Rafiki marks the international debut of the thirty-nine-year-old writer-director Wanuri Kahiu. The first Kenyan feature ever officially screened at Cannes, the movie, which portrays the deepening relationship between two girls in their final year of secondary school, was banned in Kenya, the country’s Film Classification Board charging it with “legitimiz[ing] homosexuality against the dominant values, cultures and beliefs of the people of Kenya.”
Rafiki—the word means “friend” in Swahili—follows several weeks in the lives of Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), who plans to go to nursing school, and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a free spirit dreaming passionately about a dazzling life in some faraway place. Living in a cramped Nairobi flat with her divorced and lonely mother, who finds solace in the Bible and the fellowship of an Evangelical church run by a charismatic minister, Kena is conspicuously boyish, wearing her hair short, preferring boys’ clothes (“my body is allergic to a dress,” she complains), skateboarding, playing soccer with the guys. She’s a serious, even solemn young person, while Ziki is a glamorous party girl who favors colorful hair braids, short skirts, and purple lipstick.
The two opposites attract, their intimacy developing through chance encounters around town and laughs shared at a local chai shop. They find an abandoned VW bus to use as their hideaway; bedecked with pink bougainvillea, it is a bower of sorts, and an escape from a world that not only doesn’t comprehend their burgeoning tenderness, but harshly condemns it. Out there, the two are “friends,” a designation holding the same ambiguity in Swahili that it once did in English—a careful euphemism in a society still shaming, and hiding, the love that dare not speak its name.
The backdrop to Rafiki is the hostility to homosexuality that continues to hold sway in many African countries; Kenya retains colonial-era laws banning same-sex relationships, while neighboring Uganda has notoriously passed the continent’s harshest proscriptions. In the United States, a lesbian relationship among young adults might mean disapproval. In some parts of Africa, it could mean death. And so a romance that seems tame to American audiences (the erotic content is exceedingly modest) resounds, in Kenya, with danger and the possibility of tragedy. Furthermore, though non-East-African viewers may not pick it up, the relationship between Kena and Ziki bridges another divide: Kena is Kikuyu and Ziki is Luo, the two most powerful ethnic groups in Kenya, that have vied—sometimes bloodily—for power ever since the country’s founding in 1963. This history of animosity adds a Capulets-and-Montagues dimension to the star-crossed lovers—a theme reinforced by their fathers campaigning against each other in a city-council election.
Though her sympathies are clear, Kahiu never preaches progressive values, but treats all parties with dignity; even those who view gayness as an unholy possession— “You are filled with demons!” Kena’s mother yells at one point—and wield their Christianity forcefully in an attempt to extirpate it are not reviled, but portrayed as fallible humans operating within a highly constraining set of social, cultural, and religious values. We see the poisonous role played by gossip, especially in the person of the woman who runs the tea shop and spreads hateful rumors about the girls. Such malice helps push events to a scary crisis when a mob catches the two girls in their bower, drags them out, and beats them, meting out the kind of vigilante mob justice not uncommon in African cities, where a purse-snatcher on a crowded street may put his own life at risk.
The comparison of same-sex love with common criminality is a telling one, and the American viewer of Rafiki should keep in mind the harshly normative values of its milieu. Scenes of quiet tenderness in a film like, for instance, Call Me by Your Name, register differently here; this is not an Italian villa enjoyed by vacationing liberals, but an abandoned minivan in an African city, where violent persecutors might descend at any moment. The pervasiveness of a stringent, even hysterical taboo ups the stakes significantly, and adds extra giddiness to the already rapturous experience of young love.
The daughter of a businessman father and pediatrician mother, Wanuri Kahiu grew up in Nairobi and went to film school at UCLA. She won multiple African film awards for her 2009 movie, From a Whisper, a fictionalized account of the 1998 terror attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, then followed with a documentary about the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, and a futurist film, Pumzi, depicting life in a post-apocalypse community.
In a whimsical but quietly impassioned 2017 Ted talk, Kahiu discussed her interest in sci-fi, fantasy, and popular culture generally, and defended the right of African filmmakers to make movies not merely about poverty, famine, political corruption, AIDS, and other headline issues that define Africa to the West, but rather about life in all its routine daily humor and pathos—that is to say, to work like filmmakers generally. Advocating “art for its own sake...just for the sake of imagination,” Kahiu described herself as making films about “nothing particularly important,” dissociating herself from “agenda art” in favor of the “fun, fierce, and frivolous.” Christening this movement “Afro bubble gum,” she has founded a media collective by that name, dedicated to helping African artists broaden their mission.
I know what Kahiu is getting at, but the phrase does her work a disservice. Rafiki is by no means frivolous, and From a Whisper is—literally—deadly serious. Delving into the plot to blow up the U.S. embassy, and into the abiding repercussions in two Kenyan families a decade later, that film meticulously weaves two time frames together in an ominous drama that is at once political and personal. “Bubblegum” hardly seems an apt designation. Both of Kahiu’s films also scrutinize fundamentalist theological imperatives that place doctrinal purity and stringency over individual humanity, mercy, and love—and explore the nature of the difficult forgiveness that ensues when those imperatives cause pain. Again, no bubble gum there.
Whatever she chooses to call it, Rafiki is a fine film. Kahiu takes up a broad cause in the most persuasive way—by presenting a highly particularized human story, and unfolding it with sympathy and quiet pathos. “I see the way you look at me,” Ziki says to Kena in the VW bus. We do, too, and that look—a searching gaze, full of longing—stays with us all the way to the film’s ending, with its note of guarded and ambiguous optimism. Interestingly, it was not the mildly sexual scenes that the Kenyan film board cited as the reason for its ban, but rather that ending—which the board asked Kahiu to change (she refused), and which the censors described as putting “too hopeful” a spin on gay love. Is this perhaps the first time a film was ever explicitly banned for hopefulness? That is surely something for a filmmaker to take pride in.