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Kenya's gay community revels in screening of lesbian love story, 'Rafiki'

Kenyan actress Samantha Mugatsia, director Wanuri Kahiu, and actress Sheila Munyiva at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival in southern France.
Kenyan actress Samantha Mugatsia, director Wanuri Kahiu, and actress Sheila Munyiva at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival in southern France. Kenyan actress Samantha Mugatsia, director Wanuri Kahiu, and actress Sheila Munyiva at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival in southern France. AFP/File
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Nairobi (AFP)

The lights dim in the packed cinema as the holding music fades. The film title "Rafiki" flashes up on the screen, and some 230 hushed spectators burst out in euphoric applause.

After being banned for months due to a lesbian love theme, the film whose title means "Friend" in Swahili was screened for the first time Sunday in its country of origin, Kenya.

"It is really a victory," said Nairobi resident Daisy Oriri, 24, who attended the historic showing at a movie house near the city centre with a female friend.

"This is the kind of movie that makes it possible for mentalities to evolve. that makes people understand that we have rights and that we are human beings," she told AFP, clearly moved.

"It was a beautiful movie, it tells a part of my life."

Earlier this year, Rafiki became the first Kenyan film ever selected for showing at France's prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

Director Wanuri Kahiu went to court after the Kenya Film Classification Board banned Rafiki for "promoting lesbianism", a decision that rendered it ineligible for the Oscars.

A judge ruled on Friday that the film can be shown to "willing adults only" for a period of seven days -- the minimum requirement for a film to qualify for Oscar consideration.

Sunday's showing happened in a fun, relaxed environment in a country where homophobia is rife, with youngsters taking selfies to capture the memory.

Laughs and boos met the censorship board's logo and announcement that the film is restricted to over-18s.

Theatre manager Celcius Aloo said Sunday: "I expect it to be full every day."

- Good girls become good wives -

In the story, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), are students living with their parents.

They meet and fall in love in a place where, according to the moviemakers, "Good Kenyan girls become good Kenyan wives", and homosexuality remains illegal under laws dating to the British colonial era.

The motion picture features no sex scenes, opting to focus instead on the characters' sensual and emotional awakening.

But Kenyan censors nevertheless banned the offering "due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law."

"It is not easy to be a homosexual in Africa," said movie-goer Mike, who declined to give his full name for fear of harassment over his sexual orientation.

"Mentalities are difficult to change, but at least, this movie triggers a debate in this country. I hope the new generation will have a more tolerant approach than the older ones."

"This is the first Kenyan movie in history to get such international recognition. It is crazy to think that it was forbidden in its own country," added Mbithi Masya, 32, a fellow Nairobi resident.

"Every person has the right to love who he or she wants."

For 19-year-old Emily, who also did not wish to give her full name, the classification board's decision reeks of "double standards".

"When you look at the content of certain American movies that are authorised in Kenya, and when you look at the very shy (conservative) making of Rafiki, you really start wondering how they came to the decision to ban the movie," she said at the screening.

"I don't understand all the fuss around that movie, and in general around homosexuality. Aren't there bigger problems than movies or other people's sexuality? Homosexuality is not a disease!"

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