The Reel Review
Kenya is the setting for this LGBTQ romantic drama about two young women, the daughters of local political rivals, who fall in love despite the nation’s ban on homosexuality. Rafiki means “friend” in the Kiswahili language and in this instance, indicates the need in an intolerant society to hide a same sex romance as a platonic friendship.
In addition to holding up a mirror to Kenya’s repressive, anti-LGBTQ attitudes, Rafiki also explores similarly backwards, sexist societal expectations in the workplace. Friends and family pressure young Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) to get married and become a nurse, although academic testing shows her eligible to go to university and become a doctor. Set to an evocative score, director Wanuri Kahiu weaves these topics in a simple, straightforward manner reminiscent of the early years of American director Spike Lee.
Newcomer Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva both deliver poignant, believable performances as Kena and Ziki. The treatment their characters receive when their romance goes public is shocking and realistic. Rafiki is a sobering glimpse at the challenges faced by gay people in African nations such as Kenya, where LGBTQ rights remain nonexistent. Not only is it well done, but its mere existence should be cause for pride and celebration.
• In September 2018 director Wanuri Kahiu won a court ruling temporarily overturning the film’s ban in Kenya, allowing it to play to sold out crowds in the nation’s theaters for a week to be eligible for Oscar competition. Unsurprisingly, Kenya chose another film as its submission in the Foreign Language category.
• Rafiki, which was the first Kenya movies screen at the Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for two awards at the 2018 event. It has received awards at numerous festivals worldwide.
• Homosexuality is illegal in 34 of Africa’s 54 countries, punishable by death in Somalia, Somaliland, Mauritania and northern Nigeria and punishable by life imprisonment in Uganda, Tanzania and Sierra Leone.