In our article “American Lesbians, Let’s Give Foreign Films a Chance“, we shared a plethora of female love stories from tragedies to romantic comedies, including the Kenyan film “Rafiki”, which belongs in neither of these categories. This elusiveness in regards to genre intentionally promotes raw realism and relatability.
By injecting brief moments of comedy, sadness, ambivalence and ambiguity into the film rather than providing a unified genre, director Wangari Maathai provides a clear yet disorientating experience that leaves the viewer simultaneously emotionally invested and informed on the sobering reality of lesbians living in secrecy.
The love that Kena and Ziki develop for one another is pure, realized through simple dialogue and tracking shots that stress Kena’s line of sight (as she repeatedly checks Ziki out). The divergences in their socio-political realities and lifestyles are achieved through a bird’s eye shot of their village, bifurcated along class lines, as well as close-ups in their individual homes.
The love that blossoms between them is expected by the viewer, as we see that Kena looks longingly at Ziki relatively early on in the film, and we notice the smiles of pleasure that the latter derives from noticing Kena’s attraction to her. From the get go, we know this is going to be a difficult love. We anticipate many of the obstacles placed in their path, such as Kena’s friend Blacksta who not only disapproves of her friendship with Ziki since they’re from different social circles, but also harbors his own desires for Kena.
To complicate matters further, Kena’s father is running against Ziki’s father for mayor. The sweet and innocent love that blossoms between them, consisting of simultaneous shyness and magnetic attraction, provides stark contrast to the negative reactions of their community, emphasizing the destructiveness of homophobia and its harmful effects. The two are repeatedly pulled apart, eventually quite literally by an angry and violent mob. What emerges is an impossible love that survives for years.
Kena is the “butch” one, enjoying her time on Blacksta’s motorcycle and taking on the role of the observer when Ziki dances with her friends. She’s seen as a tomboy, and this allows her to remain “invisible” to the same social pressures that Ziki faces, as her mother is the only character that asks about potential love interests. She’s comfortable in her world with Blacksta, remaining outside of Ziki’s circle. However, this seemingly idyllic bubble is disturbed when doubts and concerns seep in, such as the rumination of the town’s gossip as she begins to perceive the same chemistry that the viewers do between Kena and Ziki.
The film portrays how deep the roots of homophobia truly are, as even Kena’s mother, who is progressive in wanting her daughter to go to medical school, is regressive by not accepting her relationship with Ziki. The only allies they have are Blacksta, who doesn’t come around until later on in the film, and Kena’s father. It’s sobering to realize how widespread homophobia is in tight-knit communities and the danger in pursuing same-sex relationships. The bravery that Kena and Ziki demonstrate is a rallying cry for lesbians everywhere to share their love despite potential backlash.
In order to delve into the uniqueness of this particular film, we evaluate the director’s own trajectory and motivations as they are just as essential as the narrative itself. In an interview with Olivier Barlet, Kahiu explained that she adapted the film from the short story Jambula Tree. She was inspired by the “texture and nuances”.
I interpreted that statement as representative of the contrast between the purity and hatred innate in human nature, which arise in various ways with difficult topics such as same-sex relationships in countries where the mere act of lovemaking is banned by law. Same-sex marriage remains illegal in Kenya, and the film was originally banned prior to a lawsuit filed by Kahiu, then overturned, so this film is not only subversive but revolutionary and successful in the context of social and political progress.
The focus on class as an obstacle to a developing lesbian relationship also recalls films such as Bound (minus the intrigue and accentuated stylistic cinematographic techniques). Despite all of these unique attributes, the film was intended to provide a “normal love story” according to Kahiu in Barlet’s interview “Homosexuality Is Not Un–African; What Is Un–African Is Homophobia” rather than simply “a difficult one”.
The realistic moments of first love, such as the subtly intimate scene of the two in the abandoned car, allow us to relate to the narrative and characters while still maintaining an outsider’s perspective, necessary in understanding non-Western cultural norms and most of all, Kena and Ziki’s relationship within the frame of their milieu.
I highly recommend this film to any and all lesbian viewers, either to experience homophobia from a different cultural perspective or simply to enjoy the beautiful love that blossoms in the desert.