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The MTV drama raising HIV awareness in Africa

From Tom Hayes, CNN
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African drama raises HIV/AIDS awareness
  • "Shuga" follows young people living with the specter of HIV/AIDS in Nairobi
  • The show is the result of an MTV and UNICEF health campaign in Kenya
  • More than 60% of Kenyan youth watched the show's debut

Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week we profile the cast members of "Shuga," the hit MTV drama following young students living with the specter of HIV/AIDS in Nairobi.

Watch the show on Saturdays 1130 and 1830 GMT, Sundays 1700 GMT and Monday 1130 and 1630 GMT.

(CNN) -- "It's the story of morning afters and sweet departures...and the stains we leave on each other" -- so begins the trailer for "Shuga," a cutting-edge MTV drama that's been a smash hit in Africa.

For many young Africans, the three-part TV series about a group of students in Nairobi living under the constant specter of HIV/AIDS is the story of their own lives -- and is the reason "Shuga" took the continent by storm when it debuted late last year.

Actress Sharon Olago, who played promiscuous party girl Violet in "Shuga," believes the Kenyan show has been so successful because it mirrors the complexities of modern young life, without falling into a moralistic, conventional narrative on safe sex.

"'Shuga' did not exaggerate anything, it relived what Kenya is," says Olago. "That is why it got the fame it did, that is why people jumped into it, because people saw themselves in it."

Set and filmed on location in Nairobi, the soap opera came about after UNICEF teamed up with MTV to create a health campaign to impact the lives of youths in Kenya, where an estimated 6.5 percent of its population lives with HIV.

Video: 'Shuga' star on her U.S. education
Video: 'Shuga': A message of safe sex

Part of MTV's Staying Alive campaign, "Shuga" was designed and produced to draw its young audience to crucial health and social issues. Its bold style distinguished it from many other TV shows in Africa and won it fans across the continent.

The show follows Ayira, a 22-year old college student whose ambition and hunger for the high life is complicating her relationship with her boyfriend Ty; Ayira's friend Violet, a party girl whose many sexual exploits is straining her friendships; and Kenneth, Skola and Leo, members of the wealthy, swaggering, fast boy crew on campus.

"Shuga" portrays a modern city, complete with the vices that go hand in hand with 21st century life. At the center of most of the action is Ayira, played by Lupita Nyong'o.

While the MTV and UNICEF campaign driving the show emphasizes the importance of safe sex and HIV testing, it also talks about "how HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence -- and that's a really, really important thing," according to Nyong'o.

'Shuga' did not exaggerate anything, it relived what Kenya is...That is why people jumped into it, because people saw themselves in it.
--Actress Sharon Olago

"If one catches it early on, you can live a healthy life with HIV," the actress, who is currently enrolled in a drama course at Yale University in the United States, told CNN.

Nyong'o, whose mother worked in a family planning clinic when she was a child, says "Shuga" has given her a platform to speak about HIV/AIDS to a wider audience.

The show has struck a chord with young audiences. A staggering 60 percent of Kenyan youths saw "Shuga" -- and 90 percent said they intended to change their behavior as a result, according to a survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University following the show's broadcast.

The show not only made an impact on its viewers, however; its cast says "Shuga" forever changed their lives for the better.

Nicholas Mutuma, who plays the character of Leo, says he "freaked out" when he first read the script. "The more I read it, the more I saw me in some of those characters," he said.

"Me and a couple of the other cast members, we decided we didn't want to be hypocrites -- we're not going to get this message out there when we don't know our status ourselves," said Mutuma. "So we did get tested, and it's an empowering experience."

Nearly a year after the show's debut, the responsibility of making sure the lessons of "Shuga" continue to be heard now rests with the show's young cast members.

Both Mutuma and Olago have become of the vocal campaigners spreading the message of safe sex and helping educate communities about HIV and AIDS.

"The way "Shuga" is scripted and the way it is shot, everyone can enjoy it -- it is entertaining, but it educates you at the same time," said Olago, who also went to get tested following completion of the show.

"That is what you want," says Olago. "You want to learn something, especially on issues of HIV/AIDS, which is very personal to all of us."