Wanuri Kahiu Why the filmmaker’s same-sex love film was banned in Kenya

Cover Image - Wanuri Kahiu
WordsAlix-Rose Cowie

In Kenya, opinions are raging over a film that can't be seen there. Rafiki by Wanuri Kahiu tells a story of two girls, a love story — which has led to it being banned in the country where it's set.

“It’s become more popular as a result,” Wanuri says. “This is not the first time films or books or art have been censored and over time those censors have been reversed. So over time, yes, this too will change.”

Same-sex intercourse is illegal in Kenya, an act which is difficult to prove without violating a person’s constitutionally-protected right to privacy. A high profile court case in the country is currently using this point to challenge the anti-homosexual laws. “Those moves are huge,” Wanuri says. “The anti-homosexual laws are colonial laws and hangovers so it’s great that we are beginning to decide for ourselves how we want to define our nation and how we want to implement our constitution.”

The media surrounding the ban may give the wrong impression of the film, which is a tender coming-of-age love story about two teenage girls, Kena and Ziki. The premise of the film is based on the Ugandan story Jambula Tree by Monica Arac de Nyeko. Wanuri fell in love with the narrative the first time she read it, and the many, many times she’s read it since.

“We haven’t had enough love stories coming from the continent,” she says. “There are so many instances of tenderness and kindness which are not recorded in the cinema and I wanted to contribute to that language of softness.”

In the film, Kena and Ziki are the daughters of political rivals in a housing estate in Nairobi – a place where everybody knows everybody else’s business and there’s no separation between public and private.

To mirror the sense of oppression and claustrophobia felt by the girls under the eyes of others, Wanuri used highly saturated colors in the scenes set in public spaces. The crew found the perfection location in the colorful neighbourhood the Slopes. When they are alone though the colors are pulled back, paler, to translate the girls’ feeling of freedom.

“I really wanted to give them a sense of peace when they were together,” Wanuri says. The team did the same thing with the sound in the film. “We would pull out a lot of the sound and keep it really quiet and still when the girls were together and then noisy when they were not.”

An important component of the film is its music. The soundtrack has been able to travel much further than the film has yet to go. Curated by music supervisor Patricia Kihoro, the songs are all by female artists under the age of 35. It features Kenyan musicians like Muthoni Drummer Queen and Njoki Karu to reflect the music the characters would hear on the radio or what they would listen to on their playlists.

Despite the backlash Kena and Ziki face from their family and community, the film ends on an intentionally hopeful note. For Wanuri the film lives strongly within the philosophy of her media company Afrobubblegum, which she co-founded to champion fun, fierce and frivolous African art centered around hope and joy – especially that of people of color. Wanuri wants Rafiki to remind people what it’s like to be young and in love.

Rafiki is definitely centered in hope and joy, because we want to show the kind of Kenya that we live in, and the kind of home that we live in is hopeful and joyful as well as many other things,” Wanuri says.

“The courage that you have when you’re in love is really what I hope resonates and what people come away with.” When Rafiki showed at the Cannes Film Festival   last month, the audience stood up for love, giving the film a ten minute-long standing ovation.

Going forward, fun, fierce and frivolous African content will be at the heart of everything Wanuri does. “We need to see ourselves as positive, happy people so that we can remember that we’re worthy of joy and happiness and hope,” she says.

This story is part of our Through The Prism of Pride series, where we present stories from LGBTQ+ communities around the world. From London to Lagos, we explore how creative expression can bring about change, understanding and acceptance. See the whole series here.