Bursting with the colorful street style and music of Nairobi’s vibrant youth culture, RAFIKI is a tender love story between two young women in a country that still criminalizes homosexuality. Kena and Ziki have long been told that “good Kenyan girls become good Kenyan wives” – but they yearn for something more. Despite the political rivalry between their families, the girls encourage each other to pursue their dreams in a conservative society. When love blossoms between them, Kena and Ziki must choose between happiness and safety.

Initially banned in Kenya for its positive portrayal of queer romance, RAFIKI won a landmark supreme court case chipping away at Kenyan anti-LGBT legislation.  In May 2018, RAFIKI made history as the first Kenyan film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, screening as part of the Un Certain Regard section. Despite its success abroad, the Kenyan Film Board banned the film in Kenya for its positive portrays of homosexuality.

Current Kenyan law criminalizes homosexuality and anyone found engaging in gay or lesbian activities could face up to 14 years in prison. “Kenya is a country with a culture, beliefs and shared values which must be respected,” the Film Board stated. “Hare-brained schemes by foreigners funding film producers in Kenya to promote
homosexuality in the name of equality and inclusion will be exposed and strongly resisted,” a spokesman for the board said. News of the ban prompted. Emboldened by a series of progressive Kenyan court rulings on issues related to LGBT rights, director Wanuri Kahiu took the Film Board to court, arguing that the ban infringed on freedom of expression. The ban and Kahiu’s ensuing legal battle received extensive global coverage from outlets including the BBC, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Vogue.

The Kenyan Supreme Court eventually sided with Kahiu, and the film went on to play to sold-out audiences in
Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu, eventually out-grossing Hollywood blockbusters like
Black Panther. For many Kenyans, viewing RAFIKI may be the first step toward building more empathy and
acceptance of LGBT people. Judge Wilfrida Okwany said in her decision against the Film Board’s censorship, “I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society whose moral foundation will be shaken by watching a film depicting a gay theme.”

On the contrary, Kenya’s moral foundation may well be strengthened. RAFIKI’s victory has been celebrated by celebrities, including Lupita Nyong’o, Trevor Noah, and Cheryl Dunye.

RAFIKI is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King Street West, Toronto, until April 25th. Tickets here .


About the Author

Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.