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I finally watched Rafiki – and it was interesting

Wanuri Kahiu

I finally had the opportunity to watch Rafiki, the movie directed by the globally celebrated Wanuri Kahiu. I was invited to watch it at the Canadian High Commissioner’s official residence in Nairobi – a priviledge that I shared with several leading luminaries in the art space.

I saw celebrated writer Sitawa Namwalie and Lorna Irungu (both of whom have enacted stories from my book, Living Memories, giving it so much more life than I ever could). I also saw Nini Wacera (who was the casting director of Rafiki and an actress in the movie) and so many other great names in the industry. Of course there were many members of the diplomatic corps there.

What was unique about that evening is that I pointedly avoided speaking to anyone in the cocktail hour before the movie – not even people I knew. I wanted to not get into conversations about the movie at all. So I took my drink from the bar there and retreated to a dark corner of the tent that was set up on the deftly manicured lawn of the residence. There I quietly ignored the buzz as people exclaimed in joy at seeing each other and exchanged hugs, air kisses or polite handshakes, depending on how well they felt they know each other.

By and by the movie was started of by welcome from the High Commissioner, HE Amb. Sara Hradecky (I think the H is silent) and a brief speech by Nini Wacera, who spoke on behalf of Wanuri Kahiu.

The reason this movie makes it as conversation between you and me right now on this blog is because of its controversial nature in Kenya and in other countries as well.

Ezekiel Mutua, self crowned, Kenya’s moral police.

In Kenya, the movie has been banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board “due its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.”

The statement by the board, signed by it’s CEO, Ezekiel Mutua, a controversial man himself who labeled himself, Kenya’s moral police, cites Kenya’s law in the ban notice, particularly Article 45 of the Constitution of Kenya (2010), which defines marriage as a union between persons of the opposite sex. It also calls to our attention sections 162, 163, and 165 of the Penal Code, which criminalise homosexual behaviour, and admonished the State not recognising sexual relations between persons of the same gender.

Let’s dispense with the basics. Does the movie have an overt gay theme? Yes. Its tastefully done and not as lewd as Mr. Mutua would have us believe, but its clearly a love story between two young 20 something year-old girls. Does it promote the normalisation of homosexuality? Me, I don’t know. I think it does so in the way that a movie depicting a robbery (say Oceans 11) promotes robberies and assassin movies promote assassins for hire. How many of our impressionable young minds have taken up a life of crime based on the graphic crime fiction that is available at every corner bootleg DVD seller?

On the other hand, it can be so credibly argued. But it can also credibly be argued to be depicting the actual lives of many young gay people today who are stigmatised, ostracised and even violently beaten and harmed by society, in ways that are even tacitly sanctioned by religious institutions in communities.

Look, I am not confident that I can discuss here the merits or demerits of homosexuality and I certainly do not feel qualified to discuss the morality of it all.

What I will say is that it is important for every free, progressive society to protect the rights of its people to think freely. When we attempt to legislate thought, particularly of adults we automatically create demand for it. I would argue that KFCB created demand for Rafiki just by banning it. See the queues of people that went to the cinema. If we want to be competitive, we must have the opportunity to think things through and make a decision. KFCB made the movie big, I think

KFCB characterises their charge as mandated by the “Constitution to safeguard Kenya’s culture, morality and national aspirations through film content regulation.” I have read the Act that establishes KFCB (Film & Stage plays Act) and I have seen no evidence of the above – certainly nothing on morality.

It is dangerous, frankly, for the state to purport to legislate some uniform morality or values – to suggest that all 45 Million Kenyans subscribe to the same value system. The general insensitivity of people to the diversity of Kenyans is exhibited in many settings.

You must have been in a social gathering where there were many people of the same tribe who forgot you were there and retreated to their mother-tongue. You must have attended a meeting where a “word of prayer” was said in Jesus’ name despite the presence of people from other faiths.

In the Moi era, a law was enacted to legislate thought – that to think about the death of the president was in itself treasonous. So many were exiled, tortured and imprisoned based on the application of this law. Today that law is history. I predict that #InTenYears, the laws on homosexuality are likely to go the same way and they will be repealed. KFCB will be given a new mandate.

If you get the chance, go watch the movie. Its superbly marvellously done – the story is compelling and you will feel something good as you do. You will be conflicted on the issues, where on the one hand you see love in its purest form. On the other hand, you see society’s norms as you know them be challenged. This is what a good movie or book should do – cause you to be conflicted. It should force you to confront what you know.

Then think for yourself. It won’t hurt, I promise.



EDIT: Wanuri Kahiu and a coalition of artists have gone to court and made arguments about Freedom of Speech and Expression. They argue that KFCB seeks to curtail their right to express themselves. This is a case that has repercussions not just on the movie but on productions and actions in the future. Should you be so inclined, you may provide their legal team with your monetary support. Email:

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