Rafiki first look: the risk-taking lesbian romance banned in Kenya

This fresh and courageous coming-out drama from Wanuri Kahiu deserves to be seen, especially in its home nation where, as the film shows, homophobia is rife. 

Amy Taubin
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Samantha Mugatsia as Kena and Sheila Munyiva as Ziki in Rafiki

Samantha Mugatsia as Kena and Sheila Munyiva as Ziki in Rafiki

Much to the displeasure of its government, the Republic of Kenya is home to a lovely lesbian coming-out movie. Rafiki, the second film by Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu, has been banned in its country of origin, although the ruling is being appealed. Perhaps the warm reception Rafiki received in Cannes will make the Film Classification Board modify its decision, although in a country where same sex relationships are punishable by prison sentences of 14 years, and homophobia, as the film shows, is ingrained, that seems doubtful.

Adapted from a Ugandan short story, Monica Arac de Nyeko’s Jambula Tree, Rafiki is set in a Nairobi housing estate, where much of daily life – work and recreation – is conducted outdoors, and privacy is next to impossible. The movie opens with Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) circumnavigating on her skateboard a neighborhood that is much too confining for her hopes and dreams. Tall, rail-thin, and athletic, Kena is a serious student who claims she wants to study nursing although her grades easily place her on track to become a doctor. Kena plays soccer with the local boys, and her bestie is Blacksta (Neville Misarti), who imagines that he’ll marry her some day. But Kena has eyes for no one except Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), she of the pink and blue dreads, whose flirty eyes fix on Kena often enough to make her own cool-girl posse jealous.

Rafiki (2018)

And of course, opposites attract, even when both are of the same sex. Shy, responsible Kena works in her father’s convenience store, where he barely makes enough to support her, her devoutly Christian mother, and his new, much younger wife. Politically progressive, he’s running for local office with a bare-bones, self- financed campaign.

And wouldn’t you know it, his opponent is Ziki’s dad, who has big business throwing money at his campaign. The political ambitions of her father don’t stop rebellious Ziki from pursuing Kena, and although Kena loves her father more than Ziki cares about her family, she’s too besotted with Ziki to resist her. When the two finally have sex, the discretion of the filmmaking – a hand touching a bared waist, the sound of quickened breath, an enraptured gasp – makes the fragility of first sexual passion all the more moving and identifiable. (If your desire, however, is to see two adolescent women get it on, this is not the film for you.)

Rafiki doesn’t lack influences. It has more than a little in common with Maria Maggenti’s The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995) and Dee Rees’s Pariah (2011), to name two much loved and admired American lesbian independent movies. That Kenya is late to the women-coming-out film party is a function of its social and political structure; it doesn’t lessen the courage and freshness of Kahui’s filmmaking. The actors are vivid, in particular Mugatsia. She makes us want Kena to have a great life and to believe that against daunting odds, she definitely has a shot.

 

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