Rafiki tells the story of two Kenyan girls falling in love in a country where homosexual love, both on and off screen, is illegal. Armed with candy-like colors and passionate optimism, Rafiki stands out above the many other stories on the struggles of same-sex relationships as an unusually confident and sincere story of hope and love.
Tomboy Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) helps her father manage a small convenience store as he runs an election campaign to become a local councilman. Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), the daughter of a rival politician, is an enigmatic girl with pink hair who frequents Kena’s neighborhood. The two get acquainted, and after several casual hang outs and romantic dates, develop a relationship that’s far from platonic.
In Kahiu’s world, love is color coded with soft hued pink and purple. Ziki’s appearance immediately took my breath away—it’s clear why she captures Kena’s heart. The colors adorned on her nails, hair, and accessories confidently and convincingly display a kind of extraordinary playfulness. Her dreamlike scenes are draped with soft pastel colors, filtered through the flares of Kenyan sunsets. I thought the flares were distracting at first, but the more I think about the scenes, the more the light illuminates Ziki as it would in Kena’s eyes: we see her in the same way as her lover does. Ziki is viewed as intoxicating, and the choice of colors intensifies the giddy flush of love that Kena feels for her.
But beyond the dreamy colors lies real danger to Kena and Ziki’s love for each other. Homosexual relationships in Kenya are illegal, and like so many other same-sex romances, theirs is a love that must remain hidden. Kisses are stolen in dark corners of a nightclub, hands held only on lonely rooftops. The girls can only be “free” from society when they hang out in an abandoned van—their makeshift hideout and haven from a judgemental society
Zika wants to be more open with their relationship, but Kena is cautious and refuses to engage her as a couple in public. Inevitably, this can only lead to tragedy, and it comes without warning—Ziki’s mom catches them kissing, and the girls run away to their hideout. Quickly outed by the town’s gossip, they are faced with a mob of angry men who attack them. In a terrifying struggle, Kena is punched and kicked, while Ziki’s clothes are torn. They are only saved when the police arrive—only to be arrested for engaging in lesbianism.
“Rafiki” means “friend” in Swahili. It is a gentle reminder of the practice where same-sex couples often introduce their partners to family members as a “friend”, even if they are far more than that. The film arrives as Kenya’s conversation on homosexuality begins to heat up and enter mainstream discourse.
Although Rafiki is the first Kenyan film to be selected and screened at Cannes, it was banned in Kenya by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans.” On 21 September 2018, in a historic ruling, the Kenyan High Court lifted the ban on Rafiki, allowing it to be screened in theaters for 7 days to meet the requirements for consideration to be Kenya’s entry for the Academy Award. Ultimately, Rafiki was not selected as Kenya’s submission in the competition, but during this short week, showings across Nairobi completely sold out.
Showcasing Africa’s Vibrancy
Kahiu has rejected the idea that Africans on screen or in art should be exclusively depicted as suffering, be it from war, poverty, or famine. Instead, she embraces a philosophy to portray Africans having fun, being joyful, and as passionate people—something truer to life, and a more balanced view of an entire continent’s worth of people. It is a tired trope that all Africans are impoverished, in pain or caught in the middle of conflicts.
To counteract this age-old assumption, Kahiu co-founded the AfroBubbleGum collective to support “fun, frivolous, fierce” African art. Indeed, her philosophy shines through Rafiki in more than just its dazzling colors. Side characters can be seen enjoying soda, laughing on carnival rides, and chopping up chili peppers to toss into their cooking. Portraying these everyday activities creates an energetic community on screen that feels fleshed out and believable.
Rafiki’s story is a familiar one, but in a nation where homosexuality is criminal, and sodomy carries a 14 year sentence, simply making a film about two girls falling in love is an incredible act of defiance. Still, amidst this storm of controversy, Rafiki stands out as a refreshing film of romance in its hopeful and bittersweet ending. In a film that shows love under duress, it provides the viewer some comfort that there is at least one instance of unconditional love which is allowed to thrive.
If you’re in the mood for a film that is refreshing, sweet, and hopeful—with a hint of political relevance—Rafiki is the film for you.
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Rafiki—Kenya. Dialog in English and Swahili. Directed by Wanuri Kahiu. Starring Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva. First released at Cannes in 2018.