Kenyan courts uphold ban on GLAAD Media Award-nominated LGBTQ film ‘Rafiki’

The LGBTQ film RAFIKI lost its long-awaited Freedom of Expression ruling in Kenya’s high courts, according to a statement issued on Wednesday by the film’s director, Wanuri Kahiu.

“It is with a heavy heart that I share news about the court ruling for Freedom of Expression and the unconstitutionality of banning RAFIKI,” wrote Kahiu. “We lost this time. RAFIKI remains banned in Kenya and Freedom of Expression of any LGBT themed work remains silenced. We will appeal and continue our fight for Freedom of Expression.”

“Thank you for supporting us thus far. Stay safe. A luta continua!” her statement concluded. 

“It is a sad day for freedom of expression and freedom of speech in Kenya," Kahiu told GLAAD exclusively on Wednesday. "The ruling upholding the ban on RAFIKI denies the right of all narratives including that of LGBTQ people. We will continue to fight for the rights of all.”

Despite the ruling preventing the film from being shown in Kenya, RAFIKI is still available to the public. Fans of the film and supporters of global LGBTQ equality can watch RAFIKI online on Amazon Prime. Watch (or watch again) and share with friends and supporters, to share this important story. Watching and sharing are two small ways LGBTQ people and allies can support LGBTQ storytelling in Kenya from their own homes.

Watch RAFIKI online on Amazon Prime here!

Bursting with the colorful street style and music of Nairobi’s vibrant youth culture, RAFIKI is a tender love story between two young women in a country that still criminalizes homosexuality. Kena and Ziki have long been told that “good Kenyan girls become good Kenyan wives” - but they yearn for something more. Despite the political rivalry between their families, the girls encourage each other to pursue their dreams in a conservative society. When love blossoms between them, Kena and Ziki must choose between happiness and safety.

"RAFIKI is a beautiful story about love that deserves to be celebrated, not censored," said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. "Wanuri Kahiu is a gifted filmmaker and we applaud and join her continued efforts to fight back against the injustices facing LGBTQ media images in Kenya and other parts of the world. LGBTQ people will never be silenced. I hope our community and allies around the world watch RAFIKI and loudly share its message."

RAFIKI first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2018 and was eventually released in the U.S. in April 2019. It features remarkable performances by newcomers Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, and has been called a hip tale of first love “reminiscent of the early work of Spike Lee” (Screen Daily) that’s “impossible not to celebrate” (Variety)! RAFIKI, which is Swahili for “friend,” is adapted from Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko’s 2007 Caine Prize-winning short story “Jambula Tree.” 

RAFIKI is currently nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film - Limited Release, for the 31st Annual (2020) GLAAD Media Awards.

Initially banned prior to its premiere in Kenya for its positive portrayal of queer romance, Rafiki then won a landmark supreme court case (in the fall of 2018) beginning to chip away at Kenyan anti-LGBTQ legislation, lifting the ban for one week and allowing it to potentially qualify as Kenya’s entry for the 2019 Academy Awards. (however, another film was eventually chosen)

Kahiu decided to continue challenging the ban in the Kenyan courts. She believed that the government’s ruling had broader freedom of expression implications for her country and that her film should not continue to be banned in its home country. However, in April 2020, the courts did not agree.

Kahiu has been very outspoken about the film’s potential to change the Freedom of Expression laws in Kenya. She previously had been told that the film could play in Kenya if she changed the ending to make it “more remorseful.” She refused. In fact, she worked with a lawyer throughout the film’s production to be prepared ahead of time to fight any potential ban. 

“It’s not about the representation of LGBT issues from around the world,” Kahiu says of the ban. “The concern is us seeing ourselves in a particular way.”

Earlier this year, Kahiu spoke about LGBTQ images on panels during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, including one panel hosted by the Female Quotient alongside GLAAD President & CEO Sarah Kate Ellis, and the Ariadne Getty Foundation. 

One year ago, Kahiu stopped by GLAAD’s offices to chat about her film, its legacy, and her work to accelerate Freedom of Expression and LGBTQ rights in Kenya.