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EDUCATION: MTV drama brings cool to HIV prevention

Vienna, 21 July 2010 (IRIN) - 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."

See also: SOUTH AFRICA: 4play on the small screen

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Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews, Urban Risk,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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