“[You mean] the whole church was watching me and what I was doing?”
This exchange from Rafiki encompasses the core tension of the film: the fear of constant surveillance, the intrusive feeling that everyone is watching and disproving of your actions.
Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a landmark film: it is the first Kenyan movie to screen at the Cannes Film Festival.
Queer Students of Colour hosted Rafiki at LSE as part of Black History Month. The movie provided the opportunity for students to celebrate queer love stories among black people in the media.
‘Rafiki’ depicts a blossoming romance between two women, Kena Mwaura (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki Okemi (Sheila Munyiva) in a deeply restrictive society. Their coming-of-age love story is fraught with complications: Kena and Ziki are the daughters of rival politicians. Moreover, they face overwhelming opposition from parents, friends, the church, the law itself, and even the lady who serves them sodas at a kiosk stand. They’re eventually outed and consequently separated by their families.
Rafiki was initially banned in Kenya in 2018 for its depiction of lesbian romance. Rafiki has a warmth and lightness which overshadows the hostile environment it portrays.
Kahiu’s depiction of the romance between Kena and Ziki has a tender quality, there’s a shyness and restraint which feels immediately endearing and real. The screen is painted in pastel shades in their scenes together; the vibrant soundtrack frames the way Kena sees Ziki, music only plays when the latter is on screen. Despite their fear of censure, we see two people who create a space where they can be something real. Amidst the condemnation of the people around them, Kena’s dad’s acceptance was reassuring – a small but meaningful moment in the movie.
Despite the remarkable supporting cast, their detachment from the main love story diminishes the narrative’s impact. Besides the heart-warming reunion between the two, the ending feels rushed and unresolved.
This movie’s hopefulness is a welcome break from the mould where queer love stories are either erased or conclude tragically.