“I knew there was a love story I wanted to make,” Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu told Broadly about the moment she first read Jambula Tree, the book she spent seven years bringing to life as the film Rafiki. The story explores the burgeoning love between two young women in Nairobi who have to negotiate their privacy and eventually their safety as they face extreme homophobia and discrimination in a society where queer intimacy is illegal. The soulful and gripping portrayal won rave reviews at acclaimed international film festivals like the Toronto and Cannes but was banned—like past Kenyan LGBTQ films—from showing in the country it was made for.
That is until Kahiu’s lawyer Sofia Leteipan suggested they sue the Kenyan Film Review Board for encroaching on her freedom of speech. In addition to wanting Kenyans to see the film, for Rafiki to be eligible for an Academy Awards nomination it was required to be shown for at least seven days in its home country. Kahiu filed a lawsuit on September 11 and on September 21 the ban was lifted for seven days.
The decision reverberated through a country that is currently having a historic high-stakes battle over whether Kenya will become the second African nation after South Africa to decriminalize same-sex intimacy.
Kenyan courts have recently shown the LGBTQ community some sympathy, ending the practice of police conducting forced anal exams for proof of homosexual activity in March. But the larger question of whether the country is ready to legalize queer sex hung in the balance with a degree of uncertainty as the nation prepared for the controversial film to hit theaters. The same week of the Rafiki decision the biggest legal battle went unsettled after the courts did not have a quorum.
Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding the film was not alleviated simply by the ban being lifted. "It is a sad moment and a great insult, not only to the film industry, but to all Kenyans who stand for morality, that a film that glorifies homosexuality is allowed to be the country's branding tool abroad," Kenyan Film Classification Board chief executive officer, Dr. Ezekiel Mutua wrote about Rafiki after the ruling was made to allow the screenings.
While the film classification board doesn’t exclusively ban movies for queerness, it has an extensive history of singling out LGBTQ content. In 2015 Kenyan film Stories of Our Lives was outlawed after director Jim Chuchu and collaborative partner Njoki Ngumi collected stories of queer and transgender experiences from around the country. Kenyan people had no choice but to travel to cities like Berlin to see it —which some did. The board also censored a Kenyan music video adaption of Macklemore’s (2016) song “Same Love” calling for the arrest of the musicians and actors who starred in the video. They’ve even dabbled in banning influential podcasts like the sex-positive queer women led show “The Spread.”
Kenyans in and outside of the LGBTQ community have been growing frustrated with the board’s decisions. One young woman, Stephanie* jokes that when The Wolf of Wall Street was banned for extensive drug use everyone was buying bootleg CDs of it even though she didn’t think it was actually a good movie.
“The decision to ban the film made it more visible and peaked a lot of people’s curiosity. It became about artistic freedom,” Stephanie explained. “Some of these people who might not necessarily be gay or care about gay rights are just like ‘you can’t tell us what we can’t watch.’”
Stephanie and others contend that Nairobi’s flourishing arts scene has created a groundswell of interest in self-expression despite the right-leaning government control. And that’s been a significant undercurrent of the pandemonium surrounding Rafiki screenings. Stephanie said the entire theater was booing when the movie’s rating from the film classification board flashed ahead of the film, and a lot of the conversation online indulged in making fun of its leaders.
The screenings in Nairobi were packed throughout the week as attendees showed up to buy tickets in person, prompting the theater to add more showings. While the audience skewed younger, some of the older people there, community activist Stacy Kirui noticed, were part of the nonprofit scene or the art world.
There was also tension between people interested in giving a middle finger to government censorship and people who came specifically to see a queer female love story validated on screen.
Kirui, who has seen the film five times, said she had two very different experiences seeing it with all queer people and with a mixed crowd. With one group, some audience members were laughing during serious scenes and afterward criticizing the censorship board. “When half of the theater is reckoning with their reality and the other half is there because of the hype surrounding the film it’s bound to be a very confusing experience for the people the film means a lot to,” she said.
Afterward, some groups lingered to discuss the film while others broke away to process the heavy layered experience on their own. Kirui explained, “Those scenes were either trauma from a lot of people’s past or the biggest fears in people’s lives and it was difficult to reckon with on the screen so close to your reality, shot in Nairobi. But it was also the most affirming piece of art I’ve experienced as a Black queer woman living in Kenya."
But the film’s director didn’t seem to be too disturbed by the varied intentions of moviegoers. "I don’t think it’s about just agreeing with the film or liking it. I think it’s about watching it and being able to decide for yourself whether or not your government has the right to decide what you watch," Kahiu said.
Nairobi is in a peculiar position because it has garnered a positive reputation among LGBTQ refugees in the region that wish to escape violence and persecution in their communities. However, Kenya’s National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission recorded 61 cases of physical assault and sexual violence, three murders, and 75 incidents of blackmail against the LGBTQ community that were brought to their attention in 2017.
