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Opinion Kenya’s homophobia is not the only dangerous thing about the ban on ‘Rafiki’

Wanuri Kahiu is the director of the film “Rafiki.” It was Kenya’s first feature film invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France, but it has been banned in Kenya. (Ben Curtis/AP)
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If the Oscar-winning performance by Lupita Nyong’o in “12 Years A Slave” was in a Kenyan movie, her film probably would have been banned for being too obscene. That is how dumb Kenya’s content regulations have become, with an overzealous censorship board and a public that seems to believe any material it disagrees with should be banned.

“Rafiki,” a lesbian love story directed by Wanuri Kahiu, was the first Kenyan film to be selected to screen at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. This is no small feat for a low-budget, independent movie. But instead of being celebrated here in Kenya, the film has been banned because of “its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.” The idea that homosexuality is a product that can be promoted by a film is not only laughable, but it reveals the backward mind-set of those who make the rules in Kenya.

Arguing that “Rafiki” (the Swahili word for “friend,” ironically) is somehow incompatible with “the dominant values of Kenyan society” and normalizes homosexuality has become all too common. Just days after Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain apologized for her country’s legacy of colonial-era anti-gay laws in former British Commonwealth countries such as Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta offered a passionate defense of those same outdated statutes on international TV. The tone-deaf Kenya Film Classification Board and its hopelessly conceited leader Ezekiel Mutua (who once compared himself to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) clearly have support from the top ranks in government. They can’t see the great irony of clinging to discriminatory practices long abandoned by our former colonial masters.

When award-winning Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina announced his engagement to a man earlier this month, he was attacked by the same intolerant mob that came after him when he bravely came out four years ago. This is the same country that claims to be a progressive, modern democracy, but still carried out anal examinations until a court ruled against it in March. Kenya still sentences those found “guilty” of homosexuality to 14 years in prison. Being anything other than heterosexual is conflated with immorality so commonly in Kenyan culture that two guests on national TV discussed the ban of “Rafiki” without once using the words “gay” or “homosexual,” perhaps to avoid offending viewers. A government agency that is supposed to classify domestic and foreign movies has become the official moral censorship vehicle. But many Kenyans support the agency’s efforts. Kahiu was right when she tweeted that “adult Kenyans are mature and discerning enough to watch local content but their right has been denied.”

It is fitting that she and the film’s lead actresses, Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, received a standing ovation when the film premiered at Cannes. They deserve all the international recognition their own country is too bigoted to give them. It is not the job of the state to poke its nose into what people do in the privacy of their own homes — and the government certainly should not limit legitimate artistic expression.

In 2014, Kenya banned another LGBT-themed movie, “Stories of our Lives,” though it had earned critical acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival. And though Kenya’s 2010 constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the officials who have sworn to uphold it are the same ones actively trashing that key clause. Homophobia as official government policy has no major opposition in Kenya because many of its religious citizens believe it is un-African to love someone of the same gender. Yet these same people have no problem with allegiance to either a foreign Jesus Christ or Mohammed.

Homophobia is not the only dangerous thing in Kenya. These reactions to a changing society are hurting Kenya’s fledgling creative industry. Big-budget productions with Kenyan storylines are now regularly shot out of the country because of restrictive taxes that make the country unattractive to international filmmakers. Imported camera and sound-recording equipment are prohibitively expensive because of the extra duty charges added by the government.

If a filmmaker jumps though the hoops to produce a movie in Kenya, his or her script still has to be approved by the Film Classification Board — which may deny a permit if it deems any part of the script to be offensive. While Nigeria’s delightfully wacky film industry, Nollywood, thrives partly because of its government’s hands-off approach to creative work, Kenya’s creative industry struggles under a government that wants to legislate morality.

The early success of “Rafiki” is a validation of the global appeal of Kenyan creative talent. It also reaffirms the fact that the universal theme of love — even among sexual minorities — deserves to be explored on the big screen. Pioneers such as Wanuri Kahiu, who challenge convention and tackle taboo subjects, enrich the human experience and should be applauded, not condemned by colonial-era laws.

In 2018, love is love and art is art. Period.

Read more on this issue:

Larry Madowo: Kenya is sliding into a dictatorship

Gay Kenyans might be on the brink of a historic legal triumph