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Cinema on Wheels Lights Up Deep, Dark Senegal

19/08/2013 22:32 BST | Updated 19/10/2013 10:12 BST

It's going to be a long expedition. The team must not forget anything they will need this evening - from power generator to floodlights, projector, films and a large retractable screen. All of these must be neatly packed into a 4x4, which once geared up, will transform into a mobile cinema called the Cinébus.

Started as an innovative project by the child rights organisation Plan International, the Cinébus travels to far-flung villages in rural Senegal and screens short films among communities - informing and educating them on children's rights and their well-being.

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Plan International / Davinder Kumar

From its base in Plan's field office in Louga, about 200 kms north of Dakar, the Cinébus and its crew set off for a new destination every other day. As the Cinébus traverses through the arid landscape of the Sahel, the journey could take several hours depending on the location the village it is headed to. Since its launch in 2012, the Cinébus has travelled to over 130 villages across Senegal reaching thousands of people.

Today's destination is Bayti Rip, a village with a population of about 450 people. There is no electricity here - just as there isn't any in 90 per cent of villages in the rest of Louga. The generator, therefore, is the lifeline of the Cinébus.

Hardly a few people have heard of television in Bayti Rip, and even fewer have seen one in their lifetime. In Senegal even big cities don't have a cinema, leave alone rural towns. So for the people in villages like Bayti Rip seeing a vehicle magically unfold into a cinema on wheels is like a surreal fantasy.

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Plan International / Davinder Kumar

As the summer twilight deepens, the village common transitions into an open air cinema waited on by an eager and impatient audience - a large number of them children dancing, playing and milling about restlessly in excitement. Occasions like these are extremely rare and the festive mood unleashed by the Cinébus is now hard to contain. It only takes one halogen beam to spark the celebrations.

From children to village elders, the mood has captured the imagination of everyone in Bayti Rip. And the start is exactly what everyone wanted and had hoped for - a magical spectacle of colour, sound and music as the screen comes to life. No barriers of age or sex, when it comes to popular Senegalese music. The euphoria grips one and all.

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Plan International / Davinder Kumar

The idea behind Cinébus is to use cinema as a tool to educate and raise awareness among rural communities on issues ranging from children's education to their rights and overall development. It also aims to educate children and adults about basic health and hygiene practices.

The films screened are in French and local Wolof language and last for about 15 minutes each. They are carefully produced in a way that the audience can relate to characters, stories and issues as very much their own experience. The films give clear messages through simple stories. They range from highlighting the harms of children pulled out of school and forced into labour, to explaining how many diseases can be prevented by simply washing hands.

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Plan International / Davinder Kumar

The spellbound audiences have their eyes transfixed to the screen and every scene and every spoken word is captured with rapt attention. Showing the film is only one part of education and awareness. The audiences are tested in the form of a quiz by Plan staff after every screening to assess the impact the film has had on people's knowledge and their level of awareness.

From crowds emerge young champions of handwashing, education and child protection. And there are mothers who now know how to detect malnutrition among children at an early stage, or why it is important to send their children to school. The proud winners are new village heroes and they bag a prize too - a plastic bucket, a tub or a bar of washing soap.

Cinema's messages are gradually transforming the attitudes and behaviour of communities battling poverty, illiteracy and lack of development. "Previously, we didn't really understand, for instance, the need to send our young children to playgroup. We would normally leave them at home, but since we saw a film about early childhood care and development our attitudes have changed," says Palla, a mother and a community volunteer.

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Plan International / Davinder Kumar

Malnutrition, like in the most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, is a big problem in Senegal and up to 25 per cent of all children between 0 and 5 years are moderately or severely stunted. Part of Plan Senegal's Integrated Development Project for Early Childhood, Cinébus supports community mothers to organise themselves in looking after the health, nutrition and development of their young children.

In Bayti Rip, for example, local mothers, with the support of Plan, have set up a Centre in the village that provides playgroup and feeding facilities for young children. The Centre is entirely managed by the community with members also contributing to the cost of providing nutritious meals for children. "The parents are now able go about their daily livelihood activities without requiring to send their children to grandparents or take them along in the fields where they would be under the hot sun," says Awa, a young mother.

With the impact it is making through entertainment and education, it is not a surprise that Cinébus draws hundreds wherever it travels in Senegal's interiors. By the time the final film for the night is screened in Bayti Rip, the crowd has swelled by scores from the nearby villages. For the grand finale the music videos return and the crowd goes hysterical with a free for all disco.

At about 1 am, the show is over. Another successful night for the Cinébus. The crew must pack up and make their way home. Tomorrow, the cinema on wheels will set off on a new journey, to reach another remote community for another night of song, dance, education and pure spectacle.

Cinébus: reels of change in Senegal from Thomson Reuters Foundation on Vimeo.