MTV’s revolutionary African show ‘Shuga’ has made a real difference in the fight against HIV
Though it was the movie that made her blow up, Lupita Nyong’o didn’t actually get her start with 2013’s gut-wrenching hit 12 Years a Slave. Four years earlier, she’d taken the starring role in an MTV series you may not have heard of if you live in the U.S. It’s called MTV Shuga, and its 10th season—MTV Shuga Naija, set in Nigeria—will debut on November 1, 2019, in nearly 180 countries.
Telling real and raw stories of young people in places like Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria, the MTV series sprung up from MTV’s Staying Alive brand. Originally set up to produce narratives that would encourage healthy practices among young viewers, Staying Alive came out with documentaries about HIV in the 1990s, when the spread of the disease was rampant. Staying Alive went from a brand on MTV to its own nonprofit operating out of the U.S. and U.K., and its content evolved from documentaries to scripted drama series.
“If we can tell stories that come from the mouth of young people about their lives, then we can create a media movement,” says Georgia Arnold of the realization that led to the creation of MTV Shuga. Arnold is the senior vice president of social responsibility at Viacom International and the executive director of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation. “The idea was to create content that helps [young people] make both positive decisions about their own health and also creates demand for access to services.”
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the show, and two studies conducted by the World Bank show its effects. The first one, carried out between 2014 and 2018, indicated that among 5,000 young people who watched the show in Nigeria, HIV testing doubled. Additionally, cases of chlamydia in female viewers decreased by half, as did the number of respondents who reported having multiple concurrent sex partners. This was tested by comparing the behavior of a group that watched the show to a group that did not.
The second study measured the show’s “cost benefit analysis.” The World Bank determined that across South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana, one season of the show saves more than $300 million over 30 years. This roughly represents the cost saved in those countries by HIV+ viewers seeking treatment. The World Bank performed this study independently of MTV, though it was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also partly funded MTV Shuga in Nigeria. Part of the foundation’s agreement with MTV was that it would provide a grant to the World Bank to conduct a study on the show’s impact.
Though the show’s initial focus was HIV, it’s since expanded to tackle issues like reproductive healthcare access, LGTBQ rights, child marriage, and more. After all, when the series debuted, even HIV healthcare providers and activists dealt with the disease “in a silo,” says Arnold. Today, HIV is approached more holistically, in a “sexual reproductive health and rights” context, acknowledging its connection with gender-based violence and even other diseases, like tuberculosis.
To keep the plot points relevant and timely, MTV Shuga creators look to the youth in the countries where upcoming seasons would debut to develop new plots. When Arnold started producing MTV Shuga Down South, the South African season of the show, she spoke with a group of 60 schoolchildren between the ages 16 and 18 in that country. One girl in the group told Arnold she knew “exactly what the storyline had been missing” in past seasons. “Someone has to die,” she told Arnold. “I know that MTV Shuga is about our lives, but in our lives, someone always dies.”
In South Africa, being gay is legal—but it’s not elsewhere on the continent. One of MTV Shuga Down South’s main plotlines concerned a male high school student coming out to his friends and family. This likely wouldn’t go over well in most of Africa, so MTV developed a second version of the season where the character is still gay, but the plot focuses on his relationship with his father as opposed to his sexuality. MTV gave every African broadcaster the option to choose either storyline. In all but South Africa, they opted for the storyline that wasn’t about the boy coming out.
Later, the season’s original storyline appeared on YouTube, where people from all over Africa ended up seeing it. “We started to moderate [the YouTube comments], because it was pretty homophobic and angry,” says Arnold. “But then what we saw was that our audience from across the world was pushing back and saying, ‘You may not feel that this is right for your country, but you need to accept this.’” As the show progressed, the homophobic comments on YouTube diminished, until, Arnold says, “there were hardly any at all.”
“I don’t think we have radically change people’s minds in these countries were it’s illegal to be gay,” she says. “What I think we did was allow audiences to accept who [the character] is.”