In love under a dangerous open sky


CLANDESTINE love: Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) and Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) steal a kiss. Photograph courtesy

THE COMPLEX AND oft blood-stained plight of people with sexual proclivities that digress from hetero-norms has waxed and waned for centuries all over the world. Queer people have alternatively been persecuted, raped, murdered and deemed illegal in society, as they have been embraced and lionised, before the circle turns again. But if you look at the legislation being ratified in various countries right now, and the LGBTIQA+ movement in other contexts, it’s clear that the pendulum still swings dizzily and a young black lesbian is still far from safe. Even on her own turf.

The Kenyan film Rafiki in both English and Swahili with English subtitles takes on all the issues relating to a homophobic society, but injects a bit of saccharine in the plot to make it palatable. It’s saccharine with an edge of scariness, however: this happy ending of the story was one of the reasons it was banned by the Kenyan government in 2018, on the charges that the work “promotes lesbianism” which is against the law in that country.

Like the stage production, No Easter Sunday for Queers, staged recently at the Market Theatre, and written by Koleko Putuma, there is a rich interweaving of not only the broader stretch of communal society, but of the church as well. There is true electricity between the quiet and doe-eyed Samantha Mugatsia as Kena opposite the vivacious Ziki (Sheila Munyiya), and the ripples in the community of the town of Slopes that their burgeoning sexual attraction garners.

Along the lines of Christiaan Olwagen’s Kanarie, the work is unrelenting in telling its tale, and pulls no punches in how it places Kena in a sexually ambiguous context in almost every frame. Yet, it does pull back on the horrors that young queer people can face at the hands of a mob. Given the situation in Kenya, that saccharine ending becomes a triumph in its own small way and a proverbial thumb in the eye for the establishment, giving lesbians a voice which is robust and outspoken, direct and real.

The story is loosely predictable but the quality of the cinematography nudges it up considerably as a work of great artistic merit. There are stills and moments which cast colours against one another, allow patterns to sway in the wind and embrace every bird that flies overhead that leaves you dizzy with its poetry. There’s an echo here with the way in which this film represents the idea of teen love with all its wild possibility and trembling passion, that is completely infectious.

  • Rafiki is directed by Wanuri Kahiu and is performed by Juliette Achieng’, Patricia Amira, Derrick Assetto, Mellen Aura, Muthoni Gathecha, Jimmy Gathu, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro, Mburu Kimani, Justin Mirichii, Neville Misati, Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Dennis Musyoka, Githae Njogu, Edwin Owino, Stephen Ruiru, Nini Wacera, Jane Wachu, Mary Wanjiku, Priscilla Wanjiku, Vitalis Waweru and Leila Weema. It is written by Jenna Cato Bass and Wanuri Kahiu based on the short story, Jambula Tree, by Monica Arac de Nyeko. Produced by Steven Markovitz, it features creative input by Christopher Wessels (cinematography), Isabelle Dedieu and Ronelle Loots (editing), Nini Wacera (casting), Arya Lalloo (production design) and Wambui Thimba (costumes). Release date: August 30 2019.

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