Banned queer Kenyan film gets three screenings in Philly area

Banned queer Kenyan film gets three screenings in Philly area

Samantha Mugatsia (left) is Kena and Sheila Munyiva is Ziki in “Rafiki.”
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Don’t miss the terrific Kenyan lesbian romance, “Rafiki” (“Friend”), which is getting three, one-night-only screenings in the Philadelphia area. The film, directed and cowritten by Wanuri Kahiu, was adapted from the award-winning short story “Jambula Tree” by Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko.

“Rafiki” was banned for a short time in Kenya for “promoting lesbianism.”

This chaste romantic drama addresses homophobia in a country where one in five people are assaulted for being queer.   

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) is a tomboy who falls for Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) — which is unheard of in their town.  Moreover, their fathers are political rivals. The young women talk and kiss and cuddle, but they also have a spat while attending a sermon on same-sex marriage. When their relationship is discovered, things come to a head.  

In an interview, Kahiu claimed that she did not set out to make a provocative film.

“I wanted to normalize the idea that love can happen to anyone at any time,” she said.

She also specified that while “Rafiki” was about two young women, it was crucial “to depict a story that is hopeful but also contains harsh realities in a country where same-sex love is illegal.

“I wanted to be clear that there is no otherness in love. If the film promoted or normalized homosexuality, then more power to it. I wish I had the power to change people’s sexuality. That would be an awesome superpower!”

While the filmmaker was aware of the dangers of making “Rafiki,” she said she had the law of freedom of expression on her side. She submitted the script to get a license for it and also made sure anyone associated with the film was carefully protected. 

“There were concerns. We had numerous conversations. We spoke with The Nest, a collective that made banned film ‘Stories of Our Lives’ in Nairobi. We prepared as much as we could and supported each other.”

The Kenya Film Classification Board knew the impact banning the film would have — that it would raise interest in the film — and “Rafiki” eventually got a release in Nairobi. (But, because of the ban, the film was not eligible to be Kenya’s Oscar submission that year.)


When it screened in theaters, some viewers went to see the film multiple times. Moreover, it helped people come out, according to the director. 

One of Kahiu’s purposes in making the film was to create a love story for Nairobi.

“It is about how we love our country and see the city we live in through the eyes of two people in love. We all have the same range of emotions.” 

But what is most gratifying for the filmmaker is that “Rafiki” generated conversations, not just about freedom of expression but also sexuality, LGBT rights and rights of privacy.

Now American audiences can see “Rafiki” for themselves. 


“Rafiki” screens at the Ambler Theater on May 15; at the County Theater in Doylestown on May 16; and at the PFS Roxy Theater on June 5.   

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