By Dia Zamani
‘One of the best ways to fight stigma and empower HIV positive people is by speaking out openly and honestly about who we are and what we experience’, – Words of HIV activist, Alex Garner.
Could this be mere coincidence or did Alex Garner fall into a trance where he saw the vision of MTV Base’s purposeful use of the enlightening and entertaining series, Shuga, (coined from the Sugar Daddy slang which refers to older men who use their wealth to receive sexual gratification from younger ladies just old enough to be their daughters)?
After two successful seasons filmed in Kenya, the Shuga series which aims at creating awareness about HIV/AIDS arrived in the World’s most populous black nation, Nigeria and was directed by Biyi Bandele who is now famous for directing Half Of A Yellow Sun movie. It is pertinent to note that the Nigerian populace comprises of seventy percent (70%) youths below the age of 30 and more precisely about twenty-five (25%) percent falling within the ages of 15-24.
After eight quality episodes of Shuga season 3 which were followed religiously by those Nigerians who could afford internet services and garnering rare reviews, the impressive cast and crew members were in Abuja, Nigeria on Wednesday, 22nd January 2014 for the screening of Shuga in the Nation’s Capital City
The Federal Minister of Health, Prof John Onyebuchi; the Director General of The National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), Professor John Idoko and the Senior Vice President & Managing Director of MTV Networks Africa, Alex Okosi were some of the dignitaries who graced the screening.
Welcome remarks were made by the Director General of NACA, Prof John Idoko at the event which was as a result of a brilliant partnership between MTV Africa, the Staying Alive Foundation, the Bill/Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA).
Alex Okosi of MTV was pleased with the prospects of enlightenment which could be achieved with entertainment through the Shuga series which was also richly blessed by young talents.
‘I believe the impact it can make in Nigeria will be greater. Shuga is a multimedia campaign, using entertainment to educate. It I’m important to see we’re saving lives and helping young people take important decisions. We’re excited about the opportunity to work with great young talents’, Okosi explained. His position was echoed by director Biyi Bandele, whose expression conveyed that of a man proud of his own work.
Other dignitaries in attendance included: Senator Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta North senatorial district, Senator Ali Ndume; the Deputy Chief of Mission US Embassy to Nigeria, Maria Brewer and others.
The founder of MTV Staying alive and Shuga, Georgia Arnold was appreciative of the partners which made the Shuga series a huge success as she also made it clear how wide the audience of the series could be in coming months when she expatiated on future plans.
“Thanks to NACA for offering to support and to the US and its representatives present here today. We are trying to use Shuga to bust myths about HIV. Shuga is a mass behavioural change campaign. It gets the audience to talk about issues and more importantly, take action. It revolves around eight episodes. To launch in the next few months are radio series, comics and more. We are hoping to do a tour around Nigeria. Half a billion people have access to Shuga,” an excited Georgia revealed
Season Three of Shuga would not have been such an immense success without the array of impressive young talents who made up the cast of this Series which has in previously season paved ways for stars like Lupita Nyong’o who is now an Oscar nominee. Some members of the Shuga Season 3 cast are: Dorcas Shola Fapson, Okezie Morro, Chris Attoh, Timini Egbuson, Kachi Nnochiri, Tiwa Savage, Maria Okanrende, Olumide Oworu, Sani Mu’azu, Owumi Ugbeye, Bikiya Graham-Douglas and KC Ejelonu.
One of the Nigerian senators present, stirred the emotions of guests when he revealed his sister and friend are HIV positive.
Two major revelations of the Shuga series, Timini Egbuson who plays the role of the geeky Tobi and the very gorgeous Dorcas Shola Fapson, the adventurous and fun-seeking Sophie, both spoke about their experiences on the Shuga set and the lessons they have learnt from the educative series
Timini, younger brother to one of Nollywood’s finest; Dakore Egbuson Akande revealed he was ecstatic when he got the role to showcase his talent in Shuga.
‘ It was a happy feeling because obviously I watched a full preview of the episodes of the two previous seasons and I knew how big it could be and I liked the message it was passing, so that’s basically what pushed me to do better in the auditions to make sure I got the role.’
