MTV Shuga: Fusing HIV messaging with entertainment to help fight AIDS to the finish


When I was growing up, asking questions about anything sex related was not exactly encouraged. Those conversations were left whispered amongst giggling seniors at boarding school dormitories, where the more ‘aware’ girls weaved tales for the wide-eyed naive ones. Our parents did not even want to hear the word. Given that reality, the thought of asking parents questions about HIV, AIDS, or any other sexually transmitted disease, was clearly not entertained.

In Nigeria, there seems to be a sense amongst the general population that young people ought not to talk about these things, that they will learn all they need to know when they grow “older”. But in a country where young people ages 15-30 make up roughly 45 percent of the population, and account for 60% of the HIV burden, accurate messaging about HIV/AIDS and other related issues that is crafted to appeal to young people cannot be disseminated fast enough.

This is exactly what the creators of the TV “Edutainment” Series MTV Shuga have done. The show launched its 4th season last September with a world premiere at the Silverbird Galleria in Lagos, as well as premieres in other cities, including London. The show is directed by Biyi Bandele.

Biyi Bandele Filming Photo Courtesy
Biyi Bandele filming on the MTVShuga set. Photo Courtesy

Set in Lagos, Shuga4 follows the story of Sophie, Sheila, Femi, Weki and others, all young people who in the course of leading their everyday lives face situations that require them to make choices about sex, relationships, and living with HIV and AIDS. Sophie in Season 4 works at a call centre for people who have questions about or are living positively with HIV/AIDS. Her younger sister Princess, who recently discovered she is HIV positive, is pregnant. Shuga4 also highlights other issues including sexual consent and serodiscordant couples, which are couples in which one partner is living positively with HIV and the other partner is negative, as well as the introducing the storyline of two adolescent girls, Mary and her best friend Bongi, as Mary navigates being approached by an older man for a relationship.

Emmanuel Uduma, Marketing and Partnerships Manager for MTV Shuga, at the Shuga4 premiere said, “So far this season has been amazing. We’ve worked really hard on it, the storyline, the messaging, particularly collaborating with our partners has been very key, pushing the message we need people to hear.” He said that the overall message that this series wants to get across is one of adherence. “This year we are working on adherence, people coming out about their status, and understanding that there is love and care and support if you are living positive with HIV,” he said, adding, “We try to push the fact that if you have HIV you can go on to live a normal life.” The show’s website includes a knowledge tab that highlights its themes.

Leelee Bayoma, one of the writers for MTV Shuga Season 4, who attended the premiere, said she was eager to see what had been done with the work her team had done. “I’m very pleased with the outcome,” she said. “There were certain issues that needed to be addressed, such as mother to child transmission, of course HIV, and then looking at the demographic of a younger generation. The bigger challenge is putting your message in an appealing package for the youth. They are not just going to sit down and listen to a lecture, you have to get their interest first. We have done our research, we have this information we need to pass along, how do we make it palatable to this younger generation? So that was the challenge, to make it fun, interesting and up tempo enough for them.”

Olumide and Tiwa filming their first scene Photo Courtesy
Olumide Oworu and Tiwa Savage filming their first scene.    Photo Courtesy

Part of making the series appealing to young people lay in the choice and caliber of the cast. “It’s a collaborative effort, but if you do not have great actors, then they are going to harm your script,” Bayoma said, adding, “They were able to cast great actors who were able to play the roles convincingly. That’s what I saw at the premiere and I was very pleased with that.” The largely youthful cast includes Timini Egbuson as Tobi, Sharon Ezeamaka as Princess, Chris Attoh as Nii, and Jemima Osunde as Leila, to name a few.

South African actress, Mohau Mokoatle, who plays Bongi in Season 4, said at the premiere that one of the important additions to the Series is “the fact that they introduced adolescent girls. Young girls will take away lots of information from the issues addressed, such as family planning, dating older men, how to carry yourself in relationships, and how to respond when approached by older men, men who are old enough to be your father.” The Series also encourages young people to interact with the characters in the show online.

Colette Otusheso, Georgia Arnold, Executive Director of MTV Staying Alive Foundation, and Dorcas Fapson. Photo Courtesy
Colette Otusheso, Georgia Arnold, Executive Director at MTV Staying Alive Foundation, and Dorcas Fapson. Photo Courtesy

Georgia Arnold, Executive Director at MTV Staying Alive Foundation attended the London premiere, and said, “MTV Shuga has exceeded our wildest expectations; we started out with a TV show that had a simple aim of relaying HIV-related issues to its audience in a relatable way, a concept that has developed into a multimedia awareness-building powerhouse! In the past 12 months we’ve expanded the campaign through the development of a peer education programmes and festivals. We’ve covered incredible ground with MTV Shuga so far and I’m thrilled that season four is ready to take the world by storm!”

Season 4 comes on the heels of ShugaNaija, the Season 3 Series, during which Uduma said the MTV Shuga team went on the road with “On tour with Shuga”. “We took Shuga to communities in five states, with support from the Elton John AIDS Foundation, he said. “Previously we didn’t think young people would come out to be tested, but it was amazing, we were surprised. We had screening in communities and young people came out and voluntarily wanted to be tested, and we tested over 47,000 young people. It was amazing. People really identify with Shuga, with the characters and storylines.”

Leelee Bayoma, oneof the MTVShuga4 writers, and Emmanuel Uduma, Marketing and Partnerships Manager for MTVShuga, at the Lagos Premiere. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch
Leelee Bayoma, one of the MTVShuga4 writers, and Emmanuel Uduma, Marketing and Partnerships Manager for MTVShuga, at the Lagos Premiere. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Leelee Bayoma said research played a huge role in fine-tuning important details of the show. “Because of the involvement the of the 6222 Call Centre in the show, many things had to be presented accurately,” she said, adding that “there were lots of trips to the NACA call center in Abuja and back, to make sure that we got it right, and that Sophie portrays the right feel as someone who works at the call centre. So it was a lot of research and background work… and I dare say it was worth it.” She said that the same edutainment medium can be used to address other sensitive issues in society, including rape, unwanted pregnancy, and early marriage.

Arnold noted that besides the TV series, MTV shuga will launch a radio series, a comic book about gender based violence, in collaboration with the Mirabel Centre, Whats-App and SMS platforms, and several digital and social media platforms that allow the audience to interact with the show’s characters. She said Season 4 is the “biggest distribution of the TV Series yet, and goes to 122 TV and VOD broadcasters globally. We are reaching 72 countries world-wide, 42 here in Africa alone.” MTV Shuga is one of over 150 platforms broadcast globally.

Uduma pointed out that “HIV messaging has not been on the radar so much, even though Nigeria is the second largest endemic country. We need to do more. So Shuga is doing its best, partnering with UNICEF, Gates Foundation, NACA, UNFPA, and the State SACAs, all of us, doing what we can… to fight AIDS to the finish.”

As Nigeria joins the fight to end AIDS by 2030, innovative communication interventions such as MTV Shuga will continue to be imperative if we are to change this particular storyline as a country. We need to do more.

See photos of the MTVShuga 4 Premiere in Lagos.

Ada is the Editor of Nigeria Health Watch. She has a B.A. in Communications - Journalism and Creative Writing, and an M.A. in Ancient Near Eastern History. She is a documentary photographer. She tweets as @adankemeze.

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