From Inxeba to Rafiki: state-sanctioned erasure of queer stories in Africa must end now

Rafiki movie, Cannes, Queer, Wanuri, Rafiki

Movies depicting LGBTIQ experiences have been banned in Kenya and South Africa – adding fuel to the dangerous narrative that ‘homosexuality is unAfrican and harmful.’

Another day, another immoral beast vanquished. Dr Ezekiel Mutua, chief executive officer of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), recently banned Rafiki, a movie about two young women who fall in love in Kenya.

Rafiki, which means “friends” in Kiswahili, is directed by Wanuri Kahui and based on the 2007 Caine Prize winning story ‘Jambula Tree.’ It’s the first Kenyan movie to premiere at the Cannes film festival in France – but it was banned in Kenya on the grounds of being ‘immoral’.

This isn’t the first time that Mutua’s decisions have come out against the queer community. He also banned the first Kenyan LGBTIQ music video, Same Love Remix, ‘on moral grounds’, and a queer woman’s dating event, claiming that it was a ’lesbian orgy’ and saying on social media that lesbians need therapy.

Mutua banned Rafiki because “the film’s homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya is contrary to the law,” whilst also claiming that the film’s producers misled the film board by submitting an altered script.

In a tweet, the KFCB stated that “anyone found in its possession will be in breach of law,” in reference to a colonial-era Kenyan law under which gay sex is punishable by 14 years in jail.

Mutua’s decision to ban Rafiki comes amid statements from Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta that issues of LGBTIQ rights are “of no importance to Kenyans.”

It also comes as LGBTIQ organisations, led by National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) are in Kenya’s high court contesting penal code provisions that criminalise homosexual activity as unconstitutional.

Sexuality is an extremely contentious issue in Kenya. This is what makes Rafiki so important.

Kahui, the film’s director, laments that “no adult Kenyans will be able to see this film.” She says that the KFCB’s decision to ban Rafiki  “violates our right of expression and this means that they will intimidate other filmmakers who might want to talk about different issues from coming up.”

Her disappointment raises a good question: at what point does the moral crusade by lawmakers and ‘upholders of culture’ have the right to hold narratives hostage? This is not the only example of queer visibility being buried in the name of culture and propriety.

Earlier this year, a film called Inxeba (“The Wound”), which chronicles a homosexual relationship at an initiation school, was banned from cinemas in South Africa by that country’s film board.

Rafiki, queer, queer women of colour, Kenya
Rafiki cast and director at the Cannes Film Festival where the film premiered

In Nigeria, the publisher Cassava Republic had books taken off store shelves due to their support and publishing of queer literature, with their latest offering being She Called Me Woman: Nigerian Queer Women Speak.

Such suppression of LGBTIQ experiences adds to the dangerous narrative that ‘homosexuality is unAfrican’, which is used by too many in religious, societal and governmental spaces to deny LGBTIQ people their rights, leaving them vulnerable to violence and discrimination.

The state-sanctioned erasure of queer stories allows discriminatory movements in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa to deny that LGBTIQ people exist, or to insist that they are ‘the other,’ different and unwelcome.

Within the LGBTIQ community, the feeling of being side-lined runs deep. “The banning of Rafiki was devastating,” said Pepper, a queer woman and curator of the blog Kenyan Baby Dyke, who explained that media representation matters, and can be affirming.

“Watching the trailer and seeing my own story mirrored back was momentous,” Pepper told me. “That the opportunity to watch the film, to celebrate our own story was taken away from us, is crushing… I feel robbed. It’s sad that in our own country, we can’t live or celebrate our truth.”

Kawira Mwirichia, a visual artist whose work often relates to queer experiences, added the KFCB’s decision to ban Rafiki left her feeling “erased” as well as frustrated, and “very angry.”

It was also patronising, she told me, as if “all material we create and are exposed to as a country needs to be child-friendly. Like we aren’t adults too.”

Wacera Njagi, editor of MremboSafi Zine, and an advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights, said that Rafiki’s director Kahui was “makes things that are way ahead of her time.”

She said that the film’s banning also brought it greater public exposure in Kenya, and internationally, leading to even more debate.

And this is true. The banning of the movie has brought it sharply into the public eye, as was the case with Inxeba. Not only are the films more visible, but the bans have also caused people to think about ideas of visibility, queerness and who gets to control national, or regional, narratives.

The censoring of the queer thread in the grander tapestry of curated African culture allows for the continued denial of LGBTIQ rights because queer people seemingly do not exist.

This silencing is harmful to the unofficial archive project currently underway within the African continent, which aims to write the lives of LGBTIQ persons into the continental narrative.

These efforts include anthologies such as She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak and Queer Africa I and II, Nakhane Toure’s album You Will Not Die, theatrical pieces such as Beneath The Same Silence, which looks at abuse in a queer woman’s relationship, and the work done by Drama Queens, a theatre group based in Ghana.

It also embeds harmful and potentially violent ideas about the existence (or lack thereof) of queer people in Africa, and about those who are visible ‘not belonging’ and thus not deserving equal treatment.

This allows for continued discrimination and violence against LGBTIQ bodies at the institutional level and also within private social spaces.

Art and culture can change perceptions and lives, bringing about new ideas that bring about acceptance. They can help to foster understanding and to humanise what was previously seen as not human.

Queer culture is rising in many realms, including music, art and literature. The ability for these creations to be consumed and engaged with, free from state censorship, is as important as any landmark court battle, or street protest, for the lives of LGBTIQ people across the continent.

For more like this check out this piece about how queer people are writing themselves into the African cultural narrative.

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