Kena, short for Makena (played by Samantha Mugatsia) lives in the Slopes district of Nairobi, Kenya with her at-home mom and politician father (Jimmy Gathu). He’s running for public office in their small area with the slogan “The People’s Choice.” She’s best friends with Blacksta (Neville Misati), a motorcycle-riding tough guy with a thing for Kena. He’s always trying to give her a ride on his bike but she’d rather cruise on her skateboard.
She has a lanky, androgynous appearance, hangs with guys who see her as one of them. They throw words like ‘faggot’ around daily, taunting a local they suspect to be gay and harassing him constantly, much to Kena’s quiet consternation. They hang around a local kiosk run by the bitter (and funny) Nduta (Nice Githinji) and the town gossip, the nasty Mama Atim (Muthoni Gathecha). She sees all and she tells all. “She’s a gossip,” Kena’s mother says, “but she doesn’t lie.” One day, Kena catches the eye of Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a bright, colorful and vivacious girl with long braids of pink and purple and yellow and blue. She’s also the daughter of Kena’s father’s rival – a true
Romeo Juliet and Juliet in the making. If this was an American film (or natch, a remake) it would be Samira Wiley and Tessa Thompson, no question.
Mugatsia and Munyiva have such an easy charm and naturalness to their relationship. They stare longingly with intent and passion. One afternoon a sudden rain makes the girls run for shelter in abandoned VW van. They get close, then Kena pulls away. She’s not quite ready. They find respite on a rooftop, away from prying eyes and gossipy women where they pledge to “be something real.” Kena dreams of being a nurse but Ziki says no, be a doctor. Ziki wants to find herself in a place where they never see black people and plant her flag, “Yo, I’m here and I’m a Kenyan…from Africa!” she exclaims. They keep going out, Ziki keeps pushing until Kena finally relents. Their first kiss is soft and romantic and it washes away Kena’s trepidation. It’s here that the film falls on an outcome we’ve seen before; the girls are caught and dragged out to an open field and severely beaten. While the story progression might be tried and true it’s important to recognize the deeply religious and homophobic region simply would not allow for this open same-sex attraction, much less it be acted on. Earlier church scenes with the pastor’s deeply anti-same sex marriage diatribe reveals all. So does the very different reactions from the girls’ parents when their secret is found out.
At a very tight 82 minutes, Rafiki (which is Kiswahili and translates to ‘Friend’ in English) doesn’t waste too much time with side stories (the political rival angle isn’t really developed much), but not that it needs them. Keeping the focus on the girls and their journey is key and appropriate since it’s based on a short story (Jambula Tree by Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko). Kahiu, in just her second feature, imbues the material with such richness of color and mood, music and location, that the minor contrivances never outweigh the breakthrough of the film’s very existence.
While we seem to be in a renaissance of LGBTQ films like Moonlight and Love, Simon that don’t end in tragedy and end happy and/or hopeful or examine the bitter sting of first love like Call Me By Your Name, it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that in many countries around the world (and indeed, in the states as well) being punished, persecuted and even killed for being LGBTQ is a very real threat. Kenya banned the film immediately after it was announced as premiering at the Cannes Film Festival. The world at large has a long, long way to go in the name of LGBTQ rights and equality but it will always be films like this that push it along towards that goal.