Innocent Nkata on ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Takalani Sesame’

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street chronicles the show’s origins, creators and journey to the here and now as collaborators reflect on the children’s show’s influence and legacy. Testament to the show’s enduring success and social impact is Takalani Sesame, a South African adaptation of Sesame Street broadcast in many local languages.

Takalani is run by Sesame Workshop International South Africa, an organisation dedicated to ensuring this valuable educational show and resource reaches its intended audience with the right messaging at the right time. Spling interviewed passionate Managing Director, Innocent Nkata to get his thoughts on Sesame Street, Street Gang and reflect on the 22 year journey of Takalani Sesame.

How did you come to be involved with Sesame Workshop South Africa?

I joined the Sesame family in 2018 to undertake work that for me is more than a job. I believe that while a job is what helps me put bread on the table, work is what helps me fulfill my purpose in life. I came to Sesame workshop because I believed here, I can fulfil my purpose in life – a passion for storytelling and making a difference in children’s lives.

How did the South African version, Takalani Sesame, come about?

It all started in 1969 when the Co-Founders of Sesame Street, Joan Ganz-Cooney and Lloyd Morisett, initiated the process that led to the launch of what has now become “The Longest Street in the World”. When our Founders created Sesame Street, they asked themselves the ground-breaking question, “Can TV educate children?” And shortly after it was launched in 1969, they started getting requests from other countries to bring the Sesame magic to their children.

In South Africa, the legacy of apartheid inequality lingered and affected many children’s educational prospects. Takalani Sesame, was created by Sesame Workshop with funding from USAID and private-sector partner Sanlam, to air on SABC television and radio, to address these educational inequalities. When Takalani Sesame was launched in the year 2000, there was a palpable sense of hope – that bringing South African preschoolers and their caregivers a quality early-learning programme through mass media, bolstered by outreach activities, would make a meaningful difference in a country where seven out of eight children had no exposure to early childhood development services.

As Managing Director and a social change leader… what does your role entail and where do you find the greatest pressures?

As a social change leader with a passion for changing children’s lives, I have worked for 26 years in the international development space. As Managing Director of Sesame Workshop South Africa, the non-profit organisation behind Takalani Sesame, my role is to lead Sesame Workshop South Africa’s mission to help millions of kids across South Africa grow Smarter, Stronger, and Kinder.

Basma Jad and Kids

This is an exciting albeit challenging mission – exciting because I have an amazing, trusted brand to lean on with a solid track record of success in South Africa and globally, challenging because social change is never easy. Despite our achievements over the past two decades, children’s needs in South Africa remain extensive and have become more complex with widening inequality, deepening poverty and huge gaps in access to early learning. My vision is that over the next 5-10 years, we will help to level the early learning playing field in South Africa, using the proven power of Takalani Sesame to ensure that all children have an equal shot at a better future regardless of their socio-economic background.

On a day-to-day basis, my work includes building partnerships with diverse media, social impact and funding partners to ensure that we can continue producing and distributing new episodes of Takalani, reaching and impacting more children for generations to come. Fundraising has not been easy in recent years partly due to the impact of COVID and the challenging economic environment in South Africa. But thanks to the generous and unwavering support of our long-standing partners (LEGO Foundation, Mai Family Foundation, Oak Foundation) we have managed to continue with our mission over the past few years despite this challenge and the significant disruptions caused by COVID.

I understand you’re also a writer. Have you contributed to any of the shows in this capacity?

I love writing and storytelling, a passion that goes back to my childhood when I gained the reputation of an avid reader and storyteller, often seen deeply absorbed in a book and lost to the world around me, and other times surrounded by my peers and younger kids as I recounted for them in vivid detail the stories from my latest read.

Later in high school, I was also a stage performer and played leading role in several stage plays such as William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear – including achieving the feat of memorizing my entire lines as Macbeth in less than 48 hours. It is this passion for the Creative Arts that led me to Sesame Workshop. When I joined Sesame in 2018, one of the critical tasks we set out to do a complete reboot of Takalani Sesame to bring the show up to date with the significant changes in the media landscape, the educational needs of children and the current media viewing patterns of young children. When the Sesame team asked me to provide the vision that would guide the new show, and to be included in the RFP sent to production
and creative companies, this is what I wrote:

“As we pursue our vision of creating a better world in which all children reach their
highest potential, Takalani Sesame is poised for a new dawn of exciting growth. We
envisage the new Takalani Sesame being an Afrocentric show anchored on the
uBuntu value system that binds African societies and communities together. From
championing the patent principle of ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ (You Are because
We Are) to instilling in children the values of sharing, respect and kindness, and
nurturing the spirit of living and working together, uBuntu will be at the center of
what Takalani stands for and aims to achieve”.

Today, this continues to be the driving vision of the All-New Takalani. The first in season in the rebooted series saw Takalani Sesame being voted the Best Children’s Programme at the 2021 South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTAs), thanks to the amazing work of the stellar team we put together to reboot the show. While I am not involved in the day-to-day production of the show (I don’t have to because I have an amazing team to brew all the magic we need), I continue to work with the team to provide strategic guidance and occasionally input into creative concepts.

Have you seen the Street Gang documentary yet? What about it left the biggest impression?

Yes, I have watched the doccie three times. The biggest impression it left on me was the love and passion that went into the creation of Sesame Street. From the visionary direction set in motion by Joan and Lloyd, to the iconic role of Jim Henson in creating the Sesame characters, I was left with a humbling feeling of awe, gratitude, and a sense of pride that I am riding on the shoulders of giants. It gives me so much pleasure and inspiration to know that I am part of the “Street Gang”, and this constantly spurs me to go on achieving more great things.

Who’s your favourite character from Sesame Street and Takalani Sesame?