Timini believes that although he is not perfect, he is now well positioned to be a role model to his fellow youths. “I believe I’m not perfect but it’s a learning process. Like in the process of acting on Shuga, I learnt a lot about HIV, the problems carriers have it face, so I’m better prepared and strengthened to make an impact on my peers and on my immediate environment.”
Speaking about the biggest lesson he learnt concerning HIV from the Series, Timini was quick to point out that “HIV no dey show for face …people believe in face validity, they just look at a person and say, ‘Yeah, this guy is fresh, he can’t have HIV, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t show. On the flip side, HIV is not the end of life; even if you have it, it is not a death sentence.”
Quizzing Timini about how he would be able to tell one who is HIV positive, he responded smartly, “Well, that’s the point. I can’t know, so I would protect myself, I need to be careful, that’s why I wouldn’t share your clipper or use any unsterilized object that you used.”
The US ambassador to Nigeria through his speech assured Nigerians that the U.S is committed to fighting the HIV scourge, “The commitment to HIV/AIDs by the US is not going anywhere”, he said resolutely, effectively trashing rumours of his government abandoning support, because of the recently passed controversial anti-same sex marriage bill.
If you thought chatting with Timini was fun, Dorcas Shola Fapson lit up the whole place with her elegance and great sense of humor. Dorcas who is arguably the star revelation of the series spoke about young women who see themselves in the same situation as Sophie.
‘Well, Shuga taught me a lot about HIV, the different ways to contract it, and how to take yourself if you do have it. It taught me that when you contract it through sex it is like a game of roulette; like in the series, my character, Sophie slept with Solomon and she didn’t get the virus, but when Princess slept with him, she got it. It is teaching people that if you sleep with someone that has HIV, it does not guarantee that you would get it, at the same time it doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get it, so it is like a game of roulette but obviously you have to protect yourself constantly and make sure you know the status of the people you are sleeping with and let those people know your status as well.’
On the best way of avoiding HIV through sex according to the London-based Nigerian beauty who is a graduate of criminology is the use of condoms, “Use a condom, stay sharp, sharp up’. ‘I would say, if you are going to do it, just be safe because safe sex is the best sex’, she explained.
When asked about previous acting jobs she had done, she was quick and humble enough to make it clear that Shuga is her TV debut although she had a stint with a theatre production, Oliver Twist. The talented, Dorcas Fapson however believes she will equally be as successful as her predecessor in the Shuga business, Lupita Nyong’o.
‘I’m the next Lupita, you don’t know my name?’ she asks rhetorically, giggling.
She is humbled by the amazing reception and compliments she has received from fans of Shuga
‘Obviously, I’m humbled! The attention I have gotten already from Shuga is crazy and I’m humbled by it, I appreciate it, I can only thank God, you know, I’m just going to keep pushing, so hopefully by next year, you would see me at the Oscars, as a nominee (laughs) say amen!’
She would not leave without talking about her perception of the character she played, Sophie.
‘I think Sophie is just a young, carefree person, I think she represents a lot of young girls that are living in Lagos and Africa, I am from London and I know a lot of girls that look like that in London too. She’s a smart girl, that uses her body to get what she wants, she’s a ‘live for the moment’ kind of person but regrets it after, she is just young, she wants to enjoy herself, she’s a party girl, she loves attention.’
She was nice enough to leave an advice for other girls in the world who are like the Sophie character she excellently portrayed
‘My advice to Sophies around the world will be, if you are going to enjoy, do that, but be safe.
‘You know, Sophie is very reckless when it comes to sleeping with men, she slept with Ekene without a condom and then Solomon, so imagine if she did contract HIV, she would have passed it on to Ekene and it would have just continued like that, so my advice to Sophies around the world would be to sharp out and stay safe. If you are going to do it, stay safe and be smart, keep getting tested, always make sure you know your status, make people aware of your status, and make sure you know your sexual partner’s status as well.’
The screening of Shuga in Abuja is over now but the lessons and entertainment the TV Series has provided will live with all those who were in attendance and the ardent followers of the series for a very long time
In the words of the director, Biyi Bandele, “We hoped Shuga would get people talking and that’s what’s happening”. If the talk extends to action on the part of young people everywhere, then MTVBase and its partners would have scored a big one. We wait.