While on a rooftop before their first date, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) make a pact that reverberates throughout their whole relationship: “We’re gonna be something real.”
This is what makes the film Rafiki shine bright: While the community may question the seriousness of the love between these two women, we as the audience get a personal, intimate view of how real and complex their relationship truly is. Director and co-writer Wanuri Kahiu doesn’t shy away from discussing the fact that black, queer relationships do occur in Kenya, a country dictated by legislation that currently rules most sex acts between same-sex couples as well as same-sex marriages illegal. To have a female, Kenyan filmmaker speak to the truth of this community and create this piece of art is an act of bravery.
Set in the slopes outside of Nairobi, Kenya, Rafiki’s star-crossed love story possesses a colorful flair. The city of Nairobi is known for its fashion market and vibrant hues, and this film really leans into that quality, from the patterns on the clothes of the locals clothes to Ziki’s purple and blue yarn locs. Kena and Ziki are the daughters of two competing politicians in the town. After first hanging out as friends, their bond quickly blossoms into a romantic relationship, in which the two become smitten with each other.
Throughout the film, there’s a gentleness that Ziki shows beyond her “cool girl” demeanor, and an openness that Kena displays beyond her her stoic facade. After their first date in a glow-in-the-dark party, you really believe their love. The sincerity of their affection for each other really shines through whenever they go to their private place, an abandoned van in the woods. On one visit, Kena even fills the van with rose petals, and gives Ziki a cupcake. They grow with and because of each other, and as a viewer it’s beautiful to witness.
Unfortunately, their town is very homophobic, which of course leads to much of the story’s conflict. Sometimes, when queer couples are forced to hide their relationships due to homophobia and disapproval, this closeting can spark doubt about how real the relationship truly is. This is true of Ziki, who at one point questions the validity of what she’s building with Kena, since they must hide the nature of their relationship for their own safety.
This predominantly homophobic environment eventually becomes too risky for such secrets. Eventually their relationship — and ultimately, their lives — are put in danger, when the town gossip Mama Atim (Muthoni Gathecha) exposes their love. The two young women are then forced to choose between happiness and safety.
While the film does a lot to show the beauty and safety of their relationship, it also gets graphic with the hardships they face, particularly when their relationship is outed. Kahiu doesn’t spare any expense when showing the potential violence that can occur after being cruelly outed to others.
Perhaps the most disturbing scene in the film occurs after the two women are attacked by an angry mob in town. After the attack, both sit in a local police precinct and wait to be picked up by their families. Not only do the officers taunt them for their injuries, but Ziki’s father slaps her in the face as soon as he sees her. Kena faces her own challenges with her family, as well, as her mother takes her to church to “pray the gay away.” Though difficult to sit through and heartbreaking to witness, these scenes are necessary in order to remind viewers, especially cisgendered ones, of the turmoil some LGBTQ couples are unfairly subjected to.
This homophobia was felt in real life, when the Kenya Film Classification Board attempted to ban Rafiki’s release in Kenya, alleging that the film’s content contradicted the country’s laws. However, Kahiu fired back with a lawsuit, as these restrictions would’ve put the film’s Oscar eligibility for Best Foreign Language Film category at risk. Thankfully, a judge recently granted a temporary lift on the ban, allowing the film to be screened for one week.
It’s undoubtedly a shame that the film’s home country wasn’t initially willing to acknowledge the beauty of Rafiki’s depictions of lesbian love and countless other real-life same-sex relationships. Kahiu’s film reinforces that being who you are and loving in spite of the opinions of others is still a revolutionary act. So cheers to the Kenyan viewers, who now have the opportunity to see Rafiki for what it is — colorful, warm and real.