At first glance, the steamy African soap opera “Shuga: Love, Sex, Money” is not something one would expect US taxpayers to fund. The television series about party-loving young jetsetters in Nairobi, Kenya, airs in 73 countries and has broken all kinds of taboos on the African continent, depicting couples in bed, prostitution, rape, and homosexuality.
Yet “Shuga” is the result of an unlikely partnership between MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a historic US initiative to curb the spread of HIV globally, which contributed $1 million to produce the series. The show’s underlying message is that risky behavior can have disastrous consequences. In a culture where AIDS holds such a stigma that even playing a character with the disease takes courage, “Shuga” hopes to bring about a sea change in youth culture by encouraging open discussion of HIV and making testing an “in” thing to do.
So far, it seems to be working. Over 80 percent of those who have watched the show said it made them more likely to be tested, less likely to have multiple partners, and more sensitive to the stigma associated with AIDS, according to a Johns Hopkins study. While conservatives in both the United States and Africa might grumble about the suggestive content, it clearly resonates with young viewers. “Initially, it was just another job, another paycheck,” said actor Nick Mutuma, who plays a two-timing pretty boy and was in Washington, D.C., recently for the International AIDS Conference. “After watching it, I got tested for the first time in my life. Then I got 500 Facebook messages from people asking questions I didn’t know how to answer, about getting tested. We called MTV and asked, ‘What do we do?’ ” Since then, MTV has trained the cast on how to counsel the fans who approach them on the street.
One irony about the US effort to stem the tide of HIV in Africa is that pockets of the United States are just as prone to infection. At least 3 percent of residents in Washington, are infected. That’s a higher rate than West Africa, and on par with parts of Kenya and Uganda. Maybe MTV should consider creating a version of “Shuga” for the United States.