Dala and Leo, two characters from Shuga. Image courtesy of MTV Staying Alive Foundation
Shuga is the amazingly well-made MTV-produced series about love, sex and sexuality within youth culture. The series is set in Kenya's bustling capital, Nairobi, however anyone in any African country with access to MTV Base and the internet should be able to watch the series and identify with some of the topics brought up. There are so many good things about Shuga, and this is not limited to the beauty of the leading ladies in the series, the high quality of the production or the awesome soundtrack of the second season. Shuga talks about issues that were largely ignored when I was growing up in Abuja and still remain largely ignored today, not only in Nigeria but across Africa as a whole.
I find it excellent that the series is set in Kenya, I have written previously about my frustrations with the disturbing manner in which the Nigerian media, Nollywood in particular, portrays sex, sexuality and rape. Shuga is definitely more balanced. I’ve had a few illuminating discussions about this series, and in one it was suggested that Shuga, which takes a glossy, open approach to sex and sexuality, may be a sign that there is a new sexual revolution sweeping the continent. If so, it might also have something to do with the growing African middle class that people enjoy talking about these days. Speaking from my 23 years of experience as a Nigerian cisgendered woman, I aim to share why I think Shuga is important, perhaps not revolutionary, but close enough.
Infographic courtesy of Angus Hammond Africa Research and Strategic Services
My parents never talked to me about sex, except for that one time when I was 16 or 17 and my mother told me in so many words not to have sex until I got married. I only have one or two friends who talk openly to their respective mothers (never their fathers) about sex. I recall that in secondary school, they’d sometimes call all the girls in certain classes aside and basically tell us the same thing: that sex was bad and we should keep our legs “crossed”. At least they did teach us about HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases in a factual way. But sex, abortion and rape were taboo topics that were hardly ever discussed, unless it was to tell us about their evilness.
Last year, I came across a note I had written while in secondary school containing promises to myself that I wanted to keep when I was “grown up”. I laughed when I read my own teenage words about how important ‘virginity’ was and how it was a sin to have sex before my marriage. It was fun tearing up that note.
From secondary school to university, I encountered Nigerians who adopted and preached puritanical attitudes towards sex. At university the Nigerian men would complain that Nigerian women were too “closed”, too “holy holy” and they’d stereotype Zambian women as being more “open” [At the university where I studied for my undergraduate degree, several Nigerian men were in relationships with Zambian women]. At the same time the Nigerian women regularly slut-shamed Zambian women for being too “open”. These experiences really tricked me into believing things about Nigerians and their attitudes towards sex. Obviously, I knew Nigerians had sex, but I was very naive about sex in Nigeria. To say the puritanical worldview did not have any effect on me would be a gross understatement. I literally had to take myself aside and out of that influence to form healthy ideas about sex and sexuality. By which I mean, I had to leave the country for a while. And yet…
I was shocked when I returned home to Nigeria after spending those years studying in the UK. Sex was and still is not openly discussed, at least not as much as I’d like it to be. It confused me that in a society where young men and women lie and say that they are “virgins” to their recently acquired boyfriends and girlfriends, the most extreme stuff was happening around them. I noticed that, when sex was discussed in public, it is almost always made to sound grotesque (akin to the way the English can’t seem to talk about sex unless they’re joking about it). It wasn’t just about two (or more!) partners having sexy fun times, rather it was mostly stuff I wouldn’t expect to hear from so-called “holy” people. I wrote about sexism and rape in Nollywood, and to get an idea of how Nigerian society views sex, here is a depiction of a “sex-crazed woman”. It’s from the film Return of White Hunters.
This isn't the only film I've come across in which a woman is "cursed" with an insatiable libido. If you watch the above video on YouTube, you’ll see more in the sidebar with women “seducing” men, “sex scandal” and what looks like the Abia State University gang-rape video.
We’re so uncomfortable talking frankly about sex, that we end up making movies depicting women marrying and “falling in love” with their rapists, women dying because they had abortions, women cursed to become “sex-crazed”, “evil” women seducing “innocent” men and vice versa.
The two or three friends I can talk to about sex have spent time abroad. Attempts to talk to friends who have spent most of their lives in Nigeria usually end with the women telling me I’m such a “bad girl” for saying the word “sex” or men asking me stupid questions about my sexuality (sorry it is not my job to teach you) or the “grotesque” stories I don’t expect from a society that has lectured me puritanically about sex for most of my life, stories about oral sex taking place in public underneath those big hijabs, drunk foursomes, women who apparently have scars on their bodies because they had so much sex (this one confuses me, too), people having sex with animals (mostly goats), and so on. A wise person asked, why is it always the religiously holier than thou, regardless of denomination, who end up doing the fucked up stuff? I personally wouldn’t mind much if proud perverts were not constantly shamed in Nigerian society, if people were not going around trying to dictate which sort of sexual liaisons are “un-African”, if women were not constantly slut-shamed, if young girls were not encouraged to take oaths swearing they’d be “virgins” till marriage.
Which is why I appreciate Shuga. The more shows like this "permit" us to talk openly about sex without zig-zagging between the two extremes - from the puritanical facade to the “grotesque” layer underneath - the higher the likelihood that those extremes will fade. Perhaps we could learn something from pre-colonial societies in which we had structures whereby women and men could learn about sex in healthy ways.
I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a new sexual revolution to sweep across Nigeria and Africa in general, and this isn't just blind hope. Shuga is now broadcast in 50 of Africa's 54 countries (via satellite TV service DStv), and the first season was successful enough for a longer second season to be commissioned. That the second season features cameos by A-list artists like Banky W, Wiz Kid and Kenyan singer Avril (she's the one with the blonde fringe) is indicative of its success and street cred, but the appearance of such stars probably also helps to legitimise the normalisation of a more open attitude towards sex.
As Banky W was quoted as saying recently, “These are life and death issues involving young people that Africa is shy to discuss.” He was referring to safe sex with respect to AIDS, but he could equally have been talking about attitudes towards sex in general. And indications from research carried out so far suggest that the show is indeed changing attitudes towards sex and safe sex. Finally, there's talk of a Zimbabwean version of Sex and the City, only smarter, which means, if it happens, Shuga won't be shouldering the burden on its own. So, things look promising, but it's early days yet. We'll start celebrating when we stop seeing OTT reactions like this.