Rafiki is Kenya’s first film to be invited to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival — it also happens to be banned for distribution, exhibition or broadcast in Kenya. The film’s ban was announced in a statement by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KCFB), the agency charged with rating films in the country, for its “homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.” Set to premiere when Cannes opens on May 8th, Rafiki tells the story of two girls from rival political families who fall in love against the odds. Seven years in the making, Rafiki is directed by a Kenyan woman, Wanuri Kahiu, and features Kenyan women as lead characters. It’s based off the 2007 Caine Prize winning short story “Jambula Tree” by Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko. In short, it is Black African Woman Excellence at its best, with a trailer that promises heartache (and triumph? See for yourself).
For many in Kenya’s creative and LGBT community, the film represents an important turning point in the recognition not only of Kenya’s booming creative scene but also its LGBT community that has been growing more vocal; both within the arts and in the fight for equal rights. Rafiki joins a growing canon of queer stories being told in the country, with or without permission. It also follows in the footsteps of films such as South African Inexba (The Wound) a gay coming of age story that was also banned for public viewing in that country despite receiving international acclaim. Africa, it seems, is ready to tell its queer stories.
The challenge remains censorship from overzealous government agencies and politicians. As Kahiu insists, the issue here is the right for adults to choose for themselves, believing that Kenyans are a discerning enough audience to engage with what may be seen as controversial content. The decision to ban the film saw both outrage and praise from different corners of the internet—and a comment from recently out Janelle Monae, calling for worldwide screenings of the film.
The Kenya Film Classification Board has banned the film "RAFIKI" due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans.
#KFCBbansLesbianFilm@PresidentKE @InfoKfcb @NellyMuluka @moscakenya @Khagali_M pic.twitter.com/5STVTriEEP
— Dr. Ezekiel Mutua (@EzekielMutua) April 27, 2018
The film "Rafiki" has some high-quality video work but the message is totally wrong. Kenyan culture does not support lesbianism and homosexuality. #KFCBbansLesbianFilm
— Bamyn Runo (@bamynchebbz) April 27, 2018
In a huge way, I would like to thank Ezekiel Mutua for the miscalculation he made when banning Rafiki. This movie was going to be very big, but thanks to the ban it’s going to be mega big! 😂😂 (insert beychella Voice) ain’t that a bitch 😂😂 https://t.co/tBQ90vX6B1
— #MuthoniDrummerQueen (@muthoniDQ) April 28, 2018
But for queer Kenyans, the last five years have been a period of rapid change and increasing visibility. It began with the publication of Stories of Our Lives, a book collecting over 250 stories of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals in Kenya, from a gay rural farm worker to a lesbian couple facing eviction from their apartment because of their sexuality. The film (of the same name) produced by The Nest Collective — a group creating uniquely Kenyan content that addresses the complexities of modern Kenyan citizenry — would suffer the same fate as Rafiki, banned by the KFCB for local viewing. Its Director was arrested for “filming without a license.” Despite this, Stories of Our Lives has gone on to endure wide international success, beginning with its premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Locally, many in the queer community have quietly celebrated the film, viewing overseas or pirated copies in the privacy of their homes.
Last year also saw Kawira Mwirichia’s To A Revolutionary Type of Love (#TRTL)/Kanga Love, an art exhibit combining traditional East African kangas with inspirational messages from queer individuals from across the globe. Mwirichia’s collective, #TRTL, has been a space for queer artistry and queer imagination to thrive. Other successful exhibits include 27, put on by the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. It explores the disconnect between Article 27 of Kenya’s Constitution, which guarantees equality for all, and the realities of being LGBT in Kenya.
On the legal front, LGBT activists are making strides, using the courts as a means to push for protections of LGBT individuals. Despite statements made by the KCFB in its press release and the country’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, in a recent CNN interview, homosexuality is not illegal in Kenya. Only sexual acts between same sex individuals are criminalized. However, even this may soon change. In 2015, LGBT rights groups mounted a legal challenge to sections of the Penal Code criminalizing same sex behavior. That case was heard in March of this year, with a judgement expected in the next few months.
Activist groups have won other legal challenges in the country, including the right for transgender individuals to legally change their names on official documents, the right for LGBT groups to register within the country, and most recently a case appealing the state’s use of forced anal examinations on men suspected of being gay — a practice that is now illegal in Kenya thanks to the court challenge.
So enters Wanuri Kahiu’s film: a movie that makes history for Kenya and will undoubtedly cast a light on the country’s dealings with its queer community. On one side sits KFCB CEO Ezekiel Mutua, who initially came out in strong praise of Rafiki only a week before banning it. He now claims he was misled over its ending. According to Kahiu, the KCFB CEO requested a different ending, one in which “the girls looked remorseful.” That they appear to find a happy ending despite having endured the hardships of social exclusion, a violent attack and the stigma of a socially unaccepted relationship is a clear attempt to “normalize homosexuality,” claims the KCFB in its statement.
Rafiki is an inconvenient love story for a country that wants to bury its queer history; present and past. But as history has proven so often, only one side of this story will be remembered: that of the victors.