“Rafiki,” a Kenyan tale of sapphic love

Last Updated: June 23, 2019By Tags: , , ,

“Rafiki,” which comes out on Friday, was directed by Wanuri Kahiu. The Nairobi-born director (b. 1980) has just one other feature-length film under her belt, “From a whisper.” She’s new on the scene, young(er) and taking risks.

In “Rafiki” Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) eye each other from across the street, with a mixture of suspicion and attraction. The former is thin like a reed and reserved and surveys the scenery around her with a noble gaze. Ziki is full of color everywhere and likes to dance on the stairs with her two girlfriends. There’s a masculinity about Kena, she plays soccer “just like the boys,” and, after she notices Ziki staring at her, intently, she responds in kind. The sapphic love that develops between the two will put them at loggerheads with a community whose resentment of their love story is growing. In Kenya, as in some other African countries, if homosexuality isn’t banned by law, it is considered deviant, something that’s sure to send you to hell. This anti-homosexuality position is as pervasive in Africa as it is backward. One wonders, truly, when the African continent will be cured of such reactionary excesses (respect for local cultures be damned, obviously),

The love scenes between Kena and Ziki are touching and beautifully shot, Kahiu mastering light and color. There’s a carefreeness about “Rafiki,” it’s not a militant film, no positions are taken, as far as I could tell.

“Rafiki” opened at the 2018 Cannes Festival. And at the time it got Kenyan authorities incensed. The film, predictably, was banned in Kenya, and one of the film’s producers was even arrested then.

The soundtrack was composed entirely by African musicians. “Rafiki” was adapted from a Ugandan novel, “Jambula Tree,” by the Ugandan author Monica Arac of Nyeko.

“Rafiki” will be in theaters April 19th.

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