Upping the Ante against HIV


Georgia Arnold

Since she founded and assumed the role of Executive Director of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, Georgia Arnold, has not slowed down in her campaign against HIV through various initiatives including the lifestyle TV drama, MTV Shuga, reports Vanessa Obioha 

Nothing prepared Georgia Arnold for the next question I was about to ask her. We were chatting via Skype at Viacom’s office in Ikoyi, Lagos. Her employee, Anita Aiyudu, who is the MTV Staying Alive Foundation’s Marketing and Partnership Manager in Nigeria, sat beside me. She’s been playing the role of a chaperone for this interview, listening with rapt attention, in case the interview steers into unpleasant direction. Like Arnold, she wasn’t expecting the question from me. The interview has been going on smoothly so far.

Arnold proved that she needed no chaperone with her friendly disposition and willingness to talk. When we started, she spoke freely about her busy schedule in the past few days. Her son Covi is travelling round Europe and she has to keep tabs on him. But that’s not the main task; she is moving to a new place and caught up in the packing and unpacking of boxes. It’s not a task she is enjoying at the moment since she has to be in Nigeria in a few days for the MTV Shuga open auditions for its upcoming new series.

“I’m really juggling between work and moving house,” she told me.

Within minutes, we were talking about the return of MTV Shuga to Nigeria. The award-winning lifestyle TV drama which focuses on issues bordering youths filmed its third and fourth season in Nigeria. Prolific director Biyi Bandele and Chris Ihidiero worked on the productions. Those seasons boasted of actors like Jemima Osunde, Sharon Ezeamaka, Timini Egbuson among others who had never featured in the TV series. Coincidentally, they are the only ones returning for the upcoming seasons.

“MTV Shuga historically has been direct. We started off in Kenya, then Nigeria, and South Africa. I was very ambitious on taking it to South Africa because there were many stories we could tackle on there. Moving it back to Nigeria was another ambition of mine. It was never that we were leaving; it’s just about creating space to reach wider audience. Now we are back with some of the existing cast members and also create brand new faces and storylines that bring more interest to the MTV Shuga because it’s one of our challenges to always keep it fresh,” she explained.

Apparently, North Africa seemed left out in the MTV Shuga train. Arnold however said all that were about to change. The Foundation recently included Egypt in its future plans.

“East, West and South are sort of our home but going to Africa means that we can deal with really interesting and culturally very sensitive issues. So in Egypt we are tackling female genital mutilation. It’s illegal in Egypt but over 90 per cent of women in Egypt have FGM which is incredible statistics. We will be tackling that and also talking a lot about family planning. In Nigeria, the new series will also have a lot of contraceptive messages as well as HIV,” Arnold said.

Apart from Egypt, the series will also go to India and Arnold plans to have Shuga in Francophone countries in Africa.

This zeal of Arnold to spread the prevention of HIV and other youth-oriented issues to all corners of the earth didn’t start yesterday. It’s been a long walk in the park. Having started off as an assistant to one of the top echelons at MTV 23 years ago, Arnold climbed several rungs of the ladder to be the Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility for MTV Networks International.

Her proclivity towards social issues and impact was discovered from her first appointment at the international media outfit.   So when an opportunity came to oversee The Staying Alive Campaign in 1998, she was the best man for the job. Through her effective and competent skills in the field which fetched the campaign glowing accolades, Arnold became very instrumental in the establishment of the Staying Alive Foundation- a global charitable body that provides grassroots grants for supporting HIV and AIDS awareness, education and prevention campaigns- in 2005. In 2007, she was appointed the executive director of the foundation.

Her zest didn’t decrease as she went about implementing initiatives that will spread the HIV message. In her words, it was about fighting HIV the smart way. By this, she meant different ways to talk to young people about HIV that they would feel comfortable with. At first, the Staying Alive campaigns revolved round concerts and events where music icons like Beyoncé, Mary J Blige as well as world leaders like the late president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela and US former president Bill Clinton were spokespersons. Arnold however realised that the media could be a smart platform to achieve her goals. A series of documentaries on people living with HIV were done based on true life stories. It attracted a lot of viewership as well as positive feedbacks but Arnold felt it wasn’t yet impacting. Then she went on to produce a feature film ‘Transit’. Transit became MTV’s first-ever made-for-television film on HIV and AIDS. With the volume of feedbacks she got from this production, she knew that she needed more than a film to actualise her objectives.

