Director Wanuri Kahiu’s emotional yet conventional Rafiki is one of the few works selected for the Citizen Jane Film Festival to depict the potential consequences of sexual exploration in a country where sexual freedom is suppressed.
Within the Kenyan village known as Slopes, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) forms a bond with the extraverted Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) as their respective fathers engage in a political race for a position in county assembly.
The film opens surveying the village as Kena races down the street on her skateboard; patrons of Mama Atim’s kiosk chuckle over gossip, people play checkers with bottle caps, and everyone expresses an overall bright demeanor — a reality that persists until traditional perspectives are challenged.
Although many coming-out narratives depict the process positively as one that amounts to self-acceptance and acceptance by others, what sets Rafiki apart from convention is the lack of acceptance shown by the Slopes residents to the young lovers Kena and Ziki.
Before their relationship is revealed, both Kena and Ziki are judged in terms of their ability to fit into gender norms. As Ziki grins at the “sexy” floral dress Kena adorns in one scene, Kena’s mother, Mercy, applauds her appearance as that of a “nice proper woman.” Kena’s friend Blacksta views himself as the eligible bachelor waiting to capture the heart of the disinterested Kena, whom he calls the “smartest nurse in the Slopes."
“But why a nurse?” Ziki asks. “You can be anything else.” Through their relationship, Ziki pushes Kena to become “something real," as she says. In their eyes, Kena is a doctor. But as the concerns of those around them become more apparent, this dream seemingly evaporates.
Female subordination is one of the film’s major themes, regardless of the sexual identity of the characters. As disgust and insults are launched by the women of Slopes at the film’s two main characters for their sexual identities, those same women, such as Mercy, Ziki’s friend Elizabeth and the gossip queen Mama Atim, are victims of a systemic oppression. For example, Mercy rests her hand against her daughter’s head at mass in the hopes of cleansing her of the “demons” of homosexuality, and she is viewed and consequently views herself as responsible for these demons. She also blames herself as her marriage to Kena’s father, John Mwaura, dissolves.
At the beginning of the film, Kena fits in with other young people within the community, but she is all but abandoned when her sexual orientation is made public. All she has is her father's comfort, which is something Ziki doesn't have. John's opponent, Peter Okemi, fails to replicate this acceptance when confronting his own daughter, whom he strikes when he discovers her secret.
John refuses this approach, presumably costing him the position in county assembly. Kena says, “You’re going to lose because of me.” John embraces his daughter and replies, “It could have been worse; you could have gone to jail.” His county assembly campaign immediately ends, as Kena’s safety is of greater concern to him.
Although the actual romance between Kena and Ziki could be seen as comparable to many coming-out stories within film, Rafiki addresses a unique complication from other coming-out narratives: Kenya’s policy on homosexuality makes any practice illegal and punishable by 14 years in prison.
The Kenya Film Classification Board banned the film for its promotion of sexual exploration and “clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.” Kahiu challenged the action by suing the Kenyan government to allow its eligibility for selection by Kenya for the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Language Film category and won. Although ultimately not selected, the film sold out at screenings in Nairobi, demonstrating the demand for female and queer narratives such as Rafiki in countries with stringent policies on sexual expression.