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Shuga: The TV series that's getting people talking about HIV in Nigeria is made by Brixton-based film director Biyi Bandele

Film director Biyi Bandele’s eight-part series is seen as having a critical role in changing attitudes to sexual health
  • @iburrell

A British-based film director is helping to break the stigma of HIV in Africa by making a fast-paced television drama that is being shown in 74 countries.

Biyi Bandele has made the eight-part series Shuga with funding from media giant Viacom, depicting sexual risk-taking among students in Nigeria’s capital, Lagos. It is seen as having a critical role in changing attitudes to sexual health in Nigeria, which, with 3.3 million patients, has the highest HIV rate in the world after South Africa.

Mr Bandele, who lives in Brixton, south London, has already won plaudits at the Toronto film festival this year for his feature film Half of a Yellow Sun, an adaption of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange-prize winning novel and featuring Hollywood  stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton.

“I had always thought HIV was an urgent issue that we didn’t even talk about in Nigeria. People there will say: ‘We don’t have that problem’ but then you look at the statistics and it’s huge,” he told  The Independent.

Shuga is a funded by MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation and is being distributed to broadcasting networks free of charge. Mr Bandele’s Nigerian series is the third season.

The first two series, which  were filmed in Kenya and featured the love lives of Nairobi’s young middle class, have already had a marked effect in changing attitudes to HIV.

The title of the second series, Shuga: Love, Sex and Money, is an indication of how the serious message is told in the language of popular culture.

Research conducted by James Lees, senior lecturer in the HIV and AIDS programme at the University of Western Cape in South Africa, found the first episodes of Shuga have been far more effective than conventional teaching methods in conveying the threat of HIV to young people.

Prior to watching the programme, 65 per cent of young people told the study they believed they could “successfully navigate” the risk of HIV. That fell to 30 per cent after they viewed the drama, and to 5 per cent when they had taken part in a subsequent discussion relating to the TV show.

Mr Bandele said the secret was to use drama to engage with an audience not used to receiving messages in such  a format.

“Shuga doesn’t patronise the audience,” he said. “It’s doing something which society hasn’t done – it doesn’t stigmatise HIV or sex, it just says ‘this is life’ and it gets people talking.”

He has advised writers on the series to avoid any  moral judgments.

“On most Nigerian university campuses you will find posters promoting abstinence before marriage and if you ask where you can get a condom it’s almost possible.”

Mr Bandele, 46, who was born in northern Nigeria and moved to Lagos when he was 16, said the country was “aspirational” and that even audiences in poorer communities would respond to glamorous, uptown storylines.

“One of the reasons we chose the setting is that when you usually see Africans on TV they are queuing up for food aid. You would think it’s a continent made up entirely of victims.”

His series also attempts to address the rarely-discussed subject of domestic violence.

The director moved to England in 1990 after his skills as a playwright were recognised by the British Council.

He is travelling to film festivals in India, Dubai and Sweden for screenings of Half of a Yellow Sun, which will go on general release in the UK at the end of March.

His first episode of Shuga had a premiere in Lagos on  1 December and the series is to be shown in Britain on the entertainment channel BET from January.

“I just hope it gets people talking,” he said.

Shuga is also supported by The Gates Foundation, the UN Population Fund (UN PFA) and the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.