Accepted paper:

Praised abroad but banned at home: Rafiki and the politics of 'promoting lesbianism' in Kenya


Lyn Johnstone (Royal Holloway University)

Paper short abstract:

In this article, I use a case study of the 2008 film Rafiki, which was banned in its home country of Kenya for reasons relating to its homosexual content, to explore the complexity of attitudes towards queerness in Africa beyond simplistic dichotomies of Africa versus the West in the literature.

Paper long abstract:

In September 2018, following a law-suit brought against the Kenyan Film Classification Board (KFCB), Kenya's High Court temporarily lifted the ban on the film Rafiki so that it could be shown in its country of origin - a pre-requisite for Oscar eligibility. Rafiki received praise from critics at Cannes mainly because of the film's ban in Kenya due to its lesbian content. The familiar situation of a non-Western queer film receiving praise abroad while banned at home conforms to the simplistic construction of Africa versus the West when it comes to progress towards Western models of out politics and acceptance of homosexuality. Beyond these lazy constructions, however, lies a more complicated picture of attitudes towards non-normative sexualities in Kenya. In this article, I explore the complexity of attitudes towards queerness in Africa beyond simplistic dichotomies in the literature. I look firstly at the KFCB's original praise of Rafiki as 'a story about the realities of our time' and an interview with the film's director, who notes that, before the original ban was imposed, the KFCB had asked her to change, not so much the homosexual content, but the film's ending, which was deemed 'too hopeful'. I argue that the controversy surrounding Rafiki can be seen as an adaptation of Massad's (2002) theory of the 'gay international', but rather than create homosexuality where it does not exist, as Massad's theory claims, in the case of Rafiki the West has created false dichotomies around the idea of queer acceptance in Africa.

panel Anth34
African LGBTQ activisms: queer counter narratives and arts of resistance