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.