MTV Has Gone From Music Videos To Fighting HIV In Africa

The Staying Alive Foundation is a bold model making a big difference.

There was a time when MTV was known for its afternoon slate of music videos. But today, for many in sub-Saharan Africa, MTV might be more known for the battle it's waging against HIV.

All throughout Africa, the MTV Staying Alive Foundation is finding, funding and training "HIV activists" to help develop awareness programs regarding HIV. The programs they fund are youth-led, and a majority of the participants are 15- to 27-year-olds who are tackling the HIV crisis on the ground in the rural towns most affected by the disease.

While the Staying Alive Foundation is a subset of MTV's international social response department, it's a financially independent organization. There are only five people that run the actual charity, and that group helps facilitate funding for the more than 50 organizations they work with across the globe. Each organization gets about $12,000, which goes a long way in running their programs, a representative told A Plus. Most of the organizations rely on volunteers and have limited paid staff. 

Claire Albrecht, who was born in Hawaii and came to Zambia in 2008 with the Peace Corps, has helped develop an HIV education program for young women in the northern city of Kasama as part of her larger education initiative, Bakashana. Like other programs in the Staying Alive Foundation umbrella, Bakashana's HIV program receives a grant of about $12,000 each year. That grant, along with fundraising and volunteer work, keeps the program going. The initiative leverages a community of elderly women known as the Bana Cimbusa, or "mothers of knowledge," who it trains to pass down information about HIV to younger women and girls in Kasama.

Albrecht chose to work with the Bana Cimbusa to relay the program's message because, in these rural communities where Albrecht was working, there aren't many non-traditional avenues of information. Her partner, Ceciliah Lesho, who grew up in the region, taught her that the Bana Cimbusa women were the ones who disseminated sexual education and were seen as a reliable source by younger women.


Lesho, center, holds a megaphone while participating in an activity with the Bana Cimbusa.

During their year working with the foundation in Zambia, Albrecht and Lesho have seen the program change the way communities are talking about a previously taboo subject. Albrecht and the Staying Alive Foundation have even worked with local celebrities to help raise awareness. In a few instances, they've gotten well-known radio personalities to help rally young men and women around community education programs. 

Albrecht said that MTV's brand has helped the program get a much larger reach, noting that its cool reputation gives them an advantage.

"I think we've been able to create an environment where they are comfortable to go against what would be considered culturally appropriate, like young couples who come for testing and/or to get male and female condoms," Albrecht told A Plus in a phone call from Zambia.  

In Zambia, Albrecht said their HIV awareness program has already surpassed expectations. As a result, they've just applied for a three-year grant with the Staying Alive Foundation in hopes that they can keep building on their success. 

That success seems to be part of a larger theme: So far, the Staying Alive Foundation has reached 500 million young people and handed out seven million condoms. Perhaps most importantly, the Staying Alive Foundation has gotten 185,000 young people tested for HIV, according to their website. 

Some of the youth activists, like a man named Victor, are literally risking their lives for the cause. Victor is HIV positive and founded the Men Against AIDS Youth Group (MAAYGO). In Kisumu, Kenya — where he does much of his work — homosexuality is still illegal.

Victor, far right, stands beside a poster advocating for condom use.

Victor has been outspoken about how his community treated him as a young, gay man. He was raped twice, acts he suspects were meant to be a "corrective measure" for his sexual orientation. Even when he reported the assaults to police, he was only met with threats and hostility.

"I have grown up in a family of Christian values, a society of stigma and discrimination with negative attitudes that being homosexual was a taboo, a curse, and evil," Victor said in an email to A Plus. "This contributed to my rejection and isolation when my family found that I was gay, this interfered with my self-esteem, mental health and personal well-being."

In Kisumu, 15 percent of the population is living with HIV, but because of the stigma around the disease, many have no access to health facilities for treatment or protective measures. Through the MAAYGO program, though, the group has opened peer education centers that educate youth about the transmission of HIV and the preventative measures that can be taken against it. They also use radio programs to reach youth and encourage them to come in for testing or treatment. 

"MAAYGO has developed strategic partners with other like-minded organizations," Victor said. "The organization has also been utilizing HIV cascade prevention through treatment literacy sessions and outreaches to test people and treat people."

MTV has also invested in an HIV-themed drama TV series called Shuga. The show launched in Kenya in 2009 and is now in 73 countries. Episodes dive into everything from homosexuality to safe sex and HIV — and the content of the shows is making a difference.

According to a World Bank study, viewers of the show are twice as likely to get tested for HIV. Consequently, a panel of health experts related to the show have also been involved in U.N. meetings on ending AIDS. 

"The U.N. talk about seeing the end of AIDS by 2030, honestly I'm pretty cynical about that. And I'm cynical about it because we're not putting enough money into it, we're not focused on the most vulnerable populations," Georgia Arnold, executive director of the Staying Alive Foundation, told eNews Channel Africa in June. 

With each passing day, the Staying Alive Foundation is seeing more donations and support come in, which in turn go to youth leaders who help develop local programs in their communities. Based on the momentum they've generated, it's easy to imagine these youth-led organizations continuing their battle against HIV for decades to come. 

Want to get involved? Check out the Staying Alive Foundation Website.


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