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The Remarkable Strides of MTV Shuga And the Work Ahead

few months ago, pining for the serenity of a small town, I decided to visit my alma mater in Ile-Ife, Osun State. Ile-Ife, or Ife, is a quiet university town where old women leave their roadside kiosks shut until ten in the morning and dogs lie languid in the streets. What frenzied movements you’ll find will be within the premises of Obafemi Awolowo University—students with bowed heads rushing off to classes during the day for lectures and at night, to study. Boys in fancy polka dot shirts with revere collars, or in unfashionable chinos two sizes too big; girls with heads wrapped tightly in their mothers’ scarves, or their lips painted a bright pink—you find them all with their backs hunched, noses pressed to the pages of their books.

I walked OAU’s dark, exposed walkways with a friend in her final year of studying Medicine. Exams were close and she was frantic. To distract her, we discussed what young adults often do when together: sex. She discussed her final year project: research into the knowledge, perception and use of long-acting reversible contraceptives among female undergraduates. Unsurprisingly, despite their characteristic bookishness, most of her respondents were unaware of the existence of these contraceptives. Surprising, though, were the ten students who had learned about them from a thinly-publicized series: MTV Shuga.

MTV Shuga (or just Shuga) is a television drama series that first aired in Kenya in 2009. Starring Lupita Nyong’o—who would later go on to become a Hollywood star and win an Oscar—as Ayira, the first season of Shuga sought to teach the youth about responsible sexual behaviour.

The series, perhaps because of its mix of stakeholders (the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, the United States’ President’s Emergency Fund for Aids Relief, the Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation), was strongly geared towards tackling the spread of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. At that time, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 67 per cent of all HIV/AIDS cases in the world. The series aimed to grab the attention of an increasingly visual African youth generation—one that grew up on 24-hour television, with antennas on poles and wide white and blue dishes hung above their roofs.

Despite its obvious didacticism, the first season of Shuga became a hit, airing in 40 African countries and on television stations outside of the continent.  Twilight on Tuesdays would have me sitting before the television, my siblings behind me, all of our eyes glued to skins similar to ours, acting out lives we recognized. Ayira was that classmate of my sister’s who led two lives: brilliant but distracted. Leo (Nick Mutuma) was my brother: handsome and at once given to peer pressure, then wild independent streaks. We watched Ayira with Sindi (Valerie Kimani) and Violet (Sharon Olago) walk streets and browse shops similar to Balogun Market. The sex here was realistic, but not risqué. It was practical, heuristic, but not on the nose.

The second episode of Season 1 began with an HIV scare for Skola, played by David Omwange. This episode motivated my friends and I to get tested. The show insisted that we must know our status, and we must share that status with our sexual partners. And what if we were positive? Well, it wasn’t the end of the world; the show explained to us that antiretroviral drugs existed, with which we could live perfectly normal lives. Its most enduring lesson was antithetical to what our parents had pressed into us: that there was no shame in having an active sexual life.  What was shameful, in fact, was irresponsible sexual behaviour.

When Shuga returned for a third season in 2013, it returned as Shuga Naija. It had come home. It starred Tiwa Savage, Emmanuel Ikubese and Chris Attoh, and was directed by Biyi Bandele. It gave Timini Egbuson and Dorcas Shola-Fapson their big break. From the first episode, though—the first scene, even—you could tell it had returned tamer, accommodating fragile conservative sensibilities. The make-out scenes with naked backs were gone; in their place were couples sharing chaste kisses and falling onto beds fully clothed. But tamer did not mean lower stakes. Responsible sexual behaviour was still the focus, and Shuga continued to project this in striking ways. Sophie’s (Dorcas Shola-Fapson) casual recklessness in her relationships—with both her aristo and her best friend’s boyfriend—was hair-raising. Each character’s long-term friendships, their family ties, and their reputation were all tied to their sexual experiences.

As viewers, my friends and I had grown older. We were now at university. We didn’t recognize the lives on the show because we lived them by proxy; we recognized them because they were ours. It wasn’t strangers on TV who took photos of men brawling in a club and shared them on Twitter; it was us. Like the character Malaika (Leonora Okine), my course-mate lived with an abusive boyfriend and came to school with a heavily made-up face. This was to cover the bruises her boyfriend had inflicted on her the previous night. We all watched her, unable to fathom why she stayed with her abusive partner. But as its episodes passed, Shuga explained that there are things which shackle us to our abusers, and they are not easy to grasp. The show, aware of its audience—one whose schools provided Wi-Fis, and courses that necessitated the use of personal laptops—began airing on YouTube, allowing for viewing on thin mattresses in crowded hostel rooms.

