Rafiki, a film directed by Wanuri Kahiu, allowed me the safety to be a queer Black woman in Kenya. I have seen other films and TV shows featuring Black lesbians, including Pariah and The Color Purple, but Rafiki felt familiar. The characters have familiar names: Kena, short for Makena, a name as Kenyan as mine, falls in love with Ziki Okemi, whose name is equally Kenyan. Their fathers are political rivals, running against each other in an election. In the film, Kena first encounters Ziki and her friends trying to take down Kena’s father’s election posters, a frame that resonated given Kenya’s 2017 elections. Kahiu told Reuters, “We made this film for a Kenyan audience, we made this film with Kenyans in it.”
Wanuri gave me a mirror. I was Ziki’s eagerness and Kena’s reluctance. I was Ziki’s “Run away with me, Kena,” and Kena’s “What did you think was going to happen? We’d get married and have children?”
I almost didn’t see Rafiki.
In April 2018, the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) banned the film from being “distributed, exhibited, or broadcast anywhere” in Kenya. It further stated that “anyone found in possession” of the film would “be in breach of the law.” In an official press statement, The CEO of KFCB, Ezekiel Mutua, wrote that the film had a “clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.” (No Kenyan law mentions promoting lesbianism.) Mutua’s statement especially noted a scene in the film that differed from that in the script. In the script, “a paper jet . . . lands on one of the main character’s shoulder which reminds her of her relationship with her lesbian partner.” However, in the film, “her lesbian lover . . . places her hand on her shoulder, creating the impression of a happy ending.” This “happy ending” aimed to “normalize homosexuality in Kenya” and the film “celebrate[d] the resilience of the youngsters involved in lesbianism.” Per this framing, KFCB would have accepted a film with a failed or tragic lesbian relationship.
Beyond issuing a press statement, KFCB (@infokfcb) tweeted the ban using #KFCBBansLesbianFilm. The tweets framed the ban as a constitutional matter: “Any content that undermines the institution of family, which is recognised in the Constitution as the basic unit of family, will be resisted.” Kenya needed to be protected: “Rafiki contains homosexual scenes that are against the law, the culture and the moral values of Kenyan people.” According to these tweets, Rafiki was not Kenyan, even though it was shot in Kenya by a Kenyan director and featured Kenyan actors. The film’s “lesbianism” made it unKenyan. Kenyan families needed to be protected from lesbians, and lesbians were not part of Kenyan families.
The hashtag went viral on Kenyan twitter. On his personal account, Mutua (@EzekielMutua) responded to criticism that such publicity would encourage Kenyans to watch the film. He tweeted, “It’s a fallacy to claim that KFCB creates publicity for homosexual content when we ban it. If some perverts will want to watch the illegal content, it’s not because we banned it; it’s because perverts and social deviants have a knack for self-destruction.”
Unlike prior bans of queer-themed content that went uncontested, this one led to a court case. In September 2018, Kahiu sued the KFCB, citing that the ban on the film was contrary to freedom of artistic creativity. She also argued that for Rafiki to be eligible for an Oscar nomination, it had to be screened in Kenya for seven days. The presiding judge, Justice Wilfrida Okwany, lifted the ban temporarily, so the film could be eligible for an academy award. In her ruling, the justice cited Kenyan artists who’ve fled the country seeking asylum because their work challenged what conservative Kenyans have called the “moral fabric” of our country. She added, “One of the reasons for artistic creativity is to stir the society’s conscience even on very vexing topics such as homosexuality.” She also said she wasn’t convinced Kenya was such a “weak society” that its “moral foundation” would be shaken by seeing such a film. Upon receiving the news that the ban had been lifted, Kahiu tweeted about her joy in the constitution being “alive.”
TLGBQ+ persons were deeply ambivalent about the ruling. Freedom of expression had won. Artistic creativity had been defended. A potential Oscar nomination had been secured. But nothing had been said that acknowledged our rights and our humanity. At best, we were a “vexing” topic. We had to choose whether in that moment we were going to celebrate the temporary lift on the ban of the film or pout that we were the ready sacrifice needed to achieve that victory.
I watched Rafiki seven days in a row, every single one of the days the ban had been lifted. On the first day I watched it beside a woman who makes me dance. She was slightly late and I was anxious. I needed her to arrive soon. The room was packed and I was afraid she wouldn’t get there on time, and I wouldn’t have someone to understand the different downtones in my sighs. We held hands and she’d rest her head on my shoulder during the heavy scenes. I would look away from her when it felt too heavy. On the last day I sat alone at the very front needing to absorb every last moment, needing to save it. By the first few minutes I was weeping again and a friend moved to sit with me. “Here’s my hand.”
I felt the rug pulled from beneath me when Kena and Ziki were in a police station, arrested by homophobic officers. “Sasa kati yenu nani ndio chali na nani ndio dame?” (Between the two of you, who is the man and who is the woman?) taunted one of the police officers. When Ziki’s father, Mr. Okemi, arrived at the station, he charged straight at Ziki and slapped her. The slap echoed so loud that I felt a coldness through my body. I felt afraid and disposable. This, too, felt familiar.
It gutted me to watch Kena and Ziki learn the language of existing in parts, learn the silences, the lies, the peace of fragmenting themselves. It gutted me almost as much as it healed me that on a big screen I got to see the complexity of realities that resembled mine. There, in that big cinema, women who ached the way I did held me, and I held them, as we experienced a story familiar to all of us.
Yet, the story was not all loss and trauma. In a pivotal scene, to the soundtrack of Mumbi Kasumba’s song “Ignited,” Kena and Ziki allowed themselves to be women who loved each other. Earlier, during the daytime, Ziki had mentioned she’d seen how Kena looked at her, and asked Kena on a date later that night. The unsaid had been said, and the seduction was complete. That night they danced, and they painted their faces, and they danced, and they danced, and they held each other’s bodies with as much care as they held each other’s hearts. They drew into each other and for the first time, allowed themselves to know what it was like to be queer Black women, then they kissed for the first time and I wept audibly.
In the cinema, I was held by other Black queer women who resonated with the realities of loving other Black women under duress. We passed pocket tissues around and rested our heads on each other’s shoulders. We squeezed each other’s hands. We were vulnerable. We grieved mothers like Ziki’s whose complexity we knew all too well. Mothers who held us while we were consumed by the pain of loving too differently while they simultaneously begged us to love a little less differently. Mothers like Kena’s who could not fathom us, who left us to be our fathers’ children because we loved too unfamiliarly. Mothers like Mama Atim who harmed us in ways they would never wish for their own children to be harmed. We also grieved fathers like Kena’s who held their children and loved them back to safety.
There, in the cinema, the noise quieted. For a moment we were neither the elephant in the room nor the spectacle. We watched these two queer women come of age together and some of us came of age with them. In Rafiki we saw ourselves, our lives, our joys, our struggles, our triumphs. We were real.