Wanuri Kahiu

  • Name: Wanuri Kahiu
  • Discipline: Filmmaker
  • Country: Kenya
  • Threat(s): Censorship, harassment
  • When: 2008–present
  • Current Status: Censored

Wanuri Kahiu is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, best known for Rafiki, a feature-length film that made waves after it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019. Rafiki, the story of two girls who fall in love and struggle with their relationship in a conservative, homophobic society, became a global cause célèbre when it was banned in Kenya. Kahiu and her crew faced severe backlash and harassment but fought back by taking their case to court and attempting to rescind the ban on the grounds that freedom of expression is enshrined in Kenya’s constitution. Although the government lifted the ban just long enough for the film to qualify for an Oscar, as of today the ban remains in effect. Kahiu is also a founding member of AFROBUBBLEGUM, a collective of African artists whose ambition is to create “fun, fierce and frivolous” work.

From the Artist:

“I recommend agitating and I recommend fighting. Any voice that stands up for kindness is necessary. Any voice that stands up for humanity is necessary—any voice. But I would strongly recommend being careful about the energy you let in and finding ways to direct your energy, and finding ways to refresh your energy.”

It's very hard to think that your imagination can be a threat, to think that your art can be troubling or radical. Not even radical but dangerous. I had never thought of myself as an activist. Even when I was making Rafiki, I didn't think of myself as an activist. Because I'm just creating. I'm creating what I feel, I'm creating what I'm responding to. It's just me creating worlds and hoping that the worlds are the kinds of places that I want to be a part of.

I know that the world I live in—and especially the Kenya that I live in—is conservative. I know that there'll be pushback. When I work, I try to be careful. Even when thinking of Rafiki, we wanted to make sure that we didn't break the law in making it. We hired a lawyer to work with us before we submitted the script for approval for a film license.

We talked about it with the primary actors—the girls, the parents. We said: Make sure you have a support system as you make this film. Make sure your family knows about it before you make it. We advise that you tell your family. Don't go into this film without somebody who understands and believes in this vision.

The Kenya Film Classification Board asked us to change the ending of Rafiki because it was not “remorseful enough.” Asking somebody to change a film is censorship. When we said no, they banned the film. I was really worried, because at that point the head of the Classification Board was also threatening to arrest me. 

The only time I reacted was when we decided to sue and ask for the film to be screened for seven days. We won. We knew that the moment we went to court, they couldn't arrest me. We're not only trying to overturn the ban—I think overturning the ban is neither here nor there. What is important is to establish a case that supports freedom of expression. I think that freedom of expression and freedom of speech are rudimentary rights.

Fighting can feel really lonely. I took a complete social media break. I needed the emotional capacity for the fight and moved away from spaces like social media, where it felt like l was constantly being attacked. I went to therapy. I think it is important for any artist doing controversial work to have a therapist. And having people who were helpful really got me through everything.