African queer films are very much a rarity essentially because so much of that Continent have laws that criminalise homsosexuality and also so much of the population traditionally cannot morally accept it. In fact this charming tale of first love between two teenage Kenyan girls that has been critically acclaimed globally is still banned from being screened in its home country. The filmmakers succeed in getting a temporary freeze for a week in order that Rafiki could qualify to be officially submitted for an Academy Award Best Foreign Film nomination.
The setting is a ghetto in the suburbs of Nairobi that is locally known as ‘the Slopes’. Tomboy Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) hangs out at the local snack wagon playing cards and goofing with her male friends who for the most part are older than her, or she is playing football and being treated as ‘one of the guys’.
It’s there that she espies Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) an exceptionally pretty girl with pastel rainbow coloured braids in her hair, and the two girls very quickly get acquainted and infatuated with each other.
It’s not the possibility of an homosexual romance that initially worries them but the fact that both their fathers are opposing candidates in a forthcoming local election. Kira’s liberal minded father John (Jimmy Gathu) is the proprietor of small grocery store and has since remarried and his new wife is about to give birth to a baby son. Kira’s already embittered mother Mercy (Nini Wacera) has now stepped her anger up another notch and tends to take out her bad temper on Kira, which verges on hysteria when the two girls relationship is eventually discovered.
On the other hand Ziki has always been the spoilt daughter of wealthy parents and used to getting her own way even when she wants to be affectionate to Kira in their packed Sunday church.
Their dreams of a life beyond being ‘typical Kenyan girls’ is shattered when the local busybody takes it upon herself to ‘out’ them to the neighbourhood who violently take out their inbred church-fed homophobia out on them.
Taken all into account there probably could have been no other outcome than this (although this is by no means the end). That these two educated and articulate teens could ever think that they could be true to their identity in such a small closeted and hostile environment was very naive. However one can only admire them enormously for trying against all the odds simply because of their passion and love for each other.
Mugatsia and Munyiva as the two leads have this wonderful chemistry between them that literally lights up the screen …. even without the luminous paint. Their compelling performances are pitch perfect and lend such an authenticity to this engaging and unique coming-out tale.
The film was directed and co-written by Wanuri Kahiu and adapted from a short story by acclaimed Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko, Rafiki may seem a tad simplistic compared to other more worldly films with a lesbian narrative, but there is an unavoidable richness to it that will have you reaching for the kleenex at one point, and also celebrating too. Kudos also to the wonderful soundtrack that we still cannot stop playing in our heads.