Rafiki (2018): Kenyan Romance between Two Women (LGBTQ, Lesbian)

The lesbian romance Rafiki (Swahili for ‘”friend”‘) depicts the relationship between two young women, Kena and Ziki, set against family and political pressures around LGBT rights in Kenya.

World premiering at the Un Certain Regard section of the 2018 Cannes Film Fest, it was the first Kenyan film to be screened at the festival.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

Kena helps her father John Mwaura run a small convenience store in Nairobi as he campaigns for a local election. Kena lives with her mother, who isn’t really on speaking terms with John. Kena starts flirting with Ziki, a neighborhood girl with colourful hair, who also happens to be the daughter of Peter Okemi, John’s political rival. Kena and Ziki have a number of romantic dates, and quickly become very close, but there are tensions about displaying their affection in public because homosexuality is illegal in Kenya.

Ziki’s friends get jealous that she is spending so much time with Kena, and when they attack Kena, Ziki defends her. Ziki takes Kena home to dress her wounds, but Ziki’s mom catches them kissing. They run away together to hide, but are found by the town gossip, who brings an angry mob to attack the two girls. They are both arrested, and have to be picked up by their fathers. Ziki can no longer bear to see Kena, and her parents send her to live in London. John refuses to let Kena take the blame for what happened, even though it means forfeiting his chance at winning the election.

The film ends on hopeful note, when years later, Kena has fulfilled her dream to become a doctor, Ziki has returned to town, and the two women reunite.


The film is inspired by Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko’s 2007 Caine Prize-winning short story “Jambula Tree.”.

The film’s title “Rafiki” (meaning “friend” in Swahili) was chosen, because due to homophobia in society, partners in a same-sex relationship often need to introduce their partner as a “friend,” even if they are more than just a friend.

It took several years to find funding, The filmmakers initially tried to get backing Kenya, but that was not possible, so they found co-production partners in Europe and  financing from Lebanon and the US.

Scenes of intimacy between Kena and Ziki are shown in more tender pastel colors rather than the strong color contrasts of the other scenes.

It was Samantha Mugatsia’s first film as an actress, while Sheila Munyiva had acted in films before.

Banned in Kenya

Rafiki was banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.”

The Board asked the film director to change the ending, which was deemed too hopeful and positive. Kahiu refused, which led to the ban of the film. The KFCB warned that anyone found in possession of the film would be in breach of the law in Kenya, where gay sex is punishable by 14 years in jail. The ban raised international outrage by the supporters of LGBT rights.

The film’s director, Wanuri Kahiu, sued Kenya’s government, to allow the film to be screened and become eligible to be submitted as Kenya’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards.

On September 21, 2018, the Kenyan High Court lifted the ban, allowing it to be screened in the country for 7 days, therefore meeting eligibility requirements.

After the ban was lifted, the film was shown at a cinema in Nairobi.

Rafiki was not selected as Kenya’s submission for the Best International Language Film Oscar category; Supa Modo was sent but did not make the final cut.

Samantha Mugatsia as Kena
Sheila Munyiva as Ziki
Neville Misati as Blacksta
Nini Wacera as Mercy
Jimmy Gathu as John Mwaura
Charlie Karumi as Waireri
Muthoni Gathecha as Mama Atim
Dennis Musyoka as Peter Okemi
Patricia Amira as Rose Okemi
Nice Githinji as Nduta
Patricia Kihoro as Josephine
Mellen Aura as Elizabeth


TCM showed Rafiki was part of its series, “Women Make Film.”