Drama, 1hr 23min
“Good Kenyan girls become good Kenyan wives,” but Kena and Ziki long for something more
It offers audiences a glorious glimpse into what a queer, AfroBubbleGum-infused world could look like
Rafiki (2018) marks the beginning of Director Wanuri Kahiu’s AfroBubbleGum movement, which seeks to make way for ‘fun, fierce and frivolous African art’. The movement defies the post-colonial narrative which overwhelmingly represents the African continent as homogenous and defined by suffering. A joyous alternative oozes from the screen in Rafiki, where the audience gets to experience Nairobi bursting with life, colour, local nuance and even the banality of everyday life.
In suburban Nairobi, teenage Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) waits in trepidation for her exam results. She spends her days hanging out with her friends and helping her dad in his shop, while he builds his campaign for local office. There, she catches the eye of Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a pastel-haired girl with vivacious energy and an unshakable sense of fun. Ziki also happens to be the daughter of Okemi, the primary opponent in the local election. So, when the two kindle a ‘friendship’, everyone has an opinion. From her mother, who wants to see her daughter associating with ‘people like’ the upper-middle class Okemi’s, to her father who believes the association will hurt his campaign, and the salacious Mama Atim, who just wants to revel in the gossip. Quickly, Kena finds herself in the middle of everyone’s expectations of the woman she should be. Ziki, on the other hand, encourages her to be the best version of herself and to bask in the charm and possibility of life. The romance which unfolds between them is full of light, frivolity and the intoxicating rush of new love.
Still, it is true that the script is not without fault. It seems that Ziki and Kena exchange a few sentences of jilted conversation before they are deeply in love. As much as this is relatable (we see you, U-haulers) it does mean that the audience has a hard time getting to know the characters on more than a superficial level. This is made up for, however, in the pink haze of the artistic delivery. With her eye for detail and ability to weave dreamlike sequences, Director Wanuri Kahiu delivers a uniquely poetic cinematic experience. Intensified by the electric, breathless chemistry between Kena and Ziki, Rafiki dives into the bumpy, glittering mess that is young love, resilient in the face of risk and heady in the pursuit of joy.
While the script relies on a told tale of queer love, and seasoned viewers will recognise a few common tropes, this is overshadowed by Rafiki exploding cinematic norms elsewhere. Queer representation in Kenya is few and far between since, as Kena and Ziki experience, homosexuality is viewed as unacceptable by many. The film was banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans”. Kahui went on to sue the Kenyan government to get the ban lifted and qualify for the 2019 Academy Awards. The ban was relaxed for three days and played to sold out theatres, cheering audiences and stories following young Kenyans coming out to their parents.
Just in the expression and representation of joy, both from a queer perspective and a Kenyan perspective, the film becomes political, but it is also beautifully revolutionary. It offers audiences a glorious glimpse into what a queer, AfroBubbleGum-infused world could (and already does) look like. Spoiler alert: It’s pretty sweet.
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Reviewer and Writer
Molly has been studying and working across film for almost a decade – from production to impact campaigns, analysis and the occasional acting stint.