In 2018, Wanuri Kahiu told a love story. It was a decidedly Kenyan love story. It was also a love story between two young women. Rafiki (2018), adapted from Monica Arac de Nyeko's 2007 short story ‘Jambula Tree’, became a global hit, a film whose tenderness was matched only by its power. In Kenya, however, the film was banned. Kahiu’s disappointment was profound - not because of some judgement about her art, but because she believes deeply in the constitutionally-protected right to express and explore.
Through her own style called Afrobubblegum, she has committed her life to telling stories of joy and hope. Too many African stories, she believes, concern poverty, war, sickness, adversity - what Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie has called ‘the single story.’ Wanuri Kahiu wants to add to these with tales which are fun, fierce, frivolous, and, importantly, full of love.
What is Afrobubblegum?
Afrobubblegum is fun, fierce, and frivolous African art. It’s African art that has joy and hope at the center of it. It doesn’t only look at contemporary art, it also goes back into history and looks at traditions, myths, and legends that we consider joyful, hopeful, and firmly based in imagination.
Can you give us some examples of these Afrobubblegum myths or traditions?
In Kenya, the Borana community use one of the world’s oldest calendars, dated about 1200 years before our current calendar. I feel it’s an example of Afrobubblegum because it’s steeped in African legend, science, and imagination. It’s based on the rising of the moon. Every time the moon rises with a different planet rising next to it, this is charted as one month. There are no weeks, but every day of the month has a different name. Something that’s important to Afrobubblegum is establishing that there have always been people of hope and joy in Africa, and this is an instrument that demonstrates that.
What is ‘the single story?’
It’s something Chimamanda coined. There’s a risk that we only have one story coming out of the African continent which is about suffering or pain or devastation. There are so many stories apart from that. Afrobubblegum is an addition to the stories we already know about Africa, but from the angle of joy and hope. If we say that “seeing is believing”, we need to see images of ourselves not only as resilient people, but also as glorious people, and then we will believe it about ourselves.
Can you share some personal experiences which have helped define Afrobubblegum as a style?
My mother’s a pediatrician, but she always told interesting stories. For the longest time I wasn’t sure what was fact and what was fiction. One of the stories, which I truly believed until I was in my twenties, is that if you eat lots and lots of salt, it builds up through your body and shoots out the top of your head and kills you instantly. She called it “high blood pressure.”
Our house was full of these stories. Weird and wonderful. There was one about an uncle who sneezed so hard he killed a goat! They were kind of ‘science’ and ‘fantasy’, and that’s where my love of sci-fi began. But the stories she told were very Kenya-based. For me, science-fiction has never been ‘foreign’. It has always been very African.
"I hope some of my stories are used almost in that sense, as ways of seeing what may be possible in the future, imagining and defining future possibilities." – Wanuri Kahiu
Is it important to your art that people might believe your stories, even though they’re fantastical and strange?
Absolutely. I’m a storyteller, like the storytellers of old. Part of being a storyteller of that lineage is not only speaking about our past and how it’s individual to us, but also speaking about the future like seers. I hope some of my stories are used almost in that sense, as ways of seeing what may be possible in the future, imagining and defining future possibilities. The future is fiction.
In your film, Rafiki, how important was it to tell a Kenyan love story?
I wanted Kenyans to remember that we fall in love in the most easy, natural way. Growing up, I saw everybody else fall in love on screen. Americans, Europeans - everybody fell in love, but we didn’t! It felt like a missed opportunity to see ourselves. I found ‘Jambula Tree’ and it felt so pure and beautiful. That’s why I wanted to adapt it into Rafiki. But it all initially started with the want and the need to tell a love story.
Certain people didn’t want that story told. How did the film’s censorship in Kenya make you feel? What can be done?
I don’t expect everybody to like all of my work. The only thing we were fighting for as a result of the film being made, and then banned, was that we have the right to choose. When it was banned, I was deeply, deeply disappointed in the classification board. I felt it went against the spirit of the constitution, which is very clear when it talks about freedom of expression. Our constitution is very young. We only voted it into place in 2010. The laws that were used to ban my film are remnants of colonial laws that have not been updated since. I felt I had to fight for the right that is enshrined in the constitution by trying to get the film seen.
"It’s important to know that our history has been full of light and joy and exploration and imagination." – Wanuri Kahiu
This intersects with politics, but for you it’s more about art changing the world. If Afrobubblegum could change Africa, change the world, what would that look like?
I think we all need an understanding of what Africa is. Not only is it a fifth of the land mass in the world, it’s also pegged to be among the highest populations of people in upcoming years. Of that population, 77% will be under the age of thirty. We’re an incredibly young continent, and growing. The images we are creating for ourselves and the generations to come must remind us that we’re joyful and hopeful, rather than only being resilient and adaptable. It’s important to know that our history has been full of light and joy and exploration and imagination.
Once we add that narrative of ourselves as well as all the other narratives that already exist, I think we begin to see that we are capable of so much more. Not only does this affect people in the African continent, it begins to influence all people of color who have roots coming out of africa, and also, given Africa is the cradle of humanity, it begins to hopefully affect the psyche of anyone who believes they have any connection to Africa. You start to realize that you are part of the most joyous beginnings. The only way to overcome fear is to replace it with joy, curiosity, and hope. I am a believer in radical hope.
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