Kenya lifts ban on lesbian film 'Rafiki' ahead of the Oscars

Cecilie Kallestrup

The ban on a film portraying a lesbian romance has been lifted in Kenya has been lifted – for one week.

Rafiki, which means "friend" in Swahili, was shown to a cheering, sold-out audience in Nairobi. Residents will be able to watch the film during daytime-only screenings at the Prestige Cinema in the capital for seven days after a judge temporarily lifted a ban on the film, making it eligible to be entered for a Foreign Language Oscar.

To qualify as Kenya's entry under the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2019 Academy Awards, Rafiki had to be released in the east African country.

While the filmmakers are thrilled by the decision, it has angered the Kenya Film Classification Board. The organisation banned the movie in April on the grounds that it promotes homosexuality, which is a criminal offence under a colonial-era law.

Rafiki premiered at Cannes in May as the first Kenyan film to be selected by the prestigious festival. Critics hailed it as a “sweet” romance about two young women who live in the same Nairobi housing estate.

Their coming-of-age love story is set against a backdrop of homophobia and intolerance in a country where sex between people of the same gender is illegal.

After the ban was lifted at the cinema in Nairobi, an additional screening was put on after more than 450 people showed up.

Vicky, a Nairobi photographer, came with her braided hair wrapped in a rainbow coloured scarf and said she was part of the LGBT community though declined to give her surname.

“This week means so much to so many people,” she said. “People can see themselves on screen and they can know that it is okay to express themselves in that way,” she said.

The film's director, Wanuri Kahiu, tweeted that she was moved to tears by the decision.

"I am crying," she wrote. "In a French airport. In SUCH Joy! Our constitution is STRONG! Give thanks to freedom of expression!!!! WE DID IT!"

Kenyan rights activists are fighting to decriminalise gay sex, a step taken in India earlier this month, raising hopes among gay rights proponents in Africa.