Kenya lifts ban on lesbian love story 'Rafiki' - shown to a cheering sold-out cinema - just in time to be eligible for an Oscar

By Jemima Lewin
25 September 2018
kenya rafiki
Actress Samantha Mugatsia, director Wanuri Kahiu and actress Sheila Munyiva at the Cannes Film Festival. . Credit: Getty Images
The coming-of-age romance is set against a background of homophobia and intolerance in a country where love between people of the same gender is illegal.

Rafiki, which means friend in the Swahili language, is a critically acclaimed film portraying a lesbian romance. The powerful film was banned in Kenya, where it was made, until Friday where it was shown to a cheering sold-out cinema in Nairobi.

The film, directed by Wanuri Kahiu, tells the story of a growing love between two young women, Kena and Ziki (played by actresses Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva). A judge temporarily lifted a ban on the film for a week, making it eligible to be entered for a Foreign Language Oscar. 

In order for the film to qualify as Kenya's entry under the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2019 Academy Awards, Rafiki had to be released in the East African countyr. 

The court ruling was met with ecstatic emotions from the filmmakers but inevitable anger from the Kenya Film Classification Board, which banned the movie in April, stating that it promotes homosexuality, which sadly remains a criminal offence under a colonial-era law.

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Rafiki premiered at Cannes, making it the first Kenyan film to ever be chosen by the prestigious film festival. Film critics lauded the sweet romance about two young women who live in Nairobi, with overwhelming praise. 

While the temporary lift on the ban is a win not only for the filmmakers but for the LGBTQIA community in Kenya, censors said it still considers Rafiki morally subversive. 

“I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society that its moral foundation will be shaken by seeing such a film,” the judge in question said during her ruling.

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Young Kenyans made it their mission to support the film when it was released, with more than 450 people showing up. The cinema was forced to give an additional screening to accommodate the hundreds that showed up.

Kenyan rights activists are fighting hard to decriminalise gay sex, a step was taken in India earlier this month, raising hopes among gay rights advocates in Africa.

After the seven-day period is up, the film will once again unfortunately be banned. Meanwhile, Wanuri expressed her happiness at the court’s decision, saying “I remained hopeful that our constitution is strong. I believe it is our right as creators to reflect society and it is our role to talk about all subjects”.

She also made it clear that she intends to keep on fighting until her movie's ban has been completely lifted. 

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