...Low-budget TV show has high impact on youths Erica D. Johnson, Chronicle Foreign Service Accra, Ghana -- On a paved street lined with mango and palm trees in Accra, Ghana's capital city, Ivan Quashigah, director and producer of the country's most popular television drama, hunkers in front of an old car. "Quiet please," he says. Then: "Action." Bathed in the glow of the spotlight overhead, two young men in Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts and baggy blue jeans drive a beat-up hatchback a few yards down the residential street. When the car sputters to a halt, Shakir, the driver and the show's resident womanizer, gets out, and kicks the tire in frustration. "Girls, girls, girls," shouts Aluta, his irritated passenger. "That's all you know. Driving around town trying to fill your backseat with girls." The scene will find its way into "Things We Do for Love," a Ghanaian television show akin to "Beverly Hills 90210" and "My So-Called Life." The production is modest, with a budget of less than $2,500 per episode. But despite the low budget, the program, which is part of the country's Stop AIDS/Love Life campaign, is making a big difference in the way Ghanaians, particularly the youth, view the world and themselves. While other African countries search desperately for new ways to keep the AIDS epidemic from wiping out entire communities, Ghana has discovered a new medium to educate youth about AIDS and other reproductive health issues: entertainment. "Things We Do for Love" even reaches rural villages, where 80 percent of people surveyed said they have seen the show, says Ian Tweedie, Johns Hopkins University's representative in Ghana. "At night, people congregate around the television," Tweedie says. "In communities with no electricity, they've been known to run a television off of an old car battery." The half-hour series has skyrocketed in ratings since its pilot two years ago, often topped only by reruns of the popular American soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful." Throughout the 13-episode season, the characters, who range in age from 15 to 26 and depict a variety of tribes, social classes and backgrounds, mirror real-life situations that affect teens, such as peer pressure, relationships with parents, unplanned pregnancy and the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS. With 90 percent of Ghana's AIDS cases affecting people in their reproductive years, from ages 15 to 49, educating youth is Hopkins' top priority. Part of the show's appeal is that it isn't heavy-handed, Quashigah says. The epilogue at the end of each episode, which raises questions about the issues addressed, "is the only way you know you're being educated." But while the emphasis on AIDS awareness is subtle, it's there. This season, one character's promiscuous mother contracts HIV and dreads telling her daughter. For another character, unprotected sex results in an unwanted pregnancy. Despite its good intentions, the show hasn't escaped criticism. In Ghana's overwhelmingly Christian society, viewers wrote in, saying the producers were promoting negative characters such as Shakir and Pusher, the show's 19-year- old bad boy with a penchant for casual sex. Quashigah and the show's writer, Edward Sedohh, took note. "We had Pusher contract gonorrhea," Quashigah says. "When that happened, people saw we had an agenda." Some AIDS activists say connecting AIDS solely with "naughty" behavior is dangerous. Dr. Sylvia Anie, the director of the Ghana AIDS Commission, applauds the show's efforts but says Ghanaians need to move away from the negative portrayal of AIDS and explore some of the other ways the disease is transmitted, such as through birth and blood transfusions. "The fear approach doesn't work," Anie says. "The emphasis shouldn't be that you catch AIDS by behaving badly." But Tweedie, who is American, says the realistic portrayal of some characters as being less than ideal citizens is part of the show's appeal. He points out that there are also characters such as Ofeibea, the pretty, well- mannered virgin who organizes AIDS awareness programs at her school. "People need to understand that this epidemic is very serious and very scary," Tweedie says. "But this fear needs to be balanced with a stronger feeling of hopefulness and empowerment derived from the fact that individuals are able to substantially reduce their risk of contracting HIV through checking their behavior. Our programs balance elements of fear with a stronger dose of empowerment." Quashigah, who won Ghana's best documentary film award for "The Old and the New World," which explored the trend of Ghanaian families becoming more isolated, says it's difficult to produce a television show on 5 percent of the funds given to other productions. But he's confident that "Things We Do for Love" is changing the way Ghanaian youth view AIDS. "I have no regrets,'' he says. "I could be doing action movies, but I'd much rather see society lifted from my work.''
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