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A Muppet tackles AIDS attitudes in South Africa

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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.

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."

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