**Content Warning: homophobic / lesbophobic violence
This film’s title sequence reminds us that Rafiki (dir. Wanuri Kahiu, 2018) means ‘friend’ in Swahili. It follows two misfit Kenyan girls named Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) and Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), rogue politicians’ daughters who love each other in every way. The hull of Rafiki’s story concerns how those girls get away from the confinements of homophobia.
This is a tale of Juliet and Juliet, where Romeo is acknowledged but sidelined. The girls choose each other immediately; it’s their country that doesn’t choose them, forcing them into bittersweet hiding.
The abandoned van that houses their illicit dates isn’t wide-open freedom, but it’s a beautiful consolation. Winking at Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the forest van is draped in bright purple flowers. Its interior is decorated with blankets and tablecloths, and on a special night it holds cupcakes and candles. Despite flammable objects, nothing catches fire in the girls’ small utopia. Their romance isn’t fiery, as one might expect from star-crossed love — it’s liquid, like drips of molasses.
The film’s production design (s/o Arya Lalloo) is rich and economical, taking advantage of Kenya’s lush landscapes. Ziki and Kena dance around danger in city streets, in rainy fields, in curtained rooms, and in the throngs of a glow-in-the-dark party. Their dialogue twinkles with desire: the girls’ hopes that their love can be real, Ziki’s brash passions, and Kena’s promises of night drives and stargazing. The world they created with each other was so comforting that I was surprised by the flurry of violence against them.
For most of the film, people’s disapprovals of Ziki and Kena were peripheral threats — significant but not central. When a mob pulled them out of their hiding place to beat them, I was painfully reminded of the risk the girls were taking in being together. It was sweet, but it was never safe. When your people believe in the devil and they think it’s in your body, you become a target for violence.
In the end, getting away from each other was the only way for Ziki and Kena to survive, but they found their way back — suggesting hopeful circumstances are on the horizon.
If I’d had the impression that romance was a dead genre, Rafiki would have changed my mind. It traced lesbian yearning without gutting the complexity of the girls’ lives — the everyday dramas and trifles that interact with their sexualities.
*Rafiki can be streamed for free on Tubi
‘Utopias, joy, and the law,’ interview with Wanuri Kahiu, conducted by Julie MacArthur
‘Jambula Tree’ by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the short story Rafiki was based upon
VIDEO: ‘Film lovers in Kenya flock to theaters to watch “Rafiki”’