Rafiki is the Kenyan film celebrated for its authentic representation of same-sex desire. Based on the critically acclaimed short story Jambula Tree by Ugandan writer Monica Arac Nyeko, the film follows Kena and Ziki, two women who fall in love against the backdrop of discrimination.
Watch the trailer here:
Rafiki is the first Kenyan film to debut at the Cannes Film Festival, a filmmaker’s ultimate platform and a celebration of defining films of the year. Despite Rafiki being praised for representing an African lesbian story featuring two black women, it’s already been banned in its home country.
On Friday, the Kenya Film Classification Board announced that ‘Anyone found in possession of [Rafiki] will be in breach of the law,’ as the film promotes lesbianism. The board is referring to the colonial law that states homosexual sex is punishable by up to 14 years in jail.
Homosexuality is not actually illegal in Kenya – as with most African countries, there are loopholes in the law that subtly ban same-sex desire by criminalising ‘sexual activity’ between same sex individuals.
What the ban means
Board spokeswoman Nelly Muluka tweeted ‘Our culture and laws recognise family as the basic unit of society. The [board] cannot, therefore, allow lesbian content to be accessed by children in Kenya.’
It reinforces this idea that to be gay is to reject family, to be perverse, hypersexualised and deviant – all tropes and stereotypes integral to perpetuating homophobia. It also reinforces that to be gay is to go against the legacy of colonialist policies set decades ago – but why would anybody want to protect the legacy of colonialism?
It’s interesting when discrimination is more convenient than tolerance because porn and depictions of violence that could be considered harmful to children are still allowed to be distributed.
Director Wanuri Kahiu expressed her disappointment at the ruling: ‘I’m really disappointed because Kenyans already have access to watch films that have LGBTQI content on Netflix and in international films shown in Kenya and permitted by the classification board itself. So to then just ban a Kenyan film because it deals with something already happening in society just seems like a contradiction,’ she told Reuters.
LGBTQI+ activists and human-rights groups have rallied against the Kenyan Film Board’s decision.
— Samanthah Maina (@samantha_maina_) April 27, 2018
— Janelle Monáe, Cindi (@JanelleMonae) April 27, 2018
— dir. international de la mujer (@thandiswamazwai) April 28, 2018
Without films such as Rafiki, we will continue seeing comments such "promote homosexuality". You cannot make a person homosexual. Homophobia is making us stupid. It's the 21st century. Banning a film does make a difference anyway. #KFCBbansLesbianFilm
— Xian (@SteveXian) April 27, 2018
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen attempted censorship on queer narratives focusing on African people.
The same thing happened to Inxeba: The Wound here in South Africa after the Film Publications Board gave the film an R-rating, the same category reserved for pornography. To suggest that depicting same-sex desire and porn are the same thing is basically saying that seeing any relationships outside of heterosexuality is the same as sexually explicit content made majority of the time for the male gaze.
And that says a lot about just how far our tolerance for queer people has come.
LGBTIAQ+ communities have existed in Africa for centuries. There is evidence of same-sex dynamics, structures and relationships happening in Africa, so why does it stir up some much controversy when writers, filmmakers, and musicians create work centered around the experiences of queer people?
Because the evangelism of Africa and the tenets of religion have shaped the systemic oppression of LGBTIAQ+ people.
It’s still illegal to engage in same-sex relationships in 34 African countries. Queer people are routinely imprisoned, intimidated, harassed, abused and murdered in Africa under the guise of protecting our Africanness.
Even the censorship of creative work like Rafiki is a way for countries to continue the propaganda against different types of sexuality. The erasure of these narratives only reinforces that Africa has a long way to go in terms of acknowledging LGBTIAQ+ rights, empowerment and existence.
Rafiki is a story of about love despite marginalisation, violence and oppression. If that’s not an African story, I don’t know what is. Even with the ban, you can’t silence the power of love and that’s exactly what this story is about.
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