The title of Wanuri Kahiu's Kenyan drama Rafiki comes from the Swahili word for "friend"—and if ever there were a simple word that could be more contextually loaded, it's that one. That's because Rafiki is a story about the relationship between two gay women in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Nairobi, in a country where homosexuality is still against the law—and where this film was banned. They're part of a culture that still requires such a couple to euphemistically refer to a partner as a "friend" because the consequences of being open are too severe.
Kahiu—adapting Monica Arac de Nyeko's short story "Jambula Tree"—dives right into that culture in her story of Kena Mwaura (Samantha Mugatsia), a tomboyish teenager living with her single mother while working in the store owned by her remarried father, John (Jimmi Gathu). She becomes interested in Ziki Okemi (Sheila Munyiva), the daughter of Kena's father's opponent in an impending election for assemblyman. While their respective families question this "friendship" because of how it might appear politically, Kena and Ziki quickly grow more intimately connected than anyone realizes.
Part of Rafiki's effectiveness as a narrative comes from the way it layers on the impediments to the protagonists' relationship, beginning with that simple-but-time-tested Romeo & Juliet-esque notion of Kena and Ziki as from two rival families. Kahiu builds a rich sense of the kind of place where everybody is watching you and ready to spread rumors—a phenomenon certainly not unique to Kenya, but given a cultural specificity in the food counter owner who delights in her role as curator of the local gossip. We get a clear idea of the tension and moral judgment that already fill Kena's home, as her mother (Nini Wacera) stews in anguish over having been abandoned by Kena's father, and of the conservative Christian culture that means Kena is always hearing ministers preach about her corrupt nature.
Yet at its core, this is a character piece about a young woman's coming-out/coming-of-age, and on that level it's mostly effective. Mugatsia's performance captures Kena's watchfulness at how far she can push her unconventional ways—refusing to wear dresses; hanging out and playing soccer with her male friends, including one (Neville Misati) who clearly has a romantic interest in her—before it becomes dangerous. There's a potent early scene in which Kena hears one of her other male friends viciously insulting a gay man from their town, making it clear what kind of response she could expect if she ever decided to be open about her sexuality. It's a bit of a shame that Ziki is never as well-developed a character as Kena; we get glimpses of her desire to avoid the expected Kenyan gender roles of wife and mother, but more often she feels like a dream girl in rainbow braids to fulfill Kena's fantasies.
In fairness, that skimpy character development feels in part like a function of having a short story as source material. Rafiki zips through its story in a brisk 83 minutes, giving the relationship between Kena and Ziki only a few scenes to evolve from complete strangers to lovers, though the romantic scenes are shot with a graceful recognition of general awkward inexperience and the line that's being crossed. It all builds to a genuinely unsettling sequence involving a mob gay-bashing attack that comes just as quickly as other story developments, and while the consequences of the actions involved are always clear, it's hard not to wish for a bit more narrative meat on Rafiki's structural bones.
It's fortunate, then, that Mugatsia's performance keeps Rafiki grounded, especially as Kena's story becomes about her determination to transcend her prescribed societal place in ways beyond whom she'll be allowed to love. A flash-forward epilogue allows us to see a life that Kena has made for herself, even as some people refuse to accept that life. The irony of this coda is that its optimism—providing a vision of Kena getting something akin to a happy ending while living as her authentic self—is what really inspired the Kenyan government's ban of the film. Apparently, it's acceptable to show people being gay if they're punished for their transgressions; it's something else entirely to suggest that fulfillment is possible for those who have stopped pretending that their most profound connections can be captured by the word "friend."