Party Out of Bounds

MTV Staying Alive Programs Make a Dramatic Impact
by Chael Needle

Lupita Nyong’o plays Ayira in MTV's Shuga

One wishes the audience of MTV’s Jersey Shore will watch Shuga, which first aired in November 2009 on MTV Base Africa. The reality characters on Jersey Shore—“Snooki,” The Situation, Ronnie, and the rest of the gang—float through summers of partying and drunken hook-ups with only oblique mentions of sexual health. The characters have achieved celebrity for having sex with abandon, which might not be a bad thing if it meant more dialogue among fans about HIV and STDs, condoms, and the emotional skills needed to survive the club scene.

Shuga asks a question that easily translates to U.S. youth: “So what do you do when the party catches up with you? Has the ride been worth it?”

The fictional characters on Shuga are the same age as the Shore crew, but are navigating sex, love, and career on the Nairobi social scene. Yet Shuga embeds HIV/AIDS awareness into its storylines. That’s its dramatic purpose. And, unfortunately, it’s a needed one. Though UNGASS reports estimated HIV prevalence in Kenya peaked at 13.4 percent in 2000 and declined to 6.9 percent in 2006, the news is mixed: Prevention awareness is working but death rates remain high.

Shot in vibrant, saturated color with writing that snaps and top-notch production values, Shuga follows a loose network of friends and acquaintances at college. Ayira (Lupita Nyong’o) is an advertising major who is putting off love for a career, and who is convinced that “sex sells.” Skola runs with the “fast boys,” a group of men who boast about sexual exploits and compete for bragging rights. Virginia and Leo are sweet on each other but struggle to get past the barriers that stand in their way. Violet loves to party and usually has one drink too many.

Some characters have older relatives who are HIV-positive. Some have unsafe sex. At the VCT, some find out they are positive or that they still need to wait through the window period. Hope and resilience rule the day. All find “new ways of living,” as Skola echoes on his radio show.

It’s no wonder that Shuga caught on in Kenya and other countries where it has been broadcast. Indeed, a new study, whose results were presented at the International AIDS Conference, offers compelling evidence that realistic and relevant dramas about sex and sexual health, Shuga, for one, can motivate young viewers under twenty-five to make a difference in the fight against AIDS.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found AIDS-themed programming was able to positively impact attitudes and behavior related to HIV/AIDS among viewers. The study tracked Shuga and Tribes, two MTV drama series (and multimedia campaigns) produced by the Staying Alive Ignite campaign, a youth-focused HIV prevention and education initiative developed and funded by MTV Networks International’s Staying Alive, PEPFAR/The Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation, and UNICEF. With the help of eighty-five broadcasters in over 100 countries, Shuga, launched in Kenya and Zambia, and Tribes, launched in Trinidad and Tobago, together reached youth in ninety-six percent of the top fifty countries hard-hit by HIV/AIDS. The study was commissioned by MTV, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As always, the Staying Alive programming was made available rights-free and at no cost for on air and on-line broadcast.

The study that found that stigma was lessened and sexual health awareness heightened among audience members of both shows. Some of the key findings related to Shuga:

• Almost fifty percent (of viewer group participants) talked about the Shuga characters and messages, mainly with close friends, but also with family members and other acquaintances.

• Among the Nairobi youth who were aware of and had seen the campaign and program, over seventy percent had talked about the show’s characters and messages with others.

• Over ninety percent of the Kenyan participants believed the show had an impact on their thinking (about multiple partners, HIV testing, living with HIV), compared to around fifty to sixty percent of the youth in the Zambia panel.

• Kenyan participants reported they were more likely to take an HIV test after watching the show.

For more information on Shuga and the associated MTV Staying Alive Ignite campaign, including behind-the-scenes clips, bios, and cast go to

Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.

Photo Courtesy MTV International Networks

September 2010