Dreams of Hollywood Live Amid Political Riots, Poverty and AIDS

If you are a 21-year-old male in Kenya, statistically, you are nearly halfway through your life. Extreme poverty, poor health care and an AIDS epidemic all contribute to a life expectancy of 46 years. In addition, recent political tensions in the country have led to the deaths of more than 1,200 people -- destroying homes and displacing tens of thousands. The future doesn't appear bright.

It makes Mwai Ngugi, as a 21-year-old from Nakuru, "sad and bitter," but he isn't letting it get him down. Instead, he uses his time and talents to fight back.

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His dreams of fame and fortune on the stage or on television are like those of many other young people around the world. But while he waits for his big break, he puts his acting talents to use. Mwai performs in improvisational street theater productions in some of Nakuru's poorest neighborhoods.

The acting troupe is called Repacted, and is part of the Nakuru Theater Players Group. It is funded by grants and private donations, with some of the money coming from the United States. Its annual $25,000 budget goes almost entirely to production costs, the publishing of materials and transportation. So some months Mwai makes less than a dollar, but he doesn't do what he does for money. He does it, he says, "because I care about what is happening to the young people of Kenya."




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We saw Mwai and the rest of Repacted put on a presentation in the hilltop slum of Hilton on the outskirts of Nakuru. It was the group's fourth visit to the area, part of its strategy of reinforcing the message. It started by trying to rev up the crowd with singing, dancing and whistling. A small crowd, mostly children, began to form, following Mwai and his troupe through the garbage-strewn streets. The promise of prizes brings a few more onlookers. The small children are separated from the teenagers and adults for other activities before the more serious topics are introduced.

Today's skits teach about the dangers of drug addiction and alcohol abuses. Glue sniffers as young as 7 or 8 are a common sight on the streets of Nakuru. Mwai says they are rounded up and put in homes but regularly escape and go back to the streets. Hilton's residents seem uninterested, and the crowd thins as the production continues, but Mwai's enthusiasm is undimmed. If he can reach just one person, "I am making an impact," he says, and "nothing makes me smile more than seeing the crowd react to when I am performing." He makes a special effort to greet everyone in the crowd personally before the group leaves.

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