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MTV doesn’t need to create The Real World: Lusaka or Tanzania Shore to effectively reach African audiences. Instead the network known for its reality TV shows has found a hit in the recent docu-drama Shuga.

Set in Nairobi, Kenya, MTV’s three-part miniseries tells the story of six college friends chasing after sex, money, and love. The story focuses on Ayira – a girl who can’t choose between her soul mate and a wealthy older man. But the drama is more than a narrative of the hopes and fears of its cast – it is a poignant commentary on the effects of a dangerous lifestyle in a society plagued by the threat of HIV and AIDS.

MTV’s Georgia Arnold calls the show’s underlying educational messages about HIV “almost subliminal,” but partners UNICEF and PEPFAR (the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) confirm the well-concealed communication. The partners hoped Ayira’s story would educate African youth about the need to be tested for HIV, the effects of having multiple sexual partners and the importance of openly talking about HIV in order to combat the stigma associated with the virus.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore say the messaging worked. Results of the researchers’ survey found that 60 percent of Kenyan youths identified the main lessons of the show. Nearly half of the interviewed groups reported talking about the show’s characters and its messaging with family and friends. An estimated 90 percent of Kenyan viewers and 60 percent of Zambian viewers reported the show impacted their thinking.

Although researchers cannot measure the number of actions prevented after viewing Shuga, UNICEF and PEPFAR agree people are already overcoming one of the biggest obstacles – talking openly about HIV. The more they talk, the more likely they are to practice safe sex.

Talk of Shuga grew so much in fact, that the partnering organizations barely needed to promote the series. African youth themselves used social networks to publicize the show.

Considering Shuga’s success, MTV, UNICEF and PEPFAR are already planning a sequel.


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