Wanuri Kahiu’s lesbian teen romance, Rafiki, the first Kenyan film ever to be selected for Cannes, has since been banned by its country’s film classification board “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans”.

That sort of hyperventilating might lead some to expect something more transgressive than the sweet drama served up in Rafiki. Yet, in a nation where no constitutional protections exist for LGBT people and sodomy carries a 14-year term sentence, even the most routine of gay dramas is an act of remarkable risk-taking. Kahiu’s film carries it off with confidence and polish.

Samantha Mugatsia stars as Kena, a tomboyish teen in a provincial Kenyan town. Her father John is a shopkeeper who is running for local office, and has separated from her mother, a scripture teacher. Just as in any village, salacious scuttlebutt is a valuable currency and nothing is more likely to provoke scandal than rumours around someone’s sexuality. Kena is in dangerous territory, then, when she has her eye caught by Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a forthright, flamboyant girl with rainbow braids, who happens to be the daughter of John’s election rival.

The two begin a tentative friendship that soon progresses into something more. Kisses are stolen in the darkened corners of clubs, and the abandoned camper van that the pair have made their hideout. Ziki, the extrovert, wants them to be more open about their relationship; Kena preaches caution.

We’ve hardly been lacking for such tales of forbidden love, but what Kahiu’s film lacks in originality, it makes up for in its depiction of the giddy flush of first love. Moreover, in a real-world cultural climate that seeks to paint relationships like Kena and Ziki’s as abnormal, there’s a shrewd logic to Rafiki’s storytelling – that is, that the best way to win over hostile audiences is through a familiar framework. This is a story that may have been told before, but never in this context. That alone is worth celebrating.

– Gwilym Mumford, The Guardian

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