Banned in Kenya
Wanuri Kahiu’s coming-out drama shows, homophobia and therefore is uncomfortable for the government of the Republic of Kenya, home to a beautiful lesbian coming-out movie. Until very recently, like last week, it had been. I imagine that the warm reception “Rafiki” received in Cannes helped to change the decision but Kenya is a country where same sex relationships are punishable by prison sentences of 14 years, and homophobia is ingrained.
“Rafiki” (which means friend) 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) on her skateboard in a neighborhood that is much too confining for her hopes and dreams. She is a serious student who wants to study nursing. She plays soccer with the local boys, and her best friend is Blacksta (Neville Misarti), who imagines that he’ll marry her some day. Kena, however, is set on Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), with the pink and blue dreads and flirty eyes.
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.
His opponent happens to be Ziki’s dad, who has big business giving money to his campaign. However, political ambitions of her father don’t stop Ziki from going for Kena, and although Kena loves her father more than Ziki cares about her family, she’s too fascinated by Ziki to resist her. When the two finally have sex (which we discretely see from the waist up) we cannot help but notice the fragility of first sexual passion.
The film is based on a prize-winning short story by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko and it is a Its simplistic observation of romantic love in its purest form colliding with political, religious, familial and societal intolerance.
Resident gossip Mama Atim (Muthoni Gathecha), owns the kiosk where her resentful daughter Nduta (Nice Githinju) works the counter, always upset over Blacksta’s attention to Kena. They’re the first to notice when a flirty friendship begins between Kena and Ziki. They seem to be oblivious to the risks of openly showing affection in public, even if Kena is not insensitive to the homophobic slurs from Blacksta’s buddy to a friendless local gay guy.
While Kenya’s anti-gay laws are touched on only through a church sermon, the sense of stifling convention is everywhere. Malicious forces in the neighborhood soon push Kena and Ziki out of their paradise when they become victims of violence. However, it is only afterwards, when the bloodied girls are subjected to mocking indifference from local police while their aggressors go unquestioned, do they understand that a strong sense of festering injustice has begun.
There are many moments of tenderness, mainly between Kena and Ziki but also between Kena and her father who is the least judgmental of the adult characters. John’s apparent desire to be a force of positive change comes up against sad reality when he witnesses the obstacles to his daughter’s happiness.
This is a familiar story but there’s a freshness here and a natural chemistry between the two stars that is refreshing. Director Kahiu paints the local environment vividly and the backdrop is full of colorful characters, that range from homophobic barflies to girls practicing dance routines on the street.
“Rafiki” is the first Kenyan film to be chosen for the Cannes official selection and it is a touching and brave portrayal of the relationship between two young women.