MTV are famous for creating slick TV shows. So when their Staying Alive Foundation was tasked with tackling teen attitudes towards sexual health in Kenya, they knew the answer lay in smart, engaging content.
According to UNAIDS data, an estimated 1.5 million people are living with HIV in Kenya and around 1.2 million children have been orphaned by AIDS. The MTV Staying Alive foundation decided to tackle this critical issue by creating Shuga. “It’s the Gossip Girl for Africa”, comments Georgia Arnold, Executive Director of the Staying Alive Foundation. It follows the lives of a group of youngsters at Nairobi University, through love, lust and broken trust. “And what do young people do?” Arnold asks, “They sleep with each other.” But in Kenya, this can be one of the most dangerous decisions they make. With the help of partners Unicef, UNAIDS and the Kenyan government, MTV crafted a gripping drama that educated the Kenyan youth about AIDS through hard-hitting storylines.
To form the first series of three thirty minute episodes, MTV carried out extensive research on the ground, finding out what the Kenyan youth talked like, dressed like, where they went. Ms Arnold believes this was one of the secrets of success. “The characters are real. They are likeable and you can identify with them because they are flawed.” They include the sexy but savvy Ayira, Skola the smooth talking playboy and Violet – the promiscuous party girl whose reckless decisions soon catch up with her.
The programme was not only broadcast on several cable channels, but also shown in groups of up to 200 youngsters, who were then able to discuss the issues raised such as losing a parent to AIDS, the realities of testing and living with HIV, using a specially created toolkit.
The results were impressive; the show was a hit. 60% of Nairobi youth aged 15-24 watched Shuga, and remembered it, and 90% of those youngsters said it changed their thinking about multiple concurrent partners, HIV testing and the stigma associated with HIV. One poignant anecdote made Ms Arnold’s speech. She related how a young girl had approached Ikubese Emmanuel Ifeanyichukwu (who plays Femi in the show) and told him that Shuga had saved her life, as it convinced her to ask her boyfriend to test before they slept together. He turned out to be HIV positive.
Shuga returned this year for a second series addressing an even wider range of topics, such as rape and homosexuality. In many African countries it is still illegal to be gay, so to be permitted to include a minor character that was openly gay was a big deal for MTV. “With Shuga we succeeded in moving barriers.” Ms Arnold commented. “The next step is to break them.”