In Africa, MTV Series ‘Shuga’ Promotes HIV Prevention Among Youth

October 5, 2012

“Shuga” follows the lives of six young adults and the challenges they face. Photo by MTV Base

Love. Sex. Money.

This is the stuff that hit television shows are made of. Add stellar production, a good-looking cast, a strong plot and a setting in a cosmopolitan city — namely Nairobi — and you get “Shuga: Love, Sex and Money,” the MTV Base show that took the African continent by storm.

Wrapped in bright lights and dramatic storylines, the show is nonetheless able to weave in messages of sexual health and keep to its goal of promoting HIV prevention among African youth.

The show, which launched on World AIDS Day in 2009, first came together through a partnership between the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), MTV Staying Alive Foundation, the Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation and the Kenyan government. It has since been seen not only in Kenya but in 22 African countries, and 70 countries worldwide.

Lydia Murimi, the Kenya Director of the Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation, gives us an introduction to the basis of the show.

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Many of the HIV prevention topics covered in the show are aligned with the agenda of the Kenyan government, including HIV testing and avoiding stigma.

However, there are a number of subjects covered, from sexual violence to homosexuality — part of the dialogue surrounding HIV prevention and sexuality — that are never shown on Kenyan television and are taboo public discussions. Thus, the success of the show has come from its ability to push boundaries in its message, as well as what can be shown on TV in Kenya.

Homosexuality is illegal in more than 30 other countries in Africa, according to Reuters, which reports that few Africans are openly gay.

“It was interesting bringing the topic of homosexuality to the table, particularly with the government of Kenya and a mix of generations in the same room,” Lydia Murimi, Kenya Director of the Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation, said of the discussions about production for “Shuga.”

Seeing that gay Africans are a demographic that needs to be included in the discussion of AIDS prevention, it was a difficult topic to ignore, however controversial it may have been. After their negotiations, they chose to cover a specific area of homosexuality, focusing specifically on married men who maintain both homosexual and heterosexual relationships.

“The older generation did not really react,” Murimi said of the subtle inclusion of homosexuality in the show once it aired. “But the youth commended us for it because it reflects with what is happening on the ground.

“In Kenya, we are the only ones telling that story.”

Murimi discusses how pushing boundaries has always been a key philosophy of the show.

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Since the collaborative partners chose to align their messaging strategy with that of the Kenyan government, none of the topics covered, from avoiding stigma to testing, are necessarily new or different when it comes to promoting prevention of the virus.

Yet the target age group, 15 to 24-year-olds, are responding to “Shuga” and its messages in a way that no other HIV prevention initiative in Africa has.

“‘Shuga’ appeals to youth by hosting their dreams, reality and future on screen,” Josephine Karianjahi, 25, said at a packed screening of the show’s second season, during the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C.

“While HIV/AIDS may be removed from day-to-day life for many, the personalization of the show make it extremely necessary in the fight,” she said.

Since the premiere of the second season in February 2012, the show has reached 75 percent of its target audience in Kenya alone, Murimi stated.

In this video, Murimi discusses how African youth relate to the show.

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Soon after the first season in 2009, Johns Hopkins University conducted a study designed to measure the intent to change behaviors after watching the show. Through exit interviews, the researchers concluded that 80 percent of those who saw “Shuga” believed it changed their thinking about having multiple concurrent partners, HIV testing and stigma associated with HIV.

Another study was conducted after the second season ended that examined if there had been actual behavioral change, and not just an intent to change. Results for that study are expected in 2013.

“We are stepping that up and really want to demonstrate behavior change,” Murimi said.

Murimi discusses the impact of “Shuga” even once each season is done.

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The young adult demographic that the show is aimed to reach have been involved in all areas of production of the show, an element that Murimi says is key to its success in reaching and impacting them.

“This generation are dreamers, but they can make things happen,” she said. “They are very worldly; the world is a village now. They are very in-tune with what is happening in the world, and they digest so much information.”

In this video, she offers ideas on how to reach their target demographic.

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Her advice will likely be key in moving forward with the project, as ideas for more seasons of the show are in discussion.

“There is interest in Nigeria, Botswana and other African countries, because they want us to tell their own stories,” Murimi said. “Now it’s about, how do we factor in other countries outside of Kenya?”

Videos were shot by Paula Rogo and Cindy Huang. They were edited and produced by Paula Rogo.

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