Shuga, after a brief move to South Africa, returned to Nigeria in 2018 for its sixth season. This time, the show made its characters younger. Those experienced university students navigating their sex lives turned to secondary school students asking questions about sex and sexuality. Although sex education remains absent in the curriculum of our secondary schools, MTV Shuga Naija consciously activated the conversation within school grounds; Corper Yasmin (Rahama Sadau), the rare open-minded teacher, created a safe environment for the students to ask their questions. During my secondary school days—even though my friends and I were sexually-active—the most sex education we got from school was that boys had penises out of which sperm flowed, and girls had vaginas through which the sperm would journey to fertilize eggs for childbirth. We would all giggle nervously, our teacher carrying on in front of the class, ignorant of our knowledge.

Shuga’s focus may have shifted a little from sexual behaviour in its earlier seasons to overall social relations in its sixth season, but it was more suited to its young characters. Because adolescent sexuality is tied to adolescent issues, and not spousal abuse or job (in)security, it only made more sense to have teenage, but not flimsy, complications—Hadiza’s (Amal Umar) insistence on going to school despite her family’s insistence on her staying in her teenage marriage; Ebisinde’s (Alvin Abayomi) disregard for everything age-appropriate; Diana’s (a grand performance by Helena Nelson) queen-bee cruelty toward her classmates, and disturbing curiosity and naivety toward sex. Besides, showing university students kissing on Nigerian screens is one thing, but secondary school students? It could never be chaste enough. Still, the season had hard lessons: forced marriages, teen parenting, the harsh realities of a rape victim in the Nigerian society.

This is not to say that there is no more work ahead for Shuga. There are still obvious issues the show is yet to address. This includes the need to portray sex workers—that much-maligned Nigerian reality—with a pinch of humanity. The first three episodes of the most recent season (the show’s eighth) do have characters that are sex workers. The episodes, however, paint these sex workers in the same fashion we have come to expect from Nigerian lenses: two-dimensional, decadent, if not there for the financial rewards, then for the material. When the show cuts to scenes featuring these women, we find them dancing to loud music, or fawning over a new bracelet. MJ (Belinda Agedah Yanga), the focus of this subplot, is the clichéd pimp with a history of sexual assault. This assault is what ties her to another character, her brother, Tobi (Timini Egbuson). We do get a slice of what her character could be—soft, loving, protective—when she sits with her girls to discuss him, but it seems more incidental, a narrow turn off the road to a big reveal made to another character, her brother’s girlfriend, Barbie (Omowunmi Dada).

Barbie could be the answer to this two-dimensional portrayal. She seems to have given up financial rewards to date Tobi, which seems out of character for a TV sex worker. However, when we see her discuss the relationship with her friends, we find her dangling his gifts in their faces, describing their relationship as ‘not altogether free.’

But sex work is work; too often, sex workers are poorly portrayed on television. The flattening of these characters can be dehumanizing and stigmatizing, which, studies have shown, ultimately compromises the health and safety of sex workers in real life.

Shuga has also failed to incorporate stories about homosexuality. In a conversation with a screenwriter friend of mine who was billed to work on one of the Nigerian seasons, he shared that a queer character was on no one’s mind when during the writing of the sixth season. This is a failure and a blind spot for the TV Series. Introducing a queer character on MTV Shuga could bring validation and representation to a group in need, and it would provide essential sexual education to LGBTQ+ youth in Nigeria.

Although generally assumed to be low-risk, a study in 2011 found that chlamydia was more common among women who have sex with women (7.1 per cent) than women who have sex exclusively with men (5.3 per cent). The high vulnerability to the HIV infection among men who have sex with men (MSM) is also well-documented. In Nigeria, where discrimination is rife, MSMs account for 23 per cent of all HIV cases. This is troubling if you consider that the data is not representative of MSMs who are in the closet.

After she had finished her final exams and had become a doctor who now had the luxury of sleeping peacefully for the first time in several months, I called my friend again to discuss her project. Ten had always felt like a small number to me, but she continued to describe it as significant: Most young people were unaware of the existence of long-acting reversible contraceptives, she said, and for ten out of her sample size of over 400 to discover them through a TV show was impressive. While we spoke, my voice on speakerphone at her end, a friend she was hanging out with chipped in. She, too, had found out about long-acting contraceptives through Shuga; she had been ignorant of IUDs until she started watching the show. ‘You see?’ my friend told me. ‘Another testament that those guys are doing something right.’⎈