You might call it the Kenyan version of Gossip Girl—a serial drama centered on a group of good-looking twentysomethings pursuing their dreams, looking for love, and living life in the fast lane. The difference is that Shuga is much more than entertainment. Promoted as a series about “love, lust, and broken trust…and the marks we leave on each other,” each episode of Shuga sucks you in with the emotional trials and tribulations of young men and women caught up in the temptations of the Nairobi nightlife, and leaves you with an underlying message about stopping the spread of HIV.
Premiering on World AIDS Day 2009 with a three-episode arc, Shuga was a bona fide hit, reaching more than 300 million people in nearly fifty nations. The program is funded by a partnership between MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, (PEPFAR), and the Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation (HFG) in Kenya. Georgia Arnold, Staying Alive executive director, describes the sequel, Shuga: Love, Sex, Money, as the next logical step to “continue to reinforce safe sex and healthy living messages with our audience without feeling like we’re preaching to them.”
According to a study of African youth conducted by Johns Hopkins Research, the messages are getting through. The results of the research project confirmed the following:
• Sixty percent of youth in Kenya had seen Shuga.
• Almost fifty percent of those who had seen the show talked about the Shuga characters and messages—mainly with close friends, but also with family members and acquaintances.
• At least ninety percent of the Kenyan participants believed the show had an impact on their thinking.
• Kenyan participants said they were more likely to take an HIV test after watching Shuga.
In addition to the broadcast audience, more than 400,000 people watched Shuga at communal viewings in villages, community centers, and universities. With each viewing there was an HIV testing center and educational information available on-site. “This drama really hit a nerve and it hit it in the right way,” declares Arnold, whose goal for Season Two is to turn this reaction into action. The success of Shuga proved to the world that “drama and public health messages can work together to effect genuine attitudinal change. What we’ve shown with Season One is this intention to change behavior. The real challenge with Season Two is how to show that we have actually changed behavior.” The second installment of Shuga, which premieres on Valentine’s Day 2012, will run for six episodes on television and twelve shows on the radio, featuring several new characters and plotlines. A rural storyline will be introduced to broaden the reach of the original show’s urban ambience. A gay character (Rayban) will join the cast—a groundbreaking television event for Kenya. Rayban’s role may be minor—at least in Season Two—but Arnold deems this a huge step forward considering the fact that “in Kenya and in too many African countries it is actually illegal to be gay.”
In the U.S., Shuga is only accessible for viewing on-line at mtvshuga.com, but producers are working on securing an American broadcast partner for distribution. For those in the U.S. who have seen it, Arnold says the show paints quite a different picture of life in an African country than what many Americans expect. The environment is metropolitan, and the young cast members of Shuga face many of the same issues as their U.S. counterparts. On American television, Shuga would likely air on basic cable with little or no flak. In Kenya, the sexual content of the show raised eyebrows. Even though there is no nudity or explicit sex, most of the 100 partner broadcasters of MTV that run Shuga opted for a slightly censored version of the program, but the show doesn’t shy away from some formerly-taboo topics. Sex with multiple partners, circumcision, condom use, the effects of alcohol (especially a popular drink called a “panty remover”), and dealing with stigma are all woven throughout the show. Despite some controversy, the program’s had a measurable influence not only on its viewers’ lives but on its cast members as well. After shooting a scene for the second episode in which three male characters discuss not knowing their HIV status, the actors followed up and went for their HIV tests. Sharon Mina Olaga, who plays diva party girl Violet (Vio), says, “Before Shuga I had never tested. I would make my boyfriends test and then assume I was negative if they were. After Shuga it’s just profound how my life has changed.” Now Olaga gets tested every six months and encourages friends and family members to do the same. “I have taken several trainings on HIV and AIDS. I’m more aware about what’s happening.”
In fact, every cast member on the show is required to be trained in HIV education and prevention. “These characters have become role models and they are identifiable for young people wherever they are in the world,” says Arnold. “Essentially, the cast members are HIV prevention champions.” The actors, who have been inundated with questions and comments on Facebook and Twitter, are allowed to give advice and know which questions should be forwarded to the appropriate professional qualified to handle the response. The Shuga cast is also involved in the creation of the show’s storylines and character development. Before an episode is scripted, the producing partners sit down to determine the key messages they want to get across. A senior scriptwriter collaborates with two young Kenyan writers to ensure the language is youth-oriented and retains a Kenyan flavor. After finished scripts are provided to the on-camera talent, “the actors have the ability to change the words they’re saying to what they really feel they would say,” Arnold explains.
Olaga is optimistic that Shuga will play a key role in reducing the rate of HIV infection and the stigma surrounding it. “It’s unbelievable the number of people who watched the show, then went out and wanted to know their status. It triggered them to ask questions about themselves and their relationships.” In the final episode of Season One, Skola, a sexually-active radio host, takes an introspective look at his future after learning he’s HIV-positive. “When I first got the news I wanted to hide for the rest of my life, but I have no intention of dying,” he confesses to his listeners. “I love life. I just have to find a new way of living it.” Arnold hopes the compelling characters and intriguing stories at the heart of Shuga: Love, Sex, Money will entice more people to see the show and heed its messages. “Once you start watching it, you will want to keep watching it,” she says. After viewing the entire first season, I know I can’t wait to see what happens next.
For more information about Shuga: Love, Sex, Money, visit mtvshuga.com.
Chip Alfred is Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist living in Philadelphia.