Queer-friendly venues and a burgeoning social scene have made conditions easier to navigate but are still not accepted by the general populace. Alexis Teyie, a young woman living in Nairobi, explained, “I think it’s more like they know it happens but they don’t want to see it. They’re not going to be bothered to come attack you or stone you but they’d rather not see it. And they’d rather not think about it either.”
Rafiki characters Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Muniva) do a complicated dance throughout the film. They oscillate between passionate, private moments and a platonic public image of two excited new friends. All the while the danger and rejection that could await them if their truth was uncovered permeates their surroundings. Add this tension to the church’s gaze and homophobic peers, and you’ve got a modern story of perseverance.
But even within that context of blatant homophobia the characters’ relationship develops in a strikingly simple way. They establish a connection mostly through body language, not explicitly discussing their attraction because it was both subtext and undeniably potent. Kahiu shares that she always looks forward to the scene of their first date saying, “Every time I watch it just makes me smile and reminds me of how easy it is to fall in love. It doesn’t take much. It takes a moment.”
The movie captures the kind of normalcy that can still be preserved within extreme circumstances. While the conditions can be upsetting to watch or think about, there’s also a rhythm to navigating public-private intimacy that many have found romance within.
Their love story doesn’t shy away for the real danger of being in a gay relationship. There is a particularly violent scene in the film when the main couple is beaten up and taken to the police by spectators in the neighborhood. Kahiu shared that she modeled that scene not only after reports of anti-LGBTQ beatings but also stories of public violation of women in general that were happening in 2014. “During the course of writing the film women were being stripped in public for wearing short skirts. There was a whole movement that happened called My Dress My Choice and all these absolutely amazing Kenyan women in Nairobi would start showing up to work in the shortest skirts ever,” she said laughing. “And this was after Uganda outlawed short skirts. So I didn’t really have to imagine anything. It was just leaning into the stories that were already there.”
The film in some ways is also an extension of a feminist commentary as the two leads confront their relationship to the archetype of a “typical Kenyan girl." Reclaiming control over one’s sexuality, in general, has been a prominent theme of feminist activism in Nairobi whether that’s in decriminalizing sex work or freedom of expression. And the film asks the audience to consider how living in, not just a homophobic society, but a patriarchal society shapes women’s experiences. In one poignant scene, Kena’s mother says everyone will blame her for her daughter’s behavior just like they blamed her for when Kena’s father left their family. The moment adds a layer of complexity to the reason why Kena’s flawed father comes off more accepting than her mother.
Ultimately, some of the most complex characters and moving moments of the film were between the two women and parent figures, each of whom had different reactions to finding out their daughters were queer. “Kena’s dad was struggling to understand but he seemed supportive and I like that there was space for that. Seeing it in that way I can’t explain to you how much that meant,” Stephanie said.
The movie also dismantles how privilege is perceived in Kenyan when it comes to outwardly expressing sexual orientation.
“What I loved about it was that it wasn’t a movie about wealthy Kenyans, which is sometimes how they portray the LGBTQ community here —that it’s a bunch of rich people that have been influenced by the West,” Teyie says. She and others pointed out that the movie borrowed a lot of its momentum from using familiar locations and an all-Kenyan soundtrack while focusing on the lives of middle-class women. “They don’t speak like they were trained at Oxford or whatever, they’re just ordinary Kenyans going about their lives. That to me is the gift of what they gave us because it makes it seem like it’s not this strange foreign imposition. It’s who we are, even if there are consequences for that love.”
A common argument that religious leaders have made in court against legalizing LGBTQ intimacy is that it’s un-African and not in line with the morals of the country, framing queerness as a Western perversion. But LGBTQ activists on the other side have consistently pointed out that the law they wish to overturn is a colonial-era anti-sodomy law originally imposed by Britain. And when India overturned their law criminalizing homosexuality earlier this month, Kenyan activists hoped the decision would help put wind in their sails considering that India’s law was also originally imposed by Britain.
Perhaps the most powerful way that the movie seemed to be in conversation with Kenya’s political moment was through depicting the tension of deciding whether to leave or stay and fight for one’s identity at home. That tension played out within the lead characters’ relationship, but also amazingly in Kahiru’s decision to sue for the film to be shown in Kenya.
“Even though there were moments in the film that I was upset with how people would react in certain situations, I think we all feel like we genuinely love where we live,” Kahiru said. “And our effort at every point even when we’re agitating for constitutional rights is to make Nairobi, and Kenya overall, largely a place that we are proud of. A place that is fitting the constitution that we’re proud of, a place that honors the people that we love and respect.”
*Stephanie is not her real name.