I love Grover to bits – his silly ways never cease to amaze and leave me in stitches with laughter. If I had to be a Muppet, I would be Zikwe or Cookie Monster – I regularly impersonate these two whenever I find an opportunity. I might yet audition one of these days – who knows!

Do you think Takalani Sesame has made a similar impact in South Africa?

Takalani Sesame has achieved a lot over the past two decades including regularly reaching more than 4 million children every month on broadcast channels. It’s social impact has also been remarkable, notably in the HIV/AIDS response. In the early 2000s, as Takalani’s audience was growing, seven million South Africans were living with HIV/AIDS, and children often bore the brunt of the epidemic. One in four South African children was affected: many had relatives with the disease, others had contracted HIV through mother-to-child transmission, and more than two million were orphans because of HIV/AIDS. And not only was the disease killing people, but there was a massive social stigma attached to it.

For Takalani Sesame’s second season, Sesame Workshop SA sought to teach young children about HIV/AIDS–to help break down the culture of silence surrounding HIV/AIDS by providing children and adults a lexicon with which to talk about it openly and honestly. It wasn’t the first time Sesame had tackled a challenging issue. Sesame Street has a long history of addressing difficult subjects through the lens of a child. In the U.S., Sesame Workshop had helped children cope with challenges, such as, the incarceration of a parent, and the loss of a loved one, among others.

We know that children learn best by seeing themselves represented on screen, so Sesame creates Muppet characters that children can relate to, with storylines that reflect their realities. In this case, Sesame turned to its team of South African educational experts, creatives, and producers for advice—and, together, they did it. Takalani Sesame developed the first-ever HIV/AIDS curriculum for preschool children.

Sesame knew that the key to challenging taboos and cultivating understanding lay in humanising and demystifying HIV/AIDS, so we created an adorable HIV-positive Muppet named Kami. Vibrant and healthy, Kami’s very appearance debunked the myth that everyone living with HIV was sickly. And at a time when there was still widespread fear that one could contract HIV through physical contact, Kami showed young viewers that HIV is not transmitted by touching or hugging and that it’s okay to play with someone who is infected. In one segment, five-year-old Kami and her friends play a train game in which they all hold on to one another as they chug along happily together. In another segment, Kami created a “memory box” filled with photos and mementos of her mother, whom she lost to the disease. Her character’s comfort in speaking honestly about her own experience showed children ways of coping with grief and loss.

Kami drew praise from across South Africa and beyond. In 2003, UNICEF named her a global “Champion for Children,” and she has appeared alongside Desmond Tutu and President Bill Clinton. But beyond accolades, she contributed toward changing perceptions and behaviour in a tangible way.

What do you think has been the biggest change between kids watching Sesame Street on TV in the ‘70s and now in the 2000s?

The world has shifted and changed quite drastically in the past 50 years, from the prevalence of technology and new media to new challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic. We never predicted that children would be attending school virtually or socially distancing when they see their friends, but we made sure to create content that can help with that transition and adjustment, while modeling good and healthy behavior. Young children are facing new challenges every day, and we are prepared to be there for them every step of the way.

Based on Street Gang, it seems as though most people who have been instrumental in the success of Sesame Street could very well be characters on the show?

Sesame Street Muppets have always been invaluable in how we’ve been able to uniquely relate to and communicate with young children. It was important to us that children see themselves in these characters, and the playful childlikeness of these characters really reflect the people who made the show what it is today.

Kami and Moshe

Is Takalani Sesame only available on SABC 2? Sesame Street characters branched into film… do you see that ever happening for Takalani?

New Seasons of Takalani Sesame premiere on SABC 2 where it airs every weekday for 6 months (usually June – December) before moving to SABC 1 for another 6 months (usually January – June). These episodes are broadcast in IsiZulu, Afrikaans, English, Sesotho and isiNdebele. The English episodes also air on SABC 3. Season 6 is available for streaming on Showmax, and we are currently discussing additional seasons. We are also currently in conversation with other platforms to air the programme as we look to reach more children across South

Our leading global star, Elmo, is one of the core Takalani Sesame characters and he has featured in the Sesame Street films. It would indeed be exciting for the other
Takalani characters to do a similar cross-over if the opportunity arises.

Takalani Sesame has been running since 2000, have you received fan mail or testimonies from people now in their 20s?

Takalani Sesame has become a beloved programme and brand with 93% recognition among South African households with young kids and youth, (Takalani Sesame Brand Study, 2021). The show has a strong nostalgic appeal across generations, and particularly in the 18–34 years age group, most of whom were pre-schoolers when the show launched in 2000. They regularly speak about ‘growing up on Takalani’ and how ‘Takalani was my babysitter’. We constantly get these and other fan feedback on the Takalani social media channels on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

What are some of the limitations of being an adaptation of such a well-known children’s show?

Tricky one but I think the benefits far outweigh the limitations. It is a huge privilege to have the heritage of being born out of an iconic programme like Sesame Street because it set the tone lends the high esteem in which it is held. One cannot overstate the benefits of riding on the shoulders of a giant.

Recording in 11 official languages sounds like a major challenge… what have been some other challenges around broadcasting this show over 20+ years?

Broadcasting in local languages has indeed been and continues to be one of the most unique features of Takalani. One of the biggest challenges over the years is sustaining production. As a non-profit organisation, Sesame Workshop entirely relies on philanthropic funding to produce and broadcast Takalani. Thanks to the support of founding partners such as USAID and Sanlam, as well as current partners LEGO Foundation, Mai Family Foundation and Oak Foundation, we have managed to maintain high production values over the years. We continue to explore additional partnership opportunities to ensure we can produce Takalani Sesame for generations to come.