This week on The Trip podcast: Director Wanuri Kahui on her joyous battle for Kenya’s soul.
Ah, chatting about the weather. A bit of timeworn small-talk, favored by fumbly podcast hosts everywhere. But that pleasant chill in the air in Nairobi in early summer; that is at the heart of everything we’re going to be talking about over the next weeks here in Kenya. That cool climate, it seems, was Nairobi’s original sin, the thing that first drew British civil engineers to build a rail depot here in 1899. Pity the poor colonizer, who had been trying to subjugate so many peoples in the unbearable heat. Here at more than 5800 feet above sea level—way higher even than Denver—the air is dewy and lovely and it makes perfect sense that it would make an appealing homebase for your average gin-soaked sadist from Old Blighty looking to queen over all of East Africa. So Nairobi was born as a European city, and this whole region of East Africa became known as the White Highlands, where the land was stolen from the Masai and Kikuyu with such vigor and arrogance that, well, you had the Nandi resistance and the Kolloa Massacre and the Mau Mau Uprising and finally a free Nairobi, capital city of the independent Republic of Kenya. Its airport was built in part by Mau Mau prisoners held by the British in ghastly conditions, and today the airport is named after freedom fighter and first president Jomo Kenyatta. That’s just the first taste, for any arriving visitor, of the conflicting strands of DNA that weave around each other throughout this city
My first attempt to untangle it all starts with Wanuri Kahiu. When we put Nairobi on the calendar, she was the first person we thought of having on the show. When she said she lives in Karen, a particularly dewy and green district of Nairobi with a view of the Ngong Hills, that’s where I decided to stay. She is a leader that way, through her work and in person, she communicates this sense of humor and lightness mixed with intimate moral urgency, a push to see the world as she sees it, knows it, films it. If you are a fan of film and disturbed by censorship, you’ll know her film “Rafiki,” the first Kenyan film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, even as it was it banned by the Kenyan authorities for reasons relating to, well, gay-ism. But as you’ll hear in this episode, the fights she fought with “Rafiki” are still ongoing, and so are her triumphs, which will be coming, with more of that quiet and effective force, to your favorite streaming platform soon.
Welcome to Nairobi, this is the first of five episodes from this city, each featuring a different interview with artists, filmmakers, journalists, and musicians.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Wanuri. Subscribers can listen to the full episode here. If you’re not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.
Nathan Thornburgh: You’re still living out in Mombasa?
Wanuri Kahiu: No. Nairobi-based.
Thornburgh: What was that dalliance with the coast?
Kahiu: I’ve always wanted to live at the Coast. I feel like the coast is just a super magical wonderful, I can’t even explain. Mombasa’s just beautiful. The Kenyan coast is my happy place. Always has been. The Indian Ocean and the beaches and the coast and the south coast and the north coast are the most beautiful beaches anywhere I’ve ever seen.
Thornburgh: All right let’s go. Where are we doing up here in the hills?
Kahiu: I know, I know. So yeah, Mombasa’s where’s it at. So for awhile I thought I could live there. I was just like, “You know? I can live anywhere.” So I moved to Mombasa.
Thornburgh: Well you can live anywhere.
Kahiu: I mean you can in theory.
Thornburgh: But you can’t.
Living in the U.K. is when I realized I was black. I didn’t know until then.
Kahiu: But you can’t. Mombasa’s super small. It was small for what I needed to do so I was constantly jumping on an extra flight just to get out of Mombasa.
Thornburgh: Into opportunity.
Kahiu: Into life and work.
Thornburgh: Speaking of hopping on a flight to get into life, you hopped out pretty young into university?
Kahiu: Even before that, the last two years of high school I did in the UK.
Thornburgh: What was that like for you?
Kahiu: That’s when I realized I was black. I didn’t know until then.
Thornburgh: It’s a hard thing to figure out here.
Kahiu: I truly didn’t know.
Kahiu: I didn’t know it. Unlike now, I hadn’t heard of it. I wasn’t having race conversations with my parents. I’m having race conversations with my children now. It wasn’t a thing. Tribe was a thing, and we were trying to get over that, but race wasn’t a thing. I remember I had a white Auntie and she was like, different. She was the odd person out. “I have a white Auntie Suzanne,” and I was like, “Wow.” Because she was different.
For me the biggest conversation of all has been class. It’s never been race, because I think race is aggravated by class.
I mean [with] my children, I’m trying to find, it’s not even the tone—just the right way to start having conversations. But if I do get upset, I don’t hide it from them. If I feel like there’s a sense of injustice, I don’t hide it from them, but I just try and say it in a way that they would understand.
Thornburgh: How do you, because I think in a lot of the films that you make, you’re creating and in some of them, I’m thinking, “Pumzi” in particular, you’re creating a world that doesn’t exist. It’s a futuristic model that you get to decide the different parts that go into it. How do the characters think and talk about blackness there?
Kahiu: Well it’s interesting. The conversation about race in Pumzi is very accidental.
Thornburgh: How’s that?
