Highlighting Queer Romance in Kenya, “Rafiki” Gets Cannes Premiere But Is Banned At Home

"It is our considered view that the moral of the story in this film is to legitimize lesbianism in Kenya."

Wanuri Kahui’s Rafiki is making history as the first Kenyan movie to be screened at the prestigious Cannes film festival.

The second feature from Kahui, the film follows Kena and Ziki, two young women caught between their families’ political rivalry and the growing love they feel for each other. As tensions mount, they must make a difficult decision between security and happiness.


Named for the Swahili word for “friend,” Rafiki was filmed completely in Kenya, despite homosexuality being both against the law and culturally taboo in the East Africa country.

When news broke of Rafiki screening at Cannes’s prestigious Un Certain Regard series, Kahui received special shoutouts from Kerry Washington and Lupita Nyong’o via Twitter.


Based on Monica Arac de Nyeco’s short story “Jambula Tree,” Rafiki is “about all that is good and difficult about being in love,” says Kahui, who acknowledged “making a film about two women in love set in Kenya, means challenging deep rooted cynicism about same-sex relationships among actors, crew, friends, and family.”

But on Friday, censors banned the film in Kenya for “attempting to normalize homosexual practices,”

“It is our considered view that the moral of the story in this film is to legitimize lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and the Board’s content classification guidelines,” film board CEO Ezekiel Mutua noted.

Kahui lamented the ban, tweeting “We believe adult Kenyans are mature and discerning enough to watch local content but their right has been denied.”

Earlier this year, the acclaimed South African drama Inxeba (The Wound) faced similar calls for a ban in South Africa, because of gay sex scenes and depictions of the Xhosa initiation ceremony. The Film and Publication Board’s Appeal Tribunal ultimately gave it an 18+ rating, “to protect children from exposure to disturbing and harmful material.”

The Cannes Film Festival runs May 8 to 19.

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