Queer African Cinema: A Love Story

Rafiki is a film to be celebrated.

It is a radical act of imagination and representation. A work of Queer African Cinema created by Wanuri Kahiu, a straight ally and Kenyan womxn.  The film is more than just a story of Lesbian love in Kenya; it is a powerful testament to the resiliency of the director and the community.

Rafiki is rich and vibrant, while crafting space for hope, joy, desires, cultures, and love. The courage that people have when they’re in love is what Kahiu hopes will resonate most in Rafiki. Through the hands and visionary mind of Kahiu, we have use of radical imagination.

Kenya is an African country where same-sex relationships are illegal due to colonial laws. The Kenyan government banned Kahiu’s film for its LGBT content. In an act of resiliency that mirrors the film itself, Kahiu took the government to court and won. Rafiki is the first Kenyan feature-length film to play at the Cannes film festival.

Kahiu adds to the canon of Cinema, Queer Cinema and Queer African Cinema by creating works centering the voices and lives of Africans. Rooted in the philosophy of AfroBubbleGum (a production company and media test similar to the Bechdel Test about womxn’s agency in films, or the Russo Test  for LGBT & Gender Non-Conforming representation in fictionalized works), Kahiu examines whether or not the work or fiction has at least two healthy Africans who are financially stable, do not need saving and are enjoying their lives.

The film Rafiki allows LGBT Kenyans, LGBT Africans, and LGBT people of African descent in the diaspora to see their complexities, their humanity, themselves and their love normalized. When watching the film, the audience can dream more fully for themselves; they can see their love, desires and futures projected onto the big screen. There can be hope in the midst of the violence of a world that wants to erase people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Gender Non-Conforming – especially those of Color.

As Rafiki is gaining international success, LGBT activists in Kenya, together with community members and faith communities, are awaiting word on whether the Nairobi Constitutional Court will repeal the colonial-era laws criminalizing homosexuality. The repeal1162 movement will learn the ruling on May 24th, 2019. The spirits of LGBT and Gender Non-Conforming Kenyans were raised in March of 2018, when the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC)  won the elimination of forced exams of suspected Gay men. Angola overturned colonial anti-LGBT laws in January 2019 and Mozambique similarly in 2015. Kenya’s historic decision will reverberate around the continent, as other countries reconsider anti-LGBT legislation.  State-sanctioned acceptance of LGBT Kenyans will allow Kenyans to introduce their partners publicly without having to refer to them as “Rafiki,” or friend, from which the film gains its title. 

After watching the film, I spoke with various community members about Rafiki and the rich and varied lives of LGBT people around the world. In speaking with filmmaker Ann Bennett, Transgender Nigerian Noni Salma, and filmmaker Nala Simone, a Womxn of Trans Experience & Queer Activist, we are reminded that violence in fictional films is optional. Violence can make the story authentic; however, an artist can also create the world we want to see without violence. The violence in the film Rafiki is a representation of the very real violence that exists in Kenya and other countries across Africa. It is illegal to be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans in 32 African countries; in four of these countries, the punishment is death.  The violence the viewer witnesses are indeed state-sanctioned: it is illegal for Lesbian love to exist, let alone be enacted beyond the safety of our eyes.  What would our world look like without such violence?  Can humanity create art without this  level of violence, or are we being too aspirational?

The Kenya Film Classification Board informed Kahiu that they would ban her film unless she changed the ending. Kahiu didn’t want to change the ending and have her main characters be remorseful, which she has seen in countless other Queer cinema. Kahiu didn’t want her film to be held hostage by the film board and instead took the Kenyan government to court. Her success in court and the lifting of the ban on Rafiki represents a broader victory for the LGBT community and the ability of LGBT persons to freely express the stories they want to tell. Film and the law are two of the  many tools to use in transforming a society and Kahiu has done this with beauty and hope.


Rafiki Love

What does it look like when I know I’m loved?

Is it a place or feeling of safety, internally, which I carry into the world?

Is this a love I see in your eyes?

The eyes of the divine.

The eyes of my beloved,

The spirit of my soul.

The richness of touch, color, culture, my existence.

Am I willing to risk my liberation for it, or is being out and visibly in love liberating for me and a cloak for others?

I saw spirit, love and the divine in her eyes.

I was moved to touch breath, moved to be near.

The love of the divine called me into action.

I could no longer hide my love for her, ignore my desires and attractions to the same sex - the Queerness in me.

The divine called me to myself, to heal myself as I looked into this mirror of her, of us, of God.

Pink, red, yellow, orange filled the air, my heart, my lungs,

Spirit of yellow abundance came forward as I saw you, as I felt you.

You became a dream, dreamt out loud.

There was no question of who I was and what I had to do:

I needed to love you, love the divine, love myself.

The safety of my radical imagination created my liberation.

The world didn’t understand us…didn’t understand our Queer love and perpetrated acts of violence against us.

As they threw her down, kicked and punched her, they kicked me…us.

They left you for dead.

The people we see every day, the ones who groomed and reared us were the perpetrators of this wretched violence.

They kicked and hit. I cried out for you as I tried to protect you…tried to keep you and me alive.

The pink, orange, yellow, reds fell to the ground.

It was by the call of the divine. They know who we are and they know our right to exist.

Someone finally stopped the community from killing us.

They say it was my fault because I was a tomboy and I corrupted you, us, me.

“They must exorcize the demons from her.” My mother yells at my father.

“This is all your fault. I will be blamed as a mother, a womxn. Patriarchy isn’t kind to me.

I’m left to clean up this mess”

The father, ex-husband, villain stands and cries as he holds his child,

his masculine of center daughter.

“There are certain things I will never do to win a vote and that is discard you.”

They cry together.

The Divine continues to whisper to us both ...LIVE! THRIVE! I want you to be you.

You are my children.

Victory is you living Out Loud,

Victory is you Believing Out Loud.

Victory is you loving Out Loud.

Be resilient!

State-sanctioned homophobia.

Be resilient!

State sanctioned sexism and patriarchy.

Be resilient!

State sanctioned Religiosity, Religious Violence & Colonization.

Be fierce!

Be tender!

Your desires, imagination, joy, solidarity, love will carry you.

Your love is normalized by the Divine... normalized by me.