Under the starlight, Kenya's youths taste Hollywood

It's a treat that comes only once a month. Some 1,000 youngsters are scattered across the overgrown soccer pitch of their rundown Nairobi suburb, wrapped in tattered sweaters, eyes glued to a blank movie screen that is attached to a truck parked in center field.

The sun goes down, the credits come on, and a murmur arises from the crowd. "Ooooo, Jackie Chan," they croon in appreciation. Then, Jackie Chan appears on screen with a mighty King Fu move - and is unceremoniously interrupted by a soap commercial. The kids, who speak English as spottily as the Chinese movie star, don't seem to mind.

"I have been coming here since age 2," says 11-year-old Linda Akini, who counts among her favorites "The Three Ninjas" and "Rambo." "I'm mad about the movies."

Free mobile cinemas travel the country, bringing to each town a taste of Hollywood - along with ads for soap and milk. They serve the slums of Nairobi and the villages of the coast, entertaining children who could never afford to see the inside of a movie theatre.

Call it the modern-day campfire. Youths gather with friends, trade stories, and get a chance to see the world through different eyes. Where their parents and grandparents once went to dances, today's young people go to movies. The problem, as some parents see it, is that the movies expose their children to guns and violence.

At the Hollywood Bar across from the soccer pitch, parents at an ad hoc PTA meeting glumly sip their warm cokes. "Why are they all so violent?" bemoans Elizabeth Githui, a mother of two. "Immediately, when the films get out, the boys start karate chopping one another. We would prefer some comedy over here. Perhaps some Christian movies."

The children, says Ms. Githui, are uncontrollable, waiting all month for the mobile cinema to arrive at the field, and rejecting any parental guidance. "We can't control them or tell them to stay at home. They hide. They run away," she says.

When Githui was young, her village would have singalongs or play sports at night. "Nowadays we have lost touch with community. We just gather round and watch this screen with Chinese people kicking each other."

Movies, at their best, should transport you, says Mary Soan, an executive of FilmAid International, a nonprofit organization that takes it library of 400 "appropriate" films - from "Doctor Dolittle" to "Cinema Paradiso" - to refugee camps worldwide.

"The point is to empower the audience. To give them a sense of life outside. To distract them from the boredom, and to feed the soul," says Ms. Soan, whose current project is taking a mobile cinema to the sprawling Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya. "It will be the youths that lead us someday soon - and it is important for them to see that the rest of the world is not living in a shed. It's important to broaden their horizons."

Jeremiah Muli, operations manager of the Film Cooperation of Kenya's mobile cinema outfit, sees no problem with violent films. "What we need is action movies which will keep eyes glued to the screen and will help get advertising. The movie is just 'by the way,' " he says, "and everyone knows movies are not real life."

But in a city recently deemed by the UN to be one of the least safe places on earth, that might not be a given.

"When I was a young missus," recalls an elderly Victoria Orwaru, "we would put on our special dancing outfits, someone would pick up the obokano [a traditional guitar], and we would all dance the Rabina," a special dance of the Kisii tribe.

Orwaru sits alone in her shack, staring across the neighborhood toward the lights of the moving cinema, and reminiscing. "The old women and men had their circle, and we had ours, and it went on and on into the evening," she recalls. "Sometimes we would invite another tribe to join."

Although the only moving picture she has ever seen was a TV screen in the window of a Nairobi shop, she is not totally against the notion. "Development is very good," pronounces Orwaru. "I am just a little concerned those young ones might go out and try and steal TVs and videos, they love it so much."

The lady wrings her hands. "In any case, because of Westernization, we no longer need the Rabina," she concludes. "And since that is what I liked, I just stay home. There is nothing special for me to do these days."

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