Film Review: RAFIKI (Kenya 2018) ***

Rafiki Poster

“Good Kenyan girls become good Kenyan wives,” but Kena and Ziki long for something more. When love blossoms between them, the two girls will be forced to choose between happiness and safety.


Wanuri Kahiu

From the opening shots and song played during the opening credits, the audience can tell what will be following will be a very rhythmic film.  The spritely song and the colourful images (drops of water, skateboarding in the street, the animated colours) are all flashing as if in synchronization to the beats of the soundtrack.

RAFIKI offers lessons to learn about Kenya.  Not many North Americans are familiar with the customs, food, language, clothes, music, dance and life in general in Kenya.  On display is a totally foreign way of life though certain similarities like jealousies, romance and enmities exist.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) helps her father John Mwaura (Jimmy Garthu) run a small convenience store in Nairobi as he campaigns for a local election.  Kena lives with her mother, who is not on speaking terms with John.  Kena starts flirting with Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a neighbourhood girl with colourful braided hair, who also happens to be the daughter of Peter Okemi (Dennis Musyoka), 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. 

This Kenyan film also also celebrates feminism.  The two girls make a pact never to be like the typical Kenyan women – a housewife bearing kids.

The film tackles quite the few issues including coming-out, same sex relationship, romance, and family drama.

There is one scene where Kena’s father tells her that she is going to lose his political seat because she is dating the oppositions’s daughter.  The argument does not make sense as the same could be said for the opposition having the same problems with his daughter.

Homosexuality is still not accepted in Kenya as is clear from the film.  The girls get beaten up by the villagers when they are discovered.  Kena’s mother believes that Kena is possessed by demons and she should be cured.  The father is a little more sympathetic.  There is also a male gay character in the film – and he is often made fun of and degraded in public by everyone.

The gay romance works.  Director Kahiu has got the audience connected with the plight of the two girls.  There are no same sex sex scenes except for kissing, which is just as well as graphic nude scenes would not have done anything different for the story.

The tacked on Hollywood happy ending goes against the flow of the otherwise sombre film.  But audiences should not complain as everyone wishes the best for these two girls for what they have endured.

What stands out and is most memorable about RAKIFI is the film’s rhythm that exists from the opening credits right to the film’s end, creating a smooth flow seldom noticed in other features.  

RAFIKI which premiered this year in the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes (the first film from Kenya to be screened at Cannes) will be playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for a special special engagement. Without the Bell Lightbox, small foreign films will never get a chance for distribution.