Wanuri Kahiu, the Kenyan film director taking on the world

Queer worldmaking describes the many ways in which heterosexual social structures have been challenged with the aim of creating a more equitable world in which queer people might thrive.

  For some years in Kenya, a number of artists, writers and scholars have been engaged in worldmaking processes. Artists such as Neo Musangi, for example, whose performance art challenges gender normativity. Writers like Kevin Mwachiro and the late Binvavanga Wainaina whose writings on their experiences of being gay have effectively, in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie demystified and humanised homosexuality.

  Like Wanuri Kahiu with Rafiki, they have created a visual affirmation of queer existence that is often considered an important step in the worldmaking process. There are several scenes in the film that are particularly significant for the way that Kahiu brings together hope and horizon in the plot and narrative.

In a scene I analyse, the lovers Kena and Ziki are in a park, having fun in a paddleboat on a lake — showing queer-identifying people occupying public spaces around the neighbourhood. The Kenyan state’s official stance around homosexuality — that it is “unnatural” and “unAfrican” — together with the continuing criminalisation of queer bodies, makes this scene an important tool for queer visibility. It’s followed by the lover’s first date, in a nightclub. Here queer love and desire take centre stage in terms of visibility as they share their first kiss.

  In the film’s final scene we see Kena standing on a hilltop. She’s just received news that Ziki has returned after being sent overseas by her parents as punishment for her lesbianism. In the closing scene, therefore, when we see a hand on Kena’s shoulder, we deduce from the smile on her face that this hand belongs to Ziki. In this way, Rafiki’s viewers are left with a glimpse of a happy ending that, to date, remains rare in the global queer film canon.
  

My analysis is not confined to scenes from the film. The banning and later unbanning of Rafiki by the Kenyan courts also created a situation where the “Afrobubblegum effect” (a term the filmmaker uses to describe her style) could be observed in action.

Beyond the cinema screen

  Kahiu sued the Kenyan authorities and won the right to screen Rafiki for a period of seven days. This is a prerequisite for eligibility for entry into the best international film category at the Academy Awards. After the lifting of the ban, Rafiki was shown to packed cinemas in the Kenyan cities Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu.

  I gathered data from media coverage of the screenings. A good deal of this was from interviews with queer cinema-goers who had gone to watch.

A pattern emerged of queer viewers describing their excitement at seeing themselves reflected on the screen positively. But beyond this, they described how, by the very act of attending the screenings, they felt a sense of community, friendship and belonging in a state where they are commonly excluded from the national conversation.

  Nor does the worldmaking potential of Rafiki and its director end there. The success of Rafiki has helped Kahiu land projects in the US, where she is set to direct an adaptation of Christina Hammond Reed’s novel The Black Kids. She is also adapting Octavia Butler’s book Wild Seed into a film.

  In this way, her aim to tell positive stories about African and Black lives continues to inspire hope in audiences. Her work is particularly inspirational to African, African American and Black women.

The full version of this article was first published on The Conversation.

The Conversation

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Lyn Johnstone
Lyn Johnstone joined the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University as a Teaching Fellow in International Relations in 2018 and in September 2020 she took up the position of Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow, having been awarded a three-year grant from the Leverhulme Foundation.

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