The title may mean “friend”, but the relationship between the two teen girls at the centre of Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki runs far deeper than that.
Provoking a storm of controversy upon its initial release, Rafiki follows the blossoming romance of tomboyish Kena and the flamboyantly colourful Ziki, two Kenyan girls who (among other things) long to escape the mundanity of familial expectations. However, with homosexuality still a criminal offence and both girls being the daughters of rival politicians, their relationship must remain hidden.
And so begins a classic tale of forbidden love. Any romance movie relies on the strength of its central couple, and Rafiki’s stars carry it off effortlessly. Always awash in ostentatiously vibrant neon hues, Sheila Minyiva gives a beautifully vivacious performance as Ziki. Paired with Samantha Mugatsia’s quieter and more guarded Kena, the two share an easy chemistry that perfectly encapsulates the exhilarating rush of romance and first love.
Between the meet-cute, the courtship, the first kiss and the bigotry that threatens to tear our couple apart, there’s not much to surprise in Rafiki. This is certainly a tale we’ve heard before – but to dismiss it out of hand and ignore the context from which it has arisen would be reductive and short-sighted. Its mere existence is revolutionary and defiant.
Initially banned outright in Kenya, in September the film was granted a limited week-long release in order to render it eligible for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Should it be nominated, this simple but well-crafted tale has a real chance of taking home the gong.
While Western countries are still struggling to produce many queer stories that don’t end in misery and death, or that focus solely on the white male experience, the Kenyan-focused, neon-pink romance of Rafiki is exactly what the world needs.
CAST: Sheila Munyiva, Samantha Mugatsia, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu
DIRECTOR: Wanuri Kahiu
WRITERS: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass
SYNOPSIS: A romantic connection forms between Kena and Ziki, the daughters of two opposing Kenyan politicians.