Authorities in Kenya have just banned an LGBTQ film from screening there, ahead of its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which begins tonight. The film, Rafiki, is adapted from the short story Jambula Tree by Uganda’s Monica Arac de Nyeko and tells the story of two teenage girls who fall in love with one another despite their family’s and community’s objections. This is just one more instance of LGBTQ content in Kenya being censored. Homosexuality in the African nation continues to be illegal.
“Unfortunately, our film has been censored in Kenya because it deals with matters that are uncomfortable for the Kenya Film Classification Board,” director Wanuri Kahiu has said. “But I truly believe that an adult Kenyan audience is mature and discerning enough to be able to watch this film and have their own conversation.”
Kahiu adds, “[Rafiki is] a reflection of society, and we need to be having conversations about what is happening in our society. But unfortunately, because the film has been banned, we’ll be unable to have these conversations.”
In a copy of the Kenya film board’s ruling, CEO Ezekiel Mutua stated “with great concern” the film’s depiction of “homosexual practices … run counter to the laws and the culture of Kenyan people.” He adds, “It is our considered view that the moral of the story in this film is to legitimize lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and the Board’s content classification guidelines.”
The censorship of Rafiki is just another example of the government cracking down on LGBTQ content in Kenya, where homosexuality is still illegal.
While American kids were able to see Cyrus on the Disney Channel’s Andi Mack show come out, Kenyan kids were denied that opportunity. This wasn’t out of character for Kenya, which has banned a number of kids’ shows in the past for featuring homosexuality, including The Loud House and Steven Universe. (The nation also banned Hey Arnold!, not for featuring a gay character but because Arnold’s Grandpa’s head “is in the shape of a penis.” What.)
Mutua says, “When it comes to protecting children from exposure to bad content, we are resolute and unapologetic. Gay content will not air in Kenya, period. The institution of family is sacrosanct. It’s the basic unit of society and it’s derived from a union between a man and a woman. Any other doctrine, teaching or information is a heresy and a travesty.”
In February 2017, Kenya also banned Star vs. the Forces of Evil. That show featured the very first same-sex kiss on the Disney Channel. It was a brief scene lasting only three seconds, but that was enough. On banning Star, the Kenyan film board added, “In yet another episode, two lesbian couples are seen cuddling.”
Of Africa’s 54 countries, 34 of them criminalize consensual same-sex sexual encounters, mostly thanks to American evangelicals and British colonial-era laws. Kenya, specifically, criminalizes gay sex with 14 years in prison.
As recently as last week, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta said gay rights is not a burning issue for the country at the moment. In an interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN, he reiterated the country’s stance on homosexuality, saying it goes against cultural beliefs of a majority of Kenyans.
“I won’t engage in a subject that is of no importance to the people of Kenya,” he said. “This is not an issue of human rights, this is an issue of our own base as a culture, as a people regardless of which community you come from.”
During a TV appearance Friday morning, Rafiki director Wanuri Kahiu expressed hope that her film would one day return to Kenya. “Maybe this work that is in exile will also come back, and we can properly have an open discourse about our people, our children, how we’re interacting with our community, and what our role is,” she says. “I’m incredibly disappointed, because I believe in Kenya.”
The film is one of 15 films in the running for this year’s Cannes Queer Palm award, which is bestowed each year on one feature film and one short film and is sponsored by Hornet.