Director: Wanuri Kahiu
Starring: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Nice Githinji, Nini Wacera, Muthoni Gathecha, Charlie Karumi, Jimmy Gathu, Vitalis Waweru, Githae Njogu
Words – Rhiannon Topham
Modern cinema is experiencing an exciting political renaissance. Daring narratives that tackle some of society’s most prevalent taboos are filling the lacunae left by the contextually hollow big blockbusters, bringing with them the lived realities of marginalised factions and hitherto ignored communities across a rich diversity of populations.
Enter Rafiki, an urgent message about love and gendered expectations in more secular parts of the world. Director Wanuri Kahiu’s nuanced tale of teen romance was banned in her native Kenya, where the film is set, rejected by the Kenya Film Classification Board for its “clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law”. This is a nation where the state does not recognise same-sex relationships in the law, and sodomy is a punishable offense of up to 14 years imprisonment – facts that make Rafiki’s unflinching commitment to LGBTQ+ intimacy all the more audacious.
The film follows tomboyish Kena in her conservative Nairobi neighbourhood, where she helps her father run his small convenience store, plays card games and football with her laddish friend Blacksta (who has eyes for Kena and tells her she’ll “make a good wife. That’s why I like you”) in her downtime and awaits important exam results that will allow her to start training as to become a nurse. She meets and falls in love with the ebullient and colourful Ziki, the daughter of her father’s rival in the race for local election, a partnership which piques the attention of nosey locals and garners a great deal of jealousy from Ziki’s friends.
As the two become entangled in a thorny web of unforbidden love and grapple with the dichotomous dilemma before them – to be happy and honest about their relationship, or to be safe and subtle, disguising their intimacy as friendship as the title alludes to (rafiki means ‘friend’ in Swahili) – they realise that traditional confines of what women, specifically Kenyan women, should want and who they should become not only contradict their self-perceptions, but they also clash with societal expectations of what the youth of today should achieve and strive for. When Kena and Ziki first find a moment to themselves, the former confesses that the latter is “not the typical Kenyan girl” – this, they concur, is the stay-at-home mother and homemaker, not the young professional or globetrotter they have in mind for themselves.
Between secretive smooches in an abandoned camper van, our young romantics are searching for something “real”. This is a central theme underlying the film as a whole, which confronts the difficulty of negotiating a fundamentally religious space populated by pious people while simultaneously trying to remain true to oneself. Religion is, of course, incredibly important in Kenyan culture, and as such is a major feature in Rafiki’s narrative. It’s because of this prevalence that Kahiu’s questioning of the path laid by religion for guiding the trajectory of one’s life (or an entire culture, in this instance) is particularly intrepid.
A colourful and sanguine testament to the talent of African art and culture, Rafiki is a welcome addition to the burgeoning LGBTQ+ canon which celebrates intimacy and womanhood in an environment seldom seen on screen.
See our interview with director Wanuri Kahiu >here<.
You can find full listings of UK screenings of Rafiki here: