Rafiki is a film that will go down in history. Wanuri Kahiu, in creating a Kenyan film unafraid to portray lesbian sexuality, not only succeeded in winning over the international festival circuit, but also faced down a tough legal battle in her home country. Victorious, Kahiu was permitted to show the film for one week in Kenya (where homosexuality is illegal) so that Rafiki may qualify for Oscar submission — a week that was undoubtedly revolutionary for the Kenyan lesbian community.
Subversive in its very existence, Rafiki’s profound impact is twofold: as a love story, the film crafts a study of forbidden lesbian intimacy unlike any other. Never voyeuristic, Kahiu’s camera traces the bodies of her characters as they touch, following the movements of hands upon skin with breathtaking detail. The absence of what we would typically consider as nudity only strengthens the clandestine, almost wistful nature of Kena and Ziki’s relationship — we are outsiders to their unique bond, and their bodies are not ours to consume. Rather, it is their affection for each other that we witness, and what a beautiful affection it is. The pair is endlessly supportive of each other regardless of the circumstance. When Kena explains her wish to become a nurse, Ziki pushes her —why not a doctor? Kena doesn’t think she’ll get the grades, but Ziki believes in her fully. There is no selfishness between them, and in this sense, they function almost like a friendship, as reflected in the title: “Rafiki” means “Friend” in Swahili.
The set-up of this romance, however, is one of the few places where Rafiki falls short. Kena spots Ziki dancing with her friends —why they are dancing, we never find out— and asks if she would like to get a soda with her. It’s an awkward approach regardless, but in an environment where these kinds of relations are discouraged, the scene makes even less sense. An exploration of how same-sex couplings are supposed to occur in such an environment would have greatly benefited the story and fleshed out an awareness of the Kenyan LGBT community outside of these two characters. Identity, as a central theme, is touched upon frequently not only within sexuality, but within class differences. This, however, is another area that suffers from under-development. The fathers of both protagonists are opposing politicians, one a working-class self-starter, another an esteemed community figure, but these opposing forces are only mentioned in passing and never provoked. Missed opportunities are littered across the film and as a result, the end product is underwhelming on a wider scale, though ultimately buoyed by a stunning depiction of same-sex love at its core.
Ticking all of the boxes for a gay romance, Rafiki is also a perfect love letter to Kenya as a country. Kahiu’s pride and affection for her home shines through in the sensual depiction of the cityscape, as scenes of busy food stalls on streets emanating with the noise of the everyday assault the screen in quick succession. Colour is bountiful in every shot; here is the centre of all life, seemingly. Kena and Ziki may not want to be “good Kenyan girls”, but nor do they want to abandon their roots — and why would they, when home has so much to offer? Rather than denying their heritage, they seek acceptance from a society entrenched with colonial homophobia, and a system which forces Kenyan lesbians to choose between two intrinsic parts of their identity.
Rafiki may suffer from a lack of plot development and one too many loose ends, but as a study of lesbian intimacy, it is near unparalleled. Kahiu presents a vibrant vision of Kenya and an equally beautiful love between two women, and asks: If you have to choose between these two intrinsic parts of your identity, how do you cope? In this quandary, Kena and Ziki’s motivations become clear; changing the status quo is the only answer, and with Rafiki, Wanuri Kahiu is paving the way.