Wanuri Kahiu’s film ‘Rafiki’ gives a real look into queer love in Kenya
When Kena reluctantly wears a pink floral dress for her mother, she proudly announces that Kena finally looks “like a proper woman.”
What it means to be “a proper woman,” a young woman, or more specifically, a queer young woman in Kenya is beautifully explored and performed in Wanuri Kahiu’s feature film Rafiki.
The film follows the queer love story between two young women, Kena and Ziki.
It is a story of young love. A story of first love. A story riddled with giggles, deep inhales and exhales, and long lingering looks. With this film, we can’t help but appreciate all of the authentic awkward moments that come with negotiating the intensity of your feelings.
Truly, it stirs emotions unparalleled to anything you have ever felt before. Queer stories of first love, however, perhaps carry even more weight.
Not only must one contend with the intensity of their feelings, but one is also exploring a side of their identity that is suppressed because of the family they are born into, the town they grew up in, or in extreme cases, the fear of violence and government persecution.
The notion of ‘forbidden love’ operates on two registers in the film.
In the context of the conservative and religious society the two women grow up in, Kena and Ziki’s queer sexuality is viewed as ‘deviant’ and a transgression against social norms.
In addition, the fathers of the two young women are political opponents in the upcoming local election. Evidently, the two young women are up against the institutional barriers of government and religion.
Yet, they must challenge the traditional heteronormative values upheld by their families and the local community — whose members love a good gossip! As each of these forces continues to foil the blossoming love between Kena and Ziki, the young women are put into the painful position of having to choose between their love and safety.
With Kena and Ziki’s personal navigation posited within a close-knit community and housing estate in Nairobi, the two continually seek to carve out a space of privacy within the chaotic and intrusive milieu. Despite these bleak set of circumstances, Rafiki offers a hopeful and optimistic narrative.
Whether rendered through the surrounding pink-hued buildings, the neon party Kena and Ziki attend, the clothes they wear, the interior of their families home, and finally, Ziki’s colorful hair braids (that screams out her free-spirited nature), Rafiki’s cinematography is rich in color, patterns, and texture.
With a color scheme that explores the full spectrum of color are a visual nod to the LGBTQ rainbow flag. The vibrant colors, both primary and neon, that saturate the film, make it easy to celebrate and support the love between these two young women.
Plus, Rafiki presents a serious inversion of the male gaze. The gaze of the women take primary focus as their mutual desire and vehement attraction to one another is conveyed by their exchange of beaming smiles, furtive glances, and drawn-out looks.
Rafiki is a project produced by AfroBubbleGum Productions, co-founded by the film’s director, Wanuri Kahiu.
Classified as a genre, aesthetic and art movement, AfroBubbleGum is invested in producing art that captures the full range of human experiences and stories out of Africa.
It seeks to create and share African narratives that are not restricted to the issues of war, famine or rampant poverty. The reason being that such representations are viewed as fuelling Western paternalism, reinforcing Western indifference and the West’s complete dissociation from geographies of the ‘Third World.’
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However, due to the film’s LGBTQ content, Rafiki had been banned in its home nation of Kenya. Still, that hasn’t stopped Rafiki from finding an audience.
The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival this year and received a standing ovation from the crowd. Since Cannes, the film screened at the Toronto Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, and recently found its way to New York.
In the “City that Never Sleeps” I was lucky enough to attend the screening as part of the New York LGBT Film Festival, aka NewFest.
Wanuri had intended on attending the New York screening that was to be followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker. However, due to issues over her visa, Wanuri was unable to attend the screening.
Nonetheless, its successful international reception has inevitably generated Oscar buzz. In order for a film to be considered for the Academy Award category of Best Foreign Language Film, however, the film must have a theatrical release and run in its home country.
A temporary ban has been lifted by the Kenyan High Court for the screening of the film.
LGBTQ rights continue to be a battle in Kenya and across East Africa.
Rafiki and the controversy surrounding the film brings about an important dialogue on our right to love whom we love, as well as the freedom to create and share stories.
Rafiki’s screenplay is based on the award-winning short story, Jambula Tree (2007) by Monica Arac de Nyeko.