GLOBAL: MTV drama brings cool to HIV prevention


Irin News VIENNA, 21 July 2010 (PlusNews) – It’s a story of sexy young guys and girls having a good time in the big city, of friendships pushed to the edge, and families struggling to survive, but underneath all the drama, MTV’s “Shuga” is a story about HIV.

“My character, Ayira, is young, attractive and very ambitious. When her father left it changed her economic status, and she’ll do anything to get back up there,” Lupita Nyong’o, who plays one of the main characters, told IRIN/PlusNews. Ayira cheats on her boyfriend with an older man at her workplace, who convinces her to have sex without a condom. He turns out to be HIV-positive. 

An evaluation of the impact of the series – set in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi – by the Johns Hopkins Centre for Communication Programmes, was discussed at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna. 

“What Ayira can teach young people is the harm that multiple concurrent partnerships can do; it’s physically risky but also emotionally damaging to you, and people you care about,” Nyong’o said. 

Shuga, which aired in November 2009, ends with Ayira at a voluntary counselling and testing centre, waiting for the results of her own HIV test. Other themes woven into the storyline include condom use, HIV testing, alcohol use, cross-generational sex and HIV discordance (where one member of a couple is HIV-positive and the other is HIV-negative). 

“In Kenya, the drama was watched by an astonishing 60 percent of young people – those are amazing figures for any programme,” Bill Roedy, CEO of MTV, told IRIN/PlusNews. 

“[The] evaluation shows that young people were less inclined to have multiple partners, more inclined to get tested for HIV, and less likely to discriminate against people living with HIV after they watched Shuga.” 

Worldwide, 40 percent of new HIV infections occur among young people between the ages of 15 and 24. Behaviour change campaigns have shown some success, but Ambassador Eric Goosby, head of the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), said MTV offered something that traditional government-run programmes could not. 

“MTV knows how to package hard-hitting programmes that target young people in an effective way; they bring a ‘cool factor’ that is beyond the reach of governments,” he commented. 

Shuga was produced by Ignite, a partnership between MTV’s Staying Alive – which produces TV programming for young people around the world – PEPFAR, and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Ignite produced a similar drama, Tribes, for young people in Trinidad and Tobago, and Embrace Me, a short film on drug use and unprotected sex for young people in the Ukraine. 

Depicting reality 

According to the evaluation, 90 percent of young Kenyans sampled said Shuga had affected their thinking on HIV; eight out of 10 felt the story depicted relationships realistically. 

“It talks about real situations,” said Nicholas Munene, who plays Leo. “My character is in his second year at university and hangs out with older guys who have been in the game longer than he has. He faces a lot of peer pressure and makes a lot of silly mistakes because of alcohol.” 

Nyong’o said the “scandalous love scenes” in the drama had raised eyebrows and drawn some criticism. “I read a Christian blog where people said it was pornographic and did not represent real Kenyan young people, but I’m a real Kenyan young person; I know that the situations in Shuga are realistic.” 

The success of the series has prompted plans to produce a sequel. “We are hoping to use Shuga II to build especially on the issue of HIV testing. We hope to do more than just get people to think about testing – we need to find a way to facilitate the testing,” Roedy said. 

“We also intend to use Shuga through mobile phone technology and social networking – more than 70 percent of young Kenyans have access to mobile phones now, so they can be a valuable tool.” 

He said MTV wanted to expand the show to neighbouring countries where the themes would be just as relevant. AIDS activists from the Caribbean said Shuga’s message would work equally well in their region. 

“My character’s girlfriend is HIV-positive – it would be good if Shuga II could show how a relationship with one HIV-positive partner works,” Munene said. 

“I’d like to see Ayira’s story develop; find out if she was positive or negative, and how she dealt with it,” Nyong’o said. “I’d also like to see it explore issues about men who have sex with men, but many Kenyans are still very homophobic – I don’t know if we’re ready.” 

“4play: sex tips for girls” is the latest HIV awareness campaign created by Johns Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa (JHHESA), which recently launched “Brothers for Life“, an initiative aimed at men in their thirties. 

The story is set in the hair salon of a single mum, Noma, and chronicles her life and that of her three girlfriends, all in their thirties. 

Women between the ages of 20 and 34 have an estimated HIV prevalence of 33 percent, the highest of all age groups according to the 2008 South African National HIV Prevention, Incidence, Behaviour and Communication Survey

“We were asked to develop a show that spoke to women in their thirties and had a new take on HIV,” said Harriet Gavshon, executive producer of 4play and managing director of Curious Pictures, which is producing the serial. 

“The underlying philosophy of the show is to talk to women about taking control of their sexuality and safety. Obviously, we know many women aren’t in that position, but there are of course many who are.” 

Patrick Coleman, managing director of JHHESA, said younge r people were probably easier to reach than the 30-somethings, but both groups were dealing with complex issues and choices regarding sex and sexuality. 

To get their stories, JHHSEA and Curious Produ ctions threw “pamper parties”, to which groups of women were invited for manicures and pedicures, and encouraged to share their histories of love, sex, abuse and HIV. 

Acting out the stats 

Actress Kgomotso Christopher plays Nox, a married mother who finds her cheating husband may have exposed her to HIV. She said the independent characters and how their story lines unfolded were the main draw card for her. 

“Four young, urban, independent women in modern Johannesburg – the whole concept, in terms of a narrative told by very different women, is quite groundbreaking for South Africa,” she said. 

“These women are strong and independent, and this is not necessarily financial independence … it’s quite reflective of modern South African women,” Christopher commented. The show captures a wide spectrum of female experiences, from being entrepreneurs to lovers and mothers. 

“There are so many different things you can relate to as a woman – the sacrifices women make as caregivers, the disillusionment – especially when it comes to relationships,” she told IRIN/PlusNews. “I have a lot of friends who grab relationships by the balls and think, ‘I’m going to see my way through this terrain and have fun’.” 

Moving from matte to glossy 

Curious Pictures has produced health dramas as well as mainstream soap operas, and Gavshon said the two genres were more alike than one would think. “We’ve really come to understand, as health educators, that we have to make good drama first and foremost,” Gavshon told IRIN/PlusNews. 

“You need good research, good stories, well-rounded characters and interesting plots – the same elements that would make a drama work,” she said. JHHSEA had also concluded that to win audiences, the look and feel of health communication programmes would have to be revamped. 

“Good entertainment is key, especially in a very competitive environment, so we wanted to push the boundaries a bit of what you see locally produced,” Coleman told IRIN/PlusNews. “We believe that 4play ups the ante in production values, [portraying] honest stories, particularly from women approaching middle age.”