The outcome of her continuous quest is MTV Shuga, a lifestyle TV drama on family planning, sex education, urban youth culture and relationships.

Launched in 2009, that first season set in Kenya, introduced us to stellar actors like Lupita Nyong’o, who had gone on to win an Oscar  and Emmanuel Ikubese, ex Mr. Nigeria. The storyline revolved around Ayira (Lupita Nyong’o) an ambitious young girl who dated an older man at the expense of her longtime lover. The plot highlighted the consequences of risky behaviours of a group of young students.

 By 2013, a Nigerian version was created titled ‘Shuga Naija’. The series stayed on for another season before moving to South Africa for its fifth season.

Now back in Nigeria for its sixth and seventh seasons, the storyline will explore themes on adolescent girls and their vulnerability to HIV infection and unintended pregnancy.

 Through this means, Arnold was able to translate the stories of young people into pictures. Alongside the TV series are radio shows, classy novels and through social media. The media mix made MTV Staying Alive Foundation say it is fighting HIV the smart way.

 Arnold believes the media provided a great opportunity for her and her team to put positive messages on the airwaves. While she won’t take responsibility for the obscenity in most media content, she thinks the media is a viable platform to create awareness on HIV.

 So far, the feedback has been encouraging for Arnold. She said one of the things she had to deal with in each country they visit was that everyone wanted Shuga to be filmed in their country. She is thrilled by the way the audience assumed real ownership of the series. This is so because of the unique way the stories are told. They are simply told and address issues that the audience can easily identify with.

The award-winning series has been broadcast in over 61 countries across the world. The impact in Nigeria has been very effective.

 “There was a World Bank evaluation done on the last series in Nigeria. They talked to 5,000 young people, they screened MTV Shuga to them all and they came back six months later. They did two things to them at the beginning and when they returned six months later, they tested them for HIV and also gave them vouchers to HIV Testing Centres nearby and they got tested. They also tested them for chlamydia. What the evaluation showed was that the young people who watched MTV Shuga doubled the number of people who went to get tested for HIV and 58 per cent reduction for those who tested for chlamydia. It is amazing to know we now made an impact but to me, it’s more than just the steps you take to protect yourself, but also your everyday language. How you talk to and treat people living with HIV in a positive way. You know the stigma is so devastating. We really want to embed the culture of positive sexual health,” she pointed out.

 She also found that another risky health issue in young ones today is sexual reproductive health.

 “We have one body and we have to protect our body in many different ways. All of us have to protect ourselves from HIV and at the same time a girl or a woman will have to make sure that she is making the right decisions for her body regarding contraception and family planning. So I think sexual reproductive health when done right is the most positive empowering state that we can have for our body. But I think it’s also a very dangerous state because sometimes there’s no control, so we have to make sure that we protect ourselves,” Arnold counseled.

 With all these out of the way, I asked Arnold when she first went for a HIV test. Aiyudu gave me an incredulous look. Arnold appeared not to be startled at first but found herself stuttering a bit while doing the maths in her head to accurately remember the first time she had a HIV test.

 “I’m very embarrassed to tell you this but I think it would have been the end of 1998. I got tested when I went to the hospital because I was pregnant. Interestingly, they give you a barrage of tests to be sure that you don’t pass them to your child. And the only one they asked me if I wanted to was HIV. I feel that was very bizarre because that’s one thing that if you know that you are HIV positive, you can prevent your child from getting it as long as you have that knowledge. That should have been the number one test I should have had without choice,” she said.

 She honestly admitted that before that encounter, she knew nothing about HIV. Like most people back then, Arnold was more scared of getting pregnant than contracting HIV. But through the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, Arnold is changing that perception and aims to see a world where people talk happily about sex.

 “It is really bizarre. I’m sure if an alien came down, it will really question humanity, because unless any of us were born from a test tube, all of us got here by sex. And yet none of us can talk about it. Culturally, religiously, as parents we are all embarrassed by it. It is uncomfortable but we must change that mindset,” she insisted.