REVIEW: Rafiki (2018) is a Testament to Hope

“Let’s make a pact that we will never be like any of them down there”.

This article contains mild spoilers for Rafiki.

There has been so much controversy surrounding the release of Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki. The film is her debut feature, and the first Kenyan film to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival. But when the anticipation for the film’s release was bubbling up in many circles, the Kenyan government banned the film due to its positive presentation of a same-gender relationship.

The ban was eventually lifted, but not before director and co-writer of the film Kahiu was left fearful for her own freedom and safety. The head of the Kenya Film Classification Board allegedly threatened her with arrest, and she was forced to set up a safe house in the event that any authorities came after either her, or the movie’s main actors, Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva.

Kahiu states that the Classification Board told her she needed to change the end of the film. “They felt it was too hopeful”, Kahiu stated in an interview with The Guardian. “They said if I changed the ending to show her [the main character] looking remorseful, they would give me an 18 rating”.

The idea of giving a non-explicit film that is aptly being described by many as sweet and gentle a high rating is as utterly ludicrous as it is transparently homophobic.

Kenya is one of the more than seventy countries in which being LGBTQ is criminalised, and Rafiki was initially banned for presenting a positive message about same-gender relationships. The film was seen as promoting lesbianism, and even the Kenyan government denounced it. Many have remarked since then just how illustrative these events have been; this is why we need more films like Rafiki.

Eventually, the ban was lifted and for seven days only, packed-out Kenyan cinemas could marvel just as I have at the portrayal of a relationship between two teenage girls from Nairobi.

Based on the short story Jambula Tree, Rafiki follows recent high school graduates Kena (Mugatsia) and Ziki (Munyiva) as they meet and fall in love. There is something of a Romeo and Juliet vibe to their tale, not just because their relationship is forbidden, but because both of their fathers are running against each other for political office. However, to talk only of the parallels between Rafiki and Romeo and Juliet would be to do the film an immense disservice. To do so runs the risk of implying that Rafiki is something of a generic love story, a charge which could not be further from the truth.

Certainly, there are familiarities within the plot but there is also so much more besides. Kena and Ziki look at first glance to be total opposites. Kena and her father work a small convenience shop while Ziki comes from a position of relative financial privilege. Kena is quiet, grounded, and presents herself in a style that is conventionally deemed as somewhat masculine. Ziki, on the other hand, is more or less a human rainbow. She is colourful in a literal and metaphorical sense; she is free-spirited, and often has her head in the clouds. Their differences balance each other out, and there is a visible potential between the two characters to learn important lessons from the other and grow as people. During the film, Ziki encourages aspiring nurse Kena to reach higher and strive for more. Kena is practical and resourceful, reminding Ziki about the importance of being prudent and cautious. Opposites, then, really do attract.

From the outset, homophobia is a constant presence within the film. Almost right at the start, one of Kena’s friends makes comments about a man they seem to know is not straight, and throughout the film the pastor of the local church speaks plainly and passionately about the immorality of LGBTQ identities. Heterosexuality is also framed as a lure with which Kena could be trapped if she so chose. Her friend Blacksta offers her a relationship on multiple occasions, stating at one time that he will give her everything that she wants: “money in your account, a mortgage…” When Kena asks if he really thinks that is all she wants in life, Blacksta tells her “that’s what everyone wants.” So here is the carrot, and it is interspersed with multiple instances of the stick too. As both Kena and Ziki have been taught, good Kenyan girls become good Kenyan wives. Of men.

And yet in the face of this, Rafiki presents us with a love story that is full of laughter, sweet glances, and wonderfully picturesque rooftop conversations. The romance between Kena and Ziki is beautifully soft, gentle, and tender in the face of absolute adversity.  

In part this can be attributed to a lot of wonderful writing and directorial choices. It can also be attributed to the sensitivity and subtlety with which Mugatsia and Munyiva approach their roles. They showcase wonderfully the stilted and often awkward ways in which many of us fall in love when we are young. The uncertainty is, at times, tangible between Kena and Ziki, particularly in the case of the former. And if their characters perhaps fall in love a little fast, then this only reflects the sometimes hurried nature of first loves (and it ties in nicely too with a popular online joke that lesbians and other LGBTQ women move fast).

