The controversial lesbian love story Rafiki on Showmax has won 16 international awards and is currently streaming.
“Good Kenyan girls become good Kenyan wives,” but Kena (Samantha Mugatsia, who won Best Actress at Carthage 2018 and FESPACO 2019 for the role) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) long for something more. When love blossoms between them, the two girls are forced to choose between happiness and safety.
Rafiki was nominated for the Un Certain Regard and Queer Palm Awards at Cannes 2018, as well as a 2020 GLAAD Media Award for Best Limited Release Film. The movie catapulted director Wanuri Kahiu onto Time Magazine’s 100 Next list in 2019 and launched her career internationally. She’s now adapting Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed for Amazon Prime and Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish for Universal, among other projects.
Shortage of African love stories on screen
Wanuri was drawn to Rafiki because of the shortage of African love stories on screen. “I was in my late teens when I first saw a film about young Africans in love. Before that, I had never seen any Africans kiss. I still remember the thrill, surprise and wonder and how the film disrupted my idea of romance. Before then, affection was reserved for foreigners, not us. To imagine that it was normal for Africans to hold hands and kiss on screen was astonishing.”
She realised there was an even bigger shortage of lesbian love stories set in Africa when she read Monica Arac de Nyeko’s Caine Prize-winning short story, Jambula Tree, on which Rafiki is based. “I was caught off guard again,” she remembers. “As a romantic, I had to bring to life the tender playfulness of the girls in Jambula Tree and as a filmmaker, it was vital to show beautiful Africans in love and add those memories to cinema.”
Rafiki, co-produced by South Africa’s Big World Cinema and co-written by South African Jenna Cato Bass (Flatland), became the first Kenyan film to compete at Cannes, but, like Jim Chuchu’s 2015 Berlin Teddy Award winner Stories of Our Lives, the movie was banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) for its homosexual theme. In Kenya, gay sex is punishable by jailtime.
“The ability for one human being to love another”
Wanuri sued Kenya’s government to allow the film to be screened and become eligible to be submitted as Kenya’s entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards. On 21 September 2018, the Kenyan High Court lifted the ban on the film, allowing it to be screened in the country for seven days – to sold-out audiences – to meet the eligibility criteria – although it subsequently lost out to Likarion Wainaina’s multi-award-winning film Supa Modo as Kenya’s 2019 entry. In April 2020, a Kenyan court refused to lift the ban on Rafiki.
“While filming, we challenged deep-rooted cynicism about same sex relations among the actors and crew, and continue to do so with friends, relatives and larger society,” says Wanuri. “Rafiki brings to the forefront conversations about love, choice and freedom, not only freedom to love but also the freedom to create stories. We hope this conversation reminds us that we all have the right to love, and the refusal of that right through violence, condemnation or law violates our most fundamental raisons d’être: the ability for one human being to love another. “
What: Rafiki on Showmax