Dreams of Hollywood Live Amid Political Riots, Poverty and AIDS

Mwai Ngugi, 21, knows Kenya is in trouble but hopes to overcome it.


April 21, 2008— -- 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.

Ngugi's family lives in a small compound with a main house and some smaller mud and cement buildings on a hill overlooking Lake Nakuru. Behind the main house is a field where the family grows vegetables. Mwai begins each day with an hour or so work in the fields, cutting grasses with a machete to feed the livestock, or tending to the beans, corn, peppers and other crops they grow that are sold to make a little extra money. The family is middle class by Kenyan standards. Mwai's father is a retired bank accountant. He and his wife have raised six children, and all of them have had some education, which did not come free until 2003. Four generations of the family sit down together in the main room of their home, eating a simple meal of beans and bread. Mwai's father says Mwai and his siblings are good children: honest, no quarrels with others, and loving to the family.

Family is the first obligation for any Kenyan. Mwai knows that he must help provide for his parents and take care of them in later years. Kenyans, he states, are not like Americans, who put their older parents in homes. He will take care of his parents, and when they die, they will be buried behind his house just as his grandparents are buried in his father's garden now.

The house has electricity, but there is no running water or modern kitchen. In the main room, the family watches television and sometimes a pirated DVD. There is a desktop computer where Mwai works on the weekly church bulletin, but there is no Internet or satellite television. Mwai's most cherished possession is his cell phone and the football posters in his room.

When he is performing, Mwai is charismatic and gregarious, but offstage, he is a quiet-spoken, gentle young man. By Kenyan cultural tradition, you become a man after you are circumcised at 14 years old. Then, the parents must provide a room for the new initiate outside of the main house. Mwai has a room just off the kitchen, which he keeps meticulously clean. His bed is made, his clothes folded, his shoes lined up in a row.

On occasion, Mwai goes into town at night to dance at a club, see his girlfriend or have a beer. But money is tight, and going out is a luxury for him. So most nights he stays in with his family and watches television, perhaps going to bed early since he is up at 6 a.m. to work in the fields. But after the January violence and the displacement of thousands of people, Mwai knew he couldn't just stand by and do nothing. Angry at the politicians for creating the ethnic tensions between the tribes, Mwai volunteered to work in the camps for displaced people, but not at the camp for his own ethic tribe, the Kikuyu. To demonstrate that all people are Kenyans first, Mwai volunteered at a camp where his ethnic rivals, the Luos, had sought safety. Mwai often works the overnight shift, making sure the camp remains safe.

Now that a new government has been sworn in, Mwai hopes the tensions will subside, but many of the hundreds of people still in the camp have no home to go back to. They are waiting for promised compensation that will most likely never come. Mwai spends a good deal of time with the young boys whose parents were killed during the clashes. He says their stories are like something from a horror film that you can't believe would happen in real life, but did. He worries about the psychological trauma for these youngsters who live clustered in one tent. Mwai is trying to instil in the children some of the things he was taught, such as folding your clothes, cleaning your teeth, being polite. At 21, he is a volunteer surrogate dad to these orphans in a country where family means everything.

There is no idle time in Mwai's day. No trips to the mall or hanging out. When he has to go anywhere it is by crowded vans or on foot or on a bodaboda, a bicycle taxi. He does occasionally visit the nearby national park where tourists from all over the world come to see the famous flamingo flocks or to spot rhinos and giraffes. He understands that tourism is important for the economy.

Mwai has never left Kenya. He has no passport and has never been on an airplane. But his dream is to go to Hollywood and train as an actor. America means power to him. He thinks that Americans don't understand Africa, that they come only to see "the baboons" and that Americans look down on Africans, but he quickly adds that he has met some nice Americans too. He is proud to think that Barack Obama, who is of Kenyan ancestry, could be the next president of the United States.

But no matter how famous this 21-year-old might become, how much of this world becomes his, Mwai will always return to the place and family he loves. "I am proud to be a Kenyan. I love Kenya."

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