Film & Television

‘Rafiki’: Juliet and Juliet, A Kenyan Love Story

Kena and Ziki’s families are not quite the Montagues and Capulets. They are at odds, but not at war. However, the two girls do face threats. Early on and at intervals throughout Rafiki, we see how the community treats a young gay man. In church, the minister rails against a movement supporting same-sex marriage, describing it as an abomination and a crime against God and the government. When Kena and Ziki are finally discovered, thanks to the mean-spirited actions of the nasty gossip Mama Atim (Muthoni Gathecha) and her jealous daughter Nduta (Nice Githinji), they are dragged from their hiding place and severely beaten. It is telling that the two girls, rather than their attackers, end up in police custody. The consequences are swift and severe. Ziki is sent away to school, while Kena’s deeply religious mother (Nini Wacera) enlists a crowd of fellow zealots to “pray away the gay.”

Rafiki is visually compelling, and the story it tells, although by no means unfamiliar, so engaging that it’s easy to overlook the film’s very fine performances. The two young actresses in particular are genuinely moving. This is the first film for both Mugatsia and Munyiva, but you wouldn’t guess it. In fact, any unease they may have felt reads as the quite natural nervous elation that accompanies first love. Munyiva shares the star quality of her character Ziki — shining so bright, it’s nearly impossible to look away. Mugatsia, on the other hand, keeps most of her thoughts to herself, yet there’s no doubt that those thoughts are intense and astute. She sees everything. As the two gradually, sometimes awkwardly, fall in love, it’s a wonderful affirmation that young love — especially a first love — evokes the same joy, incredulity, and abandon regardless of the lovers’ genders.

The movie’s title, Rafiki, simply means “friend” in Swahili. But it’s a term commonly used by gay couples in the way that “partner” might be used in the U.S. The difference, however, is that in Kenya (and some other African nations), acknowledging that a same-sex rafiki is more than a friend subjects one to the same dangers it did here fifty or sixty years ago. Kahiu felt a sense of responsibility in making the film (and fighting for it to be seen), and she revels in its effect.

“The strongest thing that has resonated is the young LGBT community who flock to the film, who understand it, who love it, and who are using it in Kenya. A lot of people use it to talk to their parents about coming out,” she explains. “That was huge and such a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful thing … I never could have foreseen the things that this film has done, not only for myself, but for the audiences who have watched it.”

Rafiki‘s final sequence, set perhaps a few years later, does offer hope for the two heroines. Perhaps, more importantly, Kahiu — despite the best efforts of the Kenya Film Classification Board to thwart her — is offering hope to Kenya’s youth and future generations.

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