Over the course of the film, the two girls go on dates and we see their bond grow until, eventually, they share their first kiss at a night time dance party in which revelers cover themselves in glowing body paint and dance in an entirely carefree way. The dark night is punctuated by the bright paint and neon glow sticks and, as with many scenes in the film, the viewer is drawn in and made to feel a sense of yearning. We want to be there and experience the good things Kena and Ziki are experiencing.

These scenes highlight a part of this film that deserves endless praise: it is a visually stunning work. Kahiu was born in Nairobi, and it is immediately obvious that Rafiki is, in part, a love letter to her city. It is nothing short of a visual feast. The vivacious, striking colours of the film are almost always front and centre. The film is full of bright pinks, bold greens, and warm yellows. It has to be one of my favourite uses of bold palettes and explosions of colour in a long time. The cinematography also blends well with the upbeat, distinctive Afropop soundtrack. Perhaps then, this makes the animosity of the Kenyan Film Classification Board even harder to swallow. As Kahiu herself said in the same Guardian article, people think of Kenya “as a horrible, depressing, starving country. And therefore your work should be a reflection of that”. Arguably these misconceptions apply to the vast majority of the African continent. But the Nairobi in Rafiki is a vibrant, colourful place that seems to be brimming with energy and potential. As Kahiu states, “I think there are more instances of joy than remorse in Africa. If we don’t see more images of ourselves as hopeful, joyful people, we won’t work towards it. I truly believe seeing is believing.”

I have no doubt that Africans of all nations are in dire need of more positive representation. Here then, is a film that wants to show the world how beautiful and how full of life Nairobi is, and it was banned from circulation in its home country.

Regardless of this, however, the use of colour and visual imagery in Rafiki is deft and effective, particularly considering how well the film makes use of a relatively small number of locations. One that stands out is an abandoned and disused van that only Kena seems to know about. It is covered in overgrown plants and looks perfectly picturesque on both the inside and out. The girls first use the van to shelter from a sudden rainstorm that interrupts a football match that they are playing against some of Kena’s male friends. Eventually, they share candlelit dates there, even spending the night together on one occasion.

It is striking how the simple inclusion of a location that is so stereotypically sweet and romantic can feel so powerful. It has felt for a long time that characters of colour and LGBTQ characters have been robbed of love stories that allow for the inclusion of the popular tropes that seem to abound in white, straight romantic films. I want to see more black girls falling in love surrounded by candlelight. I want more stories about LGBTQ women of colour that celebrate the easy joy in those first few months of a relationship. As Kahiu stated, it is disingenuous to only see portrayals of Africans who are suffering and unhappy.

The imagery behind Kena and Ziki’s van is powerful and easy to understand. This is their own private space where they can hide from the rest of the world and simply be themselves. It is a protected, sacred space and so it feels all the harder to watch when this is where they are discovered together. While it is true that we do not only want stories of adversity for people of colour and the LGBTQ community, we should also not shy away from the hard realities of life in marginalised groups. Rafiki handles this balance impeccably and the contrasts it presents to us are skillful to say the least.

It is no surprise that Kena and Ziki’s love for one another is exposed at night. Here for one of the first times is a sequence devoid of colour. A known village gossip not only confronts the girls about their relationship, she exposes it to their neighbours. They are subject to a brutal attack, and although both survive it looks to have ended their relationship forever. The strain causes them to argue, and they are separated by the homophobia of their mothers.

It would have been so easy for Kahiu to leave the girls’ relationship in tatters like this. Many stories about LGBTQ women have done this, and I have no doubt that many more will. But, without spoiling the ending for anyone who has not yet had the immense joy of watching this film, there is hope and light in the closing scenes of Rafiki. In fact, there is so much hope and joy and possibility throughout the whole film. It is a stunning portrayal of first love between two women, and it is also a stunning love letter to a city that has so much to give but still so much work to do to achieve acceptance and equality.

I can only hope that, as an example of how to tell LGBTQ stories in a beautiful but honest way, the community gets behind this little gem of a film. Rafiki is an important story and if you can watch it, I cannot recommend enough that you do. It is both a brave and important film – one that we need now as much as ever – and it is a film that is unabashedly full of love.

Dir.: Wanuri Kahiu

Prod.: Steven Markovitz

Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Neville Misati

Release date: 19 April 2019

Available on: Kanopy, Amazon Rental, iTunes, Vudu, Fandango Now