As two young Kenyan girls from opposite sides of Nairobi’s political divide discover first love, they find themselves torn between this special connection and the very real threat towards their safety.
Teenage Kena is a tomboy who hangs with the boys and is studying hard in an effort to become a nurse while also working in her father’s small shop. As the audience witnesses Kena going about her everyday life in the rough streets on the outskirts of Nairobi, it is shown that Ziki, a confident girly-girl from a well-off family whose hair looks like an explosion of pastel fireworks, has started to catch our protagonist’s eye. It soon becomes clear that this colourful teen is the daughter of Kena’s father’s political opposition in the up-coming local election.
After bonding over their mutual rejection of the societal expectation for them to become ‘good Kenyan wives’, the girls grow closer and a youthful, innocent love begins to blossom between the pair. As much as the couple try to keep their newfound love a secret, the small, strongly religious community begins to question their close friendship and the danger of their relationship becomes clear.
Rafiki (which means friend), and its theme of lesbianism, has already seen plenty of controversy. While the enlightening film was being celebrated at one of the biggest film festivals in the world in Cannes, it was banned in its own country of origin. This, though, is unsurprising as the African country has a lengthy history of being religiously homophobic, with those caught in same-sex relationships facing violence, being ostracised by their family and friends, and enduring lengthy jail terms.
Wanuri Kahiui, one of Africa’s brightest and now bravest female filmmakers, challenged this fierce homophobia not only in her bold film, but by fighting against its ban as well.
Both young lead actors are mesmerising as the young lesbian couple, creating a truly believable youthful love for the audience to support. Samantha Mugatsia beautifully portrays the quieter Kena with her subtle mannerisms and generous nature. In contrast, Sheila Munyiva is utterly mesmerising as the loud and exuberant Ziki with her wide eyes, exuberant smile and youthful naivety that everything will turn out ok.
This Kenyan-based, coming-of-age film is a refreshing change from the commercial stream out of Hollywood, placing the audience in a unique foreign setting. It doesn’t smother the audience with its adolescent lesbian theme, but rather gently lets the youthful relationship blossom naturally on-screen. Rafiki is a brave, contemporary film that will engage audiences world-wide.
Rafiki screens as part of the Adelaide Film Festival. Click here for further information.