Rafiki, which translates to friend in Swahili was first released globally in 2018. Rafiki is based on an acclaimed story “Jambula Tree” by Monica Arac de Nyeko. This film was directed by Wanuri Kahiu, a Kenyan film director, producer and writer. This movie was also the first Kenyan film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Rafiki portrays the innocent love story of the two protagonists, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) which stays raw and true to the viewers throughout.

One cannot ignore the similarities while acknowledging the differences between the Kenyan society that Rafiki portrays and our very own Indian society. Both located in different continents yet the story manages to amplify all over the globe, especially, in countries who have had a colonial past. However, while the Supreme Court of India in its phenomenal judgement of 2018 decriminalised homosexuality, the Kenyan court has upheld its archaic homosexuality laws, despite continuous efforts by civil society members. 

Rafiki is set in an upbeat neighbourhood in Nairobi, where everyone knows everybody. “The neighbourhood in its bright, noisy, intrusive way was the perfect antagonist to the quiet, intimate, secret spaces the girls tried to create,” said Director Wanuri Kahiu.

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The soundtrack of Rafiki, like the film, has also been all-female, led by Muthoni Drummer Queen, Chemutai Sage, Blinky Bill, Jaaz Odongo & Trina Mungai, and newcomers Mumbi Kasumba (representing Namibia by ways of Zambia), Njoki Karu and others. The wonderful music score given by all African artists gels well within the film’s narrative. The soundtrack is upbeat and also take us through a whirlwind of emotions that Kena and Ziki face, despite the odds stacked against them. 

Rafiki also shows how patriarchal structures and religion dictate the life of women in Kenya. However, it does not preach; it allows the viewer to introspect and reflect.

When Love is political

Rafiki revolves the themes of love, one which defies all boundaries and all societal norms. It has challenges the society by asking questions of who decides to choose whom one should love. This movie also has underlying themes that revolve around family, friendship, and class struggle, simultaneously exposing the patriarchal structures within the Kenyan society. With two women as the protagonist and helmed by another, this movie has been remarkable in challenging the all norms of the orthodox Kenyan society. 

Also Read: Resistance and Hope: LGBTQ+ Rights In The New Decade

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The colourful buildings, and the striking bubblegum coloured hair of Ziki cannot be ignored, as they add colour and lightness to the hopeful undertones of the movie. This film is a clear portrayal of how love is defiant. Kena and Ziki fall in love, despite the political rivalry between their fathers, motivate each other, and try to provide each other panacea from everything that they go through.

From their homes, to the way they dream and aspire, Kena and Ziki seem to fit into the narrative of how “opposites-attract”. The direction by Wanuri Kahiu has been excellent in potraying the raw-ness to the story of these two young women. The movie slowly develops the narrative of Kena and Ziki, and also tries to smash stereotypes around femininity and homosexuality. Rafiki also shows how patriarchal structures and religion dictate the life of women in Kenya. However, it does not preach; it allows the viewer to introspect and reflect while it gives us a glimpse of country like ours that suffers due to its shared colonial history and religiosity embedded within the society.

Rafiki amplifies the voices of the LGBTQ+ community and while it portrays the difficulties of having to defy the heteronormative society, it is hopeful throughout.

Image Source- SQIFF

Challenging the heteronormative narrative

The movie was banned in Kenya for its “clear intent to promote lesbianism”. The portrayal of same-sex love by the director is commendable against all stakes. Wanuri in her own words states, “We are so often shown full of hurt and pain and I just find that there hasn’t been enough space to celebrate our love of life. I wanted a pure love story, because growing up, I hadn’t watched any love stories with Africans in them, you know? It just seemed that everybody else had permission to fall in love, but Africans didn’t.”

Also Read: Book Review: Gaysia–Adventures In The Queer East By Benjamin Law

Rafiki amplifies the voices of the LGBTQ+ community and while it portrays the difficulties of having to defy the heteronormative society, it is hopeful throughout. It allows women to experience their sexuality through their own choices without any assertion from outside. It creates a space for more discourse on themes of same-sex love and homosexuality. This movie is an attempt to accelerate representation of women of colour in the global cinema. The larger aim of the movie, according to the director, “May this film shout where voices have been silenced,” (a reference to how LGBTQ+ voices have been muted in East Africa.)

image source- tumblr

Rafiki has already created a buzz all over the global cinema despite all the odds it has faced and overcome. It has boldly made a statement on the value of liberty and freedom– liberty to choose whom one decides to love and also the liberty to create art. Art that one chooses to illustrate because everyone must be allowed to share and narrate their own stories. This film, hence, has created a democratic space for all voices to be heard despite conservative forces trying to suppress them within and beyond those 83 minutes of screen-time. 

Though the film has led to more conversations regarding LGBTQ+ rights and homsexuality in the mainstream African-society, we still have a long way to go. While individuals belonging to the LGBTQ+ community are treated as second class citizens within their own countries, we need more voices to stand up and speak strongly against these regressive laws that undermine their basic freedom to love.

Featured Image Source: The New York Times

About the author(s)

Nangsel ardently believes in engaging with discourses and debates that have been obscured and marginalised due to various structures of power and privileges. Her main areas of interest lie in gender, refugees, forced migration and minority rights.

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