The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, has appointed a puppet on a South African children's television show as its special advocate for children who have HIV-AIDS , or have become AIDS orphans. The novel way to teach children about AIDS was announced on the same day UNICEF issued a report saying the number of AIDS orphans has increased ten-fold in the last decade, and could double again by the year 2010.
Her name is Kami and she is a character in the South African version of the children's television program Sesame Street.
She is much like any other five-year-old, except she is furry and yellow and has a wild mop of reddish-brown hair on the top of her head. The character is also energetic, smart and modest. And she is HIV-positive, and both of her parents have died of AIDS.
"I did not know that I am smart. Thank you so much," said Kami.
Millions of children in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. And millions more have lost one or both parents to the disease. UNICEF estimates that by 2010, about 20 million children will have lost at least one parent to AIDS.
Kami, a half-meter-tall puppet first appeared on South Africa's Takalani Sesame Street program last year. She participates in a variety of normal activities on the show, including exploring nature, collecting things and telling stories. But she also talks about issues related to HIV-positive children and AIDS orphans in a way designed to make sense to children between three and seven years old.
Kami and her human operator appeared at a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday. The character said she has lots and lots of friends on Takalani Sesame Street, but when she first arrived she had a tough time, just like other children with HIV often do.
Kami: At my school, at first children did not want to play with me because they thought they would catch HIV by just playing with me. But, my friends Zuzu and Zikwe and Moshe told them. They talked to them and told them, 'you cannot get HIV by just playing with me.'
Schlein: And they believe you? And, now they act nice to you?
Kami: Oh, yes. They are very nice to me. We play together.
Schlein: And do you hug and do you kiss? And is that nice?
Kami: Yes. I hug my friends and they hug me back.
UNICEF has just named Kami as its first global Champion for Children.
"Yes. I'm grateful," said Kami.
Kami says she likes the idea of being a Champion for Children.
Kami: I think I will be talking to the other people and tell them that they should not be mean to the people who are HIV-positive.
Schlein: Do you think people have funny ideas about HIV-positive kids and adults that somehow or other they get wrong ideas about these people?
Kami: I think so. I think they have got wrong ideas because we are just the same, like the people who are not having HIV.
That is the message UNICEF wants Kami to spread throughout Africa, and elsewhere. It is a message of hope for children who have HIV, or have lost their parents to AIDS, and also to other people not to stigmatize them, as often happens.
Kami is off to a good start as UNICEF's Champion for Children. She says famous people like U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu have become her friends, and have promised to help her spread her message around the world.