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“Rafiki” My love. by Kim Ndegwa

“Rafiki” My love.

As a child, I didn't have the standard societal judgment expected of someone raised in a Kenyan household. I would say this was because of the sheltered way I was raised; Outside of school, I interacted mainly with the people living in my grandmother's compound; A no judgment safe space for anyone who needed it. The first time I remember being exposed to same-sex love, I was about 7 or 8, sitting next to my mother as she was watching some American TV show (Cashmere Mafia). There was a conflict with a lesbian couple, and I remember being slightly fascinated by their relationship. I am almost sure I asked my mum if the two were dating, but this could just be my brain filling in for missing details. As I continued sitting next to my mother whenever she watched American TV shows, I was exposed to more gay characters, but I never really thought much about them.

When I watched Rafiki for the first time, I was with my parents. My heart was beating so fast I could hear it inside my head. I sat on the couch separate from my parents and fixed my gaze directly on the screen. I thought if I moved or if I dared to breathe a little too loud, everything would break. So I sat there trying to minimize my breathing until I started to get a little lightheaded. I could see myself in Kena, a good girl from an average family. She sat playing cards with her two friends, Blacksta and Kevo. The mood, lighthearted as they talked casually, bickering as they usually did. Then a pretty guy with a put-together outfit and laid-back dreadlocks walks to the shop behind them. It would be easier if she could ignore him; If they could all ignore him, but Kevo yells out a slur. Before she can block his words out, he yells it louder so that the pretty guy hears him. Kena tries to calm him down tries to reason with him, but he is too taken by his unwarranted anger. He stood and walked straight into the guy.

I remember being shocked at how hostile my high school was towards lesbians; I say lesbians because it was an all-girls school. My deskmate then was a girl not liked by many. She was as sweet as she was quick-tempered. We sat at the back of the class during the prep period, with no teacher in sight; The room, full of chatter. She turned to me excitedly with a glint in her eye and whispered that a senior student was supposedly her girlfriend. I did not know how to react at the moment, but I said I didn’t believe her. She rolled her eyes and turned to face forward but kept talking. She told me how nice it was to have someone like her and pay attention to her when everyone else seemed to avoid her. It was painful, and my thoughts were spiraling. Why did nobody like her? I couldn’t figure it out, but I never once engaged with people while they were actively bashing her.

It’s devastating how one moment can ruin it all. Ziki was just trying to clean up Kena’s wound. Her lip was bleeding from a fight with Ziki’s friends. They really couldn’t help it. So close to each other, alone and in love. Ziki kissed her, and then they got lost in each other; Forgetting where they were. Forgetting just how dangerous it was. Ziki’s mother came in, shocked and angry, threatening to call Kena’s mother. It all happened so fast, Ziki pushed her mother and ran for it with Kena following her steps. They ran to their secret place, an abandoned van that they had remodeled. With adrenaline rushing through them, they decide they’ll run away together. Hand in hand, as they try to calm their breaths. Then they heard the yells and the footsteps coming towards them. With no escape, they held each other. Held onto each other until they were torn apart. Yelled out for each other even as they tripped over themselves. They were dragged to the field… My mother spoke up for the first time since we began the film. She said it was exaggerated. “This couldn’t happen in real life.” But all I could think of were my friends who have faced violence due to their perceived identities.

In the third term of my first year of high school, everything changed. Unconsciously, this was when I realized that it was not safe for any of us. A Tuesday morning like any other, we got to class at 4:45 am, eyes half-opened and limbs barely coordinating. Bodies sat mechanically in our assigned seats, books open on the desks, some hands moving, flipping pages and writing, flipping a page, and more writing. At exactly 7:00 am, when the light had fully set in, we headed to the assembly ground. There was something different about that day. The air felt limited, not enough for hundreds of us. The space felt suffocating, ironic because we were outside. The gravel under our feet felt feeble like they could barely hold our weight. The principal stood before the assembly with a paper in hand, eyes glaring at us with authority. Then she started calling out names. About twenty girls, most popular among the students, lined up with their heads bent. The silence was suffocating. Their names had been anonymously submitted as suspects of lesbian behavior. Most were suspended, and the rest were expelled from the school.

My time in Boarding school was the worst in my life, but my best friend, Maria, made it better. We were so close, but our friendship had always felt on edge. As if there was something we could only get from each other. On Valentine's day 2016, I was in my second year of secondary school. After going to morning mass, we had lunch and went to class for afternoon preps. It was a special day, and even though some of my classmates were studying, the rest of us were busy talking. I sat at the back of the class while Maria sat at the very front. I was casually talking to the people around me when she came and handed me a letter. She smiled bashfully and told me not to open it until she was back in her seat. Suddenly the air around me changed, and the voices around me became muffled. I watched her walk back to her chair and counted 5 seconds before opening the letter.

As I read this now, I can’t help but feel embarrassed. However, for some reason, it is still glued to the front page of my old diary. I’ve always wondered why I decided to keep it... as if it wasn’t obvious before. I was in love with her.


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