The show that’s smashing stigma around sexual health

Mamodibe Ramodibe plays 13-year-old Arabeng. Physically mature for her age, Arabeng attracts (often inappropriate) attention from older men.

Sex. In many places around the world, just talking about it can be taboo. MTV Shuga is the television show on a mission to change that.

Shuga fuses sexual-health messaging with gripping storylines, exploring the issues that affect young people and their physical, sexual and emotional health.

It helps young people learn more about issues like HIV/AIDS, contraception, and abuse.

MTV Shuga Down South is based in South Africa. It places HIV/AIDS front and centre, in the country with the highest number of HIV infections worldwide. Shuga spin-offs in Egypt and India have tackled issues such as FGM and early marriage.

Shuga isn’t just educational. There’s evidence that it can change people’s behaviour. A study in Nigeria found that young people who watched MTV Shuga were twice as likely to get an HIV test.

We caught up with two of the actors in Shuga Down South. Mamodibe Ramodibe plays Arabeng and Malibongwe Mdwaba plays Kwanele.

Mamodibe Ramodibe plays 13-year-old Arabeng. Physically mature for her age, Arabeng attracts a lot of attention from older men.

Shuga has been incredibly effective at changing young people’s attitudes to sex and sexual health. Why do you think that is?

Mamodibe: “It’s appealing. It’s enticing. It doesn’t show a theory of how we want society to be, it shows what I really see when I step out of my house.

The other thing that’s so compelling is it’s allowing conversations about sex, which can be really difficult, in a healthy and correct way.

The reality is young people are having sex. Shuga gives them a space to learn about their bodies, and safe ways to understand and talk about sexual health.

We’ve had a soap about sexuality before in South Africa. It did not appeal to young people at all. Even in high school we have programmes to teach young people about sex but they can be preachy, instructive. By contrast, Shuga is seamless, effortless. More than half of the characters are young people. It helps people at home to relate.

Malibongwe: Also, it’s accessible.  It has music that young people actually listen to. It’s fresh, it’s vibey, we’re not throwing information in their faces. We’re giving them a taste of entertainment, but also a thread of education.

It’s also about more than the show. As actors we go to rural areas, we show the episodes, we talk with young people, some actually open up about their own lives. It’s a safe space for young people to talk about what’s affecting them. We call these our ‘activations.’

Malibongwe Mdwaba plays Kwanele. Kwanele works two jobs, and he likes to unwind with a few drinks. Sometimes, he ends up taking risks with his sexual health.

MTV Shuga has tackled child marriage in its spin-off show in Egypt. How does child marriage fit in with issues affecting young people in South Africa today? 

Mamodibe: In South Africa, we are really struggling with patriarchal systems and traditions.

It means that in parts of South Africa, you can see a 12-year-old girl being married off.

Child marriage is an unspoken narrative, something that’s happening behind closed doors. On Shuga, what we see is more at the larger scale. HIV, sexuality, they’re affecting people every day.

Malibongwe: A big issue in our country is ‘blesser’ culture, where young girls are dating much older men. Our job is not to tell them to stop this or judge, it’s to educate them about how we can be safe and other ways of educating them about being safe. Many things happen: HIV, abuse, our job is to try and educate them, not judge them.

What are the biggest challenges you face representing young people on Shuga?

Mamodibe: the responsibility of telling authentic stories is to be true. We have to be reflective, showing the viewer a mirror image of what’s really happening. That means research. But research alone can’t get you authenticity. Observation, surveys, data. Doing your own homework about your character. We both play characters who are completely outside of who we are. So that means looking beyond assumptions and reflecting all the complexities of our characters.

Malibongwe: There’s someone out there who’s living an Arabeng life or a Kwanele life.

After the show goes out, there is a young person in South Africa who’s going to come forward and speak to us about their problems.

We need to serve. Our job as actors is to heal through our work.

Want to learn more? Find out how edutainment is helping to end child marriage