Behind Wanuri Kahlu's Banned Film 'Rafiki': A Story About Hope, Love, and Perseverance

“Good Kenyan Girls become Good Kenyan Wives,”

‘Rafiki’, based on the short story ‘Jambala Tree’ by author Monica Arac de Nyeko, is Wanuri Kahlu’s second feature film, and tells the story of Kena and Ziki, two young women who through friendship and hardships find love within each other, only to be confronted by family and political pressures. The name of the film, ‘Rafiki’, translates to ‘friend’ in Swahili, and it makes reference to how couples in East Africa have to refer to their lovers and partners as “friends” due to the oppressive policies regarding LGBT+ relationships in the southern continent. 

The film took Kahlu six years to make, starting with a script development workshop in 2012. It received international funding from the European Union and the assistance of the ACP Group of States, the support of Aide aux Cinémas du Monde – Centre National du Cinéma et de l’Image Animée –Institut Français, Sørfond, The Netherlands Film Fund and Hubert Bals Fund, the Berlinale World Cinema Fund and ARRI - International Support Program, and was a production by South African production company BIG CINEMA WORLD, which has produced and co-produced films such as Oscar nominee short Inja (2002), and AFFROBUBBLEGUM, Kahlu’s media company that, in her own words, supports, creates and commissions fierce, frivolous, and fun African art. Among these companies, the film was co-produced by MPM FILM, SCHORTCUT FILMS, APE&BJØRN, RINKEL FILM, RAZOR FILM in association with TANGO ENTERTAINMENT. Kahlu says in an interview with Variety that one of the reasons why it took so long to get started with production was that with “this subject in particular, many people didn’t want to offend African governments by putting money into it [the film]”.

Once all financial aspects of the film were settled, Wanuri Kahlu proceeded to cast Samantha Mugatsia (Kena) and Sheila Munyaiva (Ziki), who she says instantly reminded her of the characters she had created. Pre-production started in December 2016 and filming happened between March and April 2017, over 4 locations in Nairobi. Aside from four foreign Head of Departments (HOD), the entire crew was Kenyan, and it was a celebration of young female Kenyan artists with a female director, writers, HODs, crew members, trainees, as well as the film’s soundtrack artists. 

However, ‘Rafiki’ got banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board just a few days after it was announced it would have its international premiere at the 2018 Cannes Festival – Kenya’s first feature film entry to the festival–, under the category Un Certain Regard, citing that it “seeks to legitimize lesbian romance”. It is relevant to mention homosexuality is illegal in Kenya and, if convicted, the person could spend up to 14 years in prison (even 21 years in “extreme circumstances”), and, although the Penal Code does not explicitly state action to be taken regarding lesbian activities, it uses the gender-neutral term ‘person’ in section 162, which includes women.

This did not deter Kahlu, who stated in a Varietyinterviewthat the ban wasn’t a surprise but it was unexpected, since the Kenya Film Classification Board CEO Ezekiel Mutua had spoken highly about the film the previous week. Kahlu announced at the Toronto International Film Festival that other Kenyan artist and she had proceeded to file a lawsuit against the Kenya Film Classification Board and its CEO on September 11th, 2018. The lawsuit stated that the ban was “against freedom of expression, freedom of artistic creativity, and that it goes beyond the limitations stated in Article 33 (2) of the Constitution of Kenya”. The suit demanded the ban to be lifted so the film could be screened in Kenya. This demand served a very specific purpose, as Kahlu wanted to submit ‘Rafiki’ to be considered for nomination at the Academy Awards as “Best Foreign Language Film”, and it is a requirement for the film to have screened at least seven consecutive days in any theater in its country of origin, and the film had to be submitted before September 30th, 2018.

Finally, on September 21st, 2018, less than ten days before the final date of submission, the ban for ‘Rafiki’ got temporarily lifted by judge Wilfrida Okwany. She expressed that she was “not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society that its moral foundation will be shaken by seeing such a film,” and added that “one of the reasons for artistic creativity is to stir the society’s conscience even on very vexing topics such as homosexuality, […] did not begin with ‘Rafiki’.” The film was received with sold-out showings during its one-week run in limited Kenyan cinemas, shattering records and becoming the second highest-grossing Kenyan film of all times – despite its 18+ rating.

While the film not being selected as Kenya’s submission for the Oscars (the film Supa Modo was submitted instead), its story has positively impacted the future of artists and the LGBT+ community in Africa and across the world, as the fight for freedom of expression continues for those who try to defy the status quo. In Kahlu’s own words, we are in need of stories about love, that defy the norms of the stories being told. Young African lovers where the story doesn’t imminently go to HIV, queer folks in countries where they are seen as unnatural to be shown as passionate and talented people, ready to fight for their rights. 

Wanuri Kahlu is a 38-year-old Kenyan director, producer, and author whose work is known for challenging and reshaping the perception of the world, and Africa itself, has of the mother continent. Her previous works such as PumziFrom A Whisper, and For Our Land, all treat sensitive topics in Africa, such as the water crisis and the 1998 Nairobi terrorist attack, and portrays Africa as it is, a force to be recognized by its own people and by the world. Her work for From A Whisper awarded her Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay in the African Movie Academy Awards in 2009, and her short Pumzi awarded her Best Short Film in the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.