by many people, thank you for your encouragement. I really admired how the South African/Tanzanian Sesame Street versions managed to communicate HIV/AIDS issues in a very positive and age-appropriate way. Since it is targetted at preschoolers, there is no mention of sex and drug-use routes of infection. Instead the messages focus on things that children can understand and on cultivating acceptance among children of others who have the disease.

    lodoubt – Yes you got that spot-on! The very young children who are watching Kami right now are tomorrow’s adults, leaders, friends, neighbours, and colleagues. With regards to your comment about people who are adverse to HIV education, I found it sad to know that when Kami was first introduced to the world at a conference, some American organisations reacted strongly against the idea. They argued that preschoolers are too young to be faced with such serious issues. However, the harsh reality is that in Africa and many countries around the world, kids have to face such issues as a daily thing right from that very young age. As such, these kids also develop their attitudes and understanding of HIV/AIDS at that very young age.

  7. What I really like about Kami is that she reminds me that children can be born with HIV/AIDS. Theoretically I understand this and have learned it in school, but I still associate HIV/AIDS with adults. This is a dangerous misconception and I think that people (particularly in North America) forget how many children in our continent are born with HIV/AIDS. I would like to think that Kami is a character that could be introduced to Seseme Park (the Canadian version, but honestly most Canadian kids watch the american version). However, knowing American culture, I can see it being a long fight to bring Kami over to the US, which in my option is very sad since she is such a powerful teaching tool.

  8. What a lovely blog post!

    I never knew that Sesame street was a show in other countries but it makes me so happy that they have Kami as a character. What a fantastic cause and a great way to get a worthwhile message across!

    Sesame Street clearly has some fantastic science communicators in their team.

  9. Great post Yvette, and thank you for sharing your passion about this topic.
    Indeed, Kami is quite effective “messenger”.

    From a bit critical point of view (sorry, but this is part of my nature), sometimes, these sorts of characters could be too “educational” and represent the self-satisfaction of adults, but this case seems quite exceptional. I honestly hope Kami will be accepted by everyone in the world. Some may say this approach contains some sort of hypocrisy, but that does not matter if someone is saved by Chammy’s message.

    As Jean mentioned, HIV issue is not only for adults, In Africa (especially sub-Sahara Africa), most of children get their HIV virus from their mother, and proportion is quite high. So it should be appropriate to talk about it before attending the school, and a muppet show is quite engaging way to communicate.

    Personally, I was quite encouraged by your statement.
    Science can change the world, why science communication can’t?

  10. This was a great post! I think that it demonstrates a unique way of educating children (and the public) about HIV (and has implications for other topics as well).

    I think it’s especially encouraging because I remember watching a T.V program (can’t remember what or when) and it showed the difficulties that HIV-positive children have fitting into society. Basically, these children had never been hugged by their parents or friends because people we under the misconception that they could catch HIV just by hugging these kids. The program was about a school being opened (or a program being set up…) for HIV-positive children where they could play and were continuously hugged. You should have seen their faces! It’s these kinds of misconceptions that could have had the potential to ruin these kids lives, but with a little education, they and the people around them were being taught the facts.

    Like the comment above, I loved that statement (“Science can change the world, why science communication can’t?”)…and I think this is a good example of where this can happen.

  11. Pingback: As Seen on TV… « creatingreciprocity

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