Can a Film Romance Persuade Nigerians to Practice Safe Sex?

The U.S. government, Western aid agencies and two local filmmakers are trying to deliver an anti-AIDS message by combining Nigerians' taste for soap-operatic movies with their flair for copyright piracy. The result: a religiously palatable feature film that they hope will persuade Nigerians to avoid risky sex.

In just four months, and at a cost of only $29,000, the U.S. government-financed feature film "Awakening" has reached an audience estimated to number in the tens of millions, through theaters, national television broadcasts and black-market videos. "Awakening 2" is now in production. And the plot of "Awakening 3" is incubating at 2 Effects Empire, the Kano production company of 29-year-old Yakubu Mohammed and his 29-year-old partner Sani Musa Danja. Family Health International, a private aid group, manages the project for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In "Awakening," Danja plays Babangida, the promiscuous young man who evidently contracts HIV from Mariya, the poor vendor, who reluctantly sleeps with rich men to eke out a living. Babangida regrets his libertine ways when he meets the virginal Jamila. The first film ends in suspense as Babangida awaits his HIV test results. The movie never mentions condoms, and a local cleric cleared its message of faithfulness and premarital abstinence.

The filmmakers are now stuck on the cliffhanger: Should rakish Babangida, who has HIV, marry the love of his life, Jamila, who doesn't? Or should he leave her at the altar and marry Mariya, the beautiful, HIV-positive street vendor? "If we really want to stop the spread of AIDS, we have to take our religion into account," said Mohammed. So Babangida should pick Mariya, he argued, because Islamic teaching requires the sick to isolate themselves from the healthy -- even though Western AIDS activists frown on anything that smacks of stigma.

While the Nigerian Health Ministry estimates that nearly 6 percent of adults ages 15 to 49 nationwide are HIV-infected, a recent Central Intelligence Agency study predicts that as many as 26 percent of adult Nigerians will carry the virus by the year 2010 unless drastic steps are taken.

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