Kenya TV drama, 'Shuga', entertains as it raises AIDS awareness

By Rod Huntress

NEW YORK, USA, 27 January 2010 - Partnerships play a vital role in UNICEF's efforts to halt and reverse the HIV/AIDS pandemic. When it comes to delivering messages about HIV prevention, the organization's work with media and entertainment partners such as MTV provides a valuable - and credible - connection to young audiences.

Yesterday at its New York headquarters, UNICEF highlighted a recent collaboration with MTV with a screening of 'Shuga', a three-part TV drama about a group of young friends living in Nairobi, Kenya. As they explore the complexities of love, the characters confront the risk of HIV infection - and learn that a positive test result for the virus is not a death sentence.

MTV produced the programme in collaboration with UNICEF and other partners, including the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.

'Meaningful engagement'

"It's fast, it's furious, it's cool - and that's exactly how we filmed it," said actress Lupita Nyong'o, who plays a lead role in 'Shuga' as Ayira, a college student who finds herself torn between a boyfriend her own age and an older man. Ms. Nyong'o attended the screening and a panel discussion that followed, along with representatives of key partners in the project.

The series shows how some kinds of behaviour - including sexual involvement with multiple partners, sexual exploitation and alcohol abuse - can make young people more vulnerable to HIV.

During the panel discussion, PEPFAR Senior HIV/AIDS Prevention Advisor Tijuana A. James-Traore noted the programme's power to speak effectively to young viewers.

"This is really what we mean when we talk about the meaningful engagement of young people in issues that impact their own lives," she said. "No other person or persons, I think, could have communicated the messages in the way these young people have done."

A regional priority

Messages about HIV and AIDS prevention are especially crucial in eastern and southern Africa, the heart of the global epidemic. Sixty per cent of HIV infections among young people last year occurred in this region alone.

"Young women in Eastern and Southern Africa are particularly severely affected by HIV," said the Senior Specialist in HIV Prevention with UNICEF's Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS campaign, Susan Kasedde.

"In some countries, as many as three young women to each young man are infected," she added.

Starting a dialogue

While popular dramas like 'Shuga' will not end the epidemic on their own, they can lead to dialogue about the risks of HIV infection. They can also help to combat the stigma that people living with the virus sometimes face.

"We're not the silver bullet," said MTV International's Vice President for Social Responsibility, John Jackson. "We're not going to solve this problem. But we're a critical player in getting a certain section of our community to think, to have a conversation they might not have otherwise."

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is assessing the effectiveness of 'Shuga' in changing behaviour within its target audience. For some members of the cast, that change has already begun.

"Especially where we were doing the scenes where we were doing the HIV testing," said Lupita Nyong'o, "there was a hush on the set. It was a heavy time for us, and a lot of the actors said, 'This is real. Yeah, this is real - and I need to make a change in my life."