Nairobi-set 'Shuga' tackles delicate issue of HIV status

BURUNDI, Botswana — A racy TV series aimed at teens and twentysomethings is helping to spread the message of AIDS awareness across sub-Saharan Africa.

Three-part mini “Shuga,” produced by MTV, the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, focuses on a group of fast-living friends in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

Following the characters’ risky decisions — and the consequences of their actions — the series tries to promote the message that AIDS is not a death sentence for young Africans.

Despite the heavy subject matter, the series was shot and produced for a young audience.

“It’s fast, it’s furious, it’s cool — and that’s exactly how we filmed it,” actress Lupita Nyong’o said at a screening of the mini this month in New York.

Nyong’o plays Ayira, a college student who finds herself torn between a boyfriend her own age and an older man.

“Shuga” created a buzz at preems in Nairobi and Lusaka, Zambia late last year. After a much-hyped MTV bow in November, the series has remained in heavy rotation on MTV’s African web MTV Base and 12 other MTV channels.

It also aired on Kenya’s four terrestrial broadcasters — KTN, NTV, Citizen TV and pubcaster KBC — plus three in Zambia and ran weekly until World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, when the 90-minute mini ran in full.

Skein also ran in the U.S. on BET and in Europe and the Caribbean.

MTV, which has been a partner of UNAIDS (the United Nations Joint Program on HIV/AIDS) since 1996, produced “Shuga” rights-cleared so that it could be distributed at no cost as widely as possible.

Speaking in New York, MTV execs said they hoped “Shuga” would jumpstart a debate on topics that are often taboo in much of Africa.

“We’re not the silver bullet,” said MTV Intl. VP 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 show continues to engage auds on the MTV Staying Alive website, where characters blog about their difficult relationship decisions and fans post to popular forums on everything from pickup lines to condom use to revealing one’s HIV-positive status to a new partner.

Nyong’o said “Shuga” had already helped her and her co-stars take a long look in the mirror.

“During the scenes where we were doing the HIV testing, there was a hush on the set,” she said. “It was a heavy time for us, and a lot of actors said, ‘This is real. Yeah, this is real — and I need to make a change in my life.’ “

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