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Watching Rafiki proves how silly Kenya's homophobic ban was

2019-05-24 00:00

Rafiki
Director: Wanuri Kahiu
Starring: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva
4 stars out of 5

Finally, there is an indie run of the Kenyan film Rafiki at The Bioscope and selected Cinema Nouveau theatres. You really should go and watch this one, even if it is just to leave the cinema smiling and believing in love a little more.

Kenya’s state censors should be praised for their powerful marketing in making Wanuri Kahiu’s second feature world-famous by banning it from cinemas.

State homophobia, common to many African countries, is made to seem doubly ridiculous when the film is as disarmingly gentle and full of joy as this modest and low-budget teen love story.

Rafiki means “friend” and such was the acclaim that followed its Cannes Film Festival premiere last year that the Kenyan state further exposed its own dirty petticoat just months later when the courts proceeded to unban it for a week – purely for it to be eligible for an Oscar.

For a film to be up for a Best Foreign Language nomination at the Oscars it must run on circuit for at least a week.

So if Rafiki had won an Oscar then lesbian love would be okay? Would Kahiu be a national hero because Hollywood said so? Let’s move along.

Rafiki is by no means a perfect film. It’s slight, its plot is pretty predictable and its budget is low. But some of these downsides are also its quiet and unexpected strengths.

The film is set in a ghetto on the outskirts of Nairobi, where the serious-minded, skateboard-loving Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) works in her father’s shop while waiting to go and study nursing as he campaigns for political office in the local assembly.

One of the many problems with Kena’s growing friendship with the more spicy Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) of the rainbow-coloured braids is that Ziki’s dad is Kena’s dad’s rival for the assembly seat.

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The love between Kena and Ziki, with its Romeo-and-Juliet undertones, is given resonance precisely because it is a “small story” and not an epic political act.

It is a flowering of such an organic and sweet nature that the embedded cruelty of a conservative community is even further exposed.

There’s the moral judgement of the church, represented by Kena’s churchgoing mother; the hypocrisy of patriarchy, represented by the politician fathers; and the danger of the homophobic boys on the street, with their genital panic that can turn to mob violence.

The film is gorgeously localised and shows the aspirations of a new generation of Kenyans who refuse to live with this conservative baggage. They are underscored by a hip and offbeat local soundtrack.

Rafiki relies particularly on the strengths of two wonderfully understated and authentic lead performances. And the low budget means the art direction must make magic from the everyday, which it really does. The way an abandoned kombi is transformed into a love nest of flowers and colours says it all.

And there is a tangible sense of African co-production to make the film come to life. Kahiu and South African writer/director Jenna Bass have adapted a short story by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko to create a universal African love story, which is Rafiki’s biggest asset on screen – a love story instead of the usual African tale of slavery, war and uprising.

That Rafiki exists is not a miracle. It is a conscious creative act of self-assurance and soul.

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September 15 2019