Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva
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…the message is vital and Kahiu’s artistic flourishes are vibrant…
Within the busy urban sprawl on the edges of Nairobi, Kenya (in an area known as ‘The Slopes’), Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) cruises on her skateboard through candy-coloured streets as children play on bikes, street-side cafés serve soda to local clientele and the bustling neighbourhood bristles with an energy of possibility, where anything could happen at any time.
A tomboy with no female friends, Kena whiles away her days playing soccer and cruising the streets with the affable Blacksta (Neville Masati) who sees Kena as ‘one of the boys’ and never seems to clock that she really isn’t into guys. Kena’s mother Mercy (Nini Wacera) is divorced from her father John (Jimmy Gathu), who is a shopkeeper in ‘The Slopes’ and is currently campaigning in upcoming local elections. Mercy is initially pleased by the fact that Kena has started spending time with Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), hoping that her tomboy daughter is positively affected by the exposure to the upper-class, day-glo dread-locked girl who also just happens to be the daughter of John’s election campaign rival.
Director Wanuri Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Bass adapted a short story by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko, and the film never shies away from depicting the rampant homophobia that’s endemic in Africa. So, the stakes are definitely high for the couple, though their relationship might just as well be enclosed in a bubble of giddy elation; while there’s a danger in their secret being discovered, we’re also swept up in their romance. It’s on this hinge that the film hangs, and the two co-leads are really effective and engaging.
The storytelling itself is fairly perfunctory but the message is vital and Kahiu’s artistic flourishes are vibrant and at times, visually fabulous, such as the Do The Right Thing inspired depictions of the colourful characters within ‘The Slopes’ as well as an almost bio-luminescent, black-light disco sequence.
Homosexuality is still a criminal offence in Kenya and accordingly, Rafiki was banned for its positive depiction of being gay, which is ultimately something that lends the film an added sense of glorious defiance, as it sticks its middle finger up at the government.