Kahiu: Because when I wrote the film, it was cast all black and then on the day of the shoot, the person who was meant to be the cleaner dropped out, so we had to recast it on that morning and there was a white actress who was available, and then she became the cleaner. Then people started adding to the bill like, “The white person’s the cleaner and all the black people are not,” and I was just like, “Okay, if that’s how you want to read into it that’s cool,” but it wasn’t a conversation about race. It was still a conversation. For me the biggest conversation of all has been class. It’s never been race because I think race is aggravated by class. I’m talking about class in Kenya in an African perspective. My conversations have mostly been about class, because that’s what I’ve seen, and that’s what I’ve experienced, but in other places race is the one that is most—it’s just so much more.
I think I suffer from optimism.
Thornburgh: Well, since we’re on such great topics, I’ll deflect from all of our problems in the West and get right into the decision here four weeks ago, which was crazy. I was just reading, so the context obviously which our listeners should totally know of course is “Rafiki”was I think your highest profile film. It was the first Kenyan film to be an official selection at Cannes. It made news all around the world, not just for being a great film, but then for having been banned by the Kenyan Film—
Kahiu: Classification Board.
Thornburgh: Classification Board, which, talk about dystopian futures. It’s got a great title, in the lead for that. I was reading about their decision back then to not allow the film to be screened here in Kenya and some of the language sounded a lot like the recent Supreme Court ruling in Kenya which upheld the criminality of same-sex relationships. It’s the same people. They’re basically saying, “Hey we’re Kenya, and this is what it means to be Kenyan.”
Kahiu: No, because I reject that. I reject that that’s what it means to be Kenyan, because if we really just think about what it means to be Kenyan, like if we were to look into the American Constitution as a way of trying to figure out what it means to be American, then that language is not reflected in the Constitution, and that language is not reflected in the motto of Kenya. The motto of Kenya is Peace, Love and Unity. Seems pretty simple.
Thornburgh: That’s right out of a gay pride slogan.
Kahiu: They should just have a flag.
Thornburgh: Big old rainbow flag.
Kahiu: On the monument.
Thornburgh: No kidding.
Kahiu: And the constitution is super clear about some of the things that are happening. The Constitution says—I mean the ruling that stayed the criminalization of same-sex relations—was first incredibly devastating. I remember listening to it and I think everybody who was listening for it remembers where they were and remembers, some people remember when they switched off or turned away. Some people remember, but it was just the most devastating ruling. It was the complete denial of people’s existence. It was horrific. It was tragic. It was appalling. I don’t have the language to describe that court ruling. It was incredibly unfortunate, and that is not what it means to be Kenyan.
Those words are not what it means to be Kenyan. I can’t describe my country using the same language because it’s not that. It’s not that. That court ruling was just, it was an image of us showing a lack of empathy. It was us being unkind. It was that version of us, but that’s not all the version of us that there is and I wouldn’t put that version on such a beautiful blessed country.
Thornburgh: In your heart did you think it would go down this way?
Kahiu: Well, I don’t know why I was optimistic, but also I made a film and I was optimistic that it might not be banned either. So I think I suffer from optimism.
Thornburgh: Well this was I mean; that was one of the incredible [ways] people are damning themselves by their own words and judgment’s. One of the things that was tied up into the reason why the film classification board banned Rafiki was it was too hopeful.
Kahiu: It was too hopeful. It wasn’t remorseful enough.
Thornburgh: Which is just a stunning thing and I remember reading some interviews that you had done at the time. You were like, “I’m an optimistic person. This is the ending that film is going to have.”
Kahiu: Yeah, you can’t take out the joy and it was strange because I was in a meeting with the Classification Board and there was many of them and the only thing they honed in on after an hour’s conversation was not the hand holding, was not the kissing, was not the affectionate touching, was not the long lingering looks, was just the ending’s not remorseful enough and the song at the end is too love song. It’s too much of a love song. It’s too sweet. Please remove it. That’s why I remember the word remorseful so clearly because it started to redefine my relationship with that word because I never thought it would be applied in that way. You can have the movie, just make it remorseful.
Thornburgh: Just make everyone regret who they are and what they’ve done and how they got to the end of that film.
Kahiu: And we’ll give you a rating.
Thornburgh: It’s stunning. It’s like the town that banned dancing or something.
Kahiu: It happens.
Thornburgh: It does happen, and you just are always trying to, well at least I’m trying to figure out, how can these people let these words cross their lips and not realize whatever path they took in life. They’re now the people that said, “There’s too much joy in this. Now we quash.” Can you imagine that young child? “When I grow up, I’m going to find a piece of joy and I’m going to throttle it.”
Kahiu: “I’ll suffocate it with remorse.”
Thornburgh:“I will be the pro remorse voice in the room.”
Joy exists whether you want to find it or not, because of the absurdity of life.
Thornburgh: “I will be the pro remorse voice in the room.” I mean talk about emotional intelligence. You want to get those people and they exist in every country. You just want to get them on the couch and say—
Kahiu: “What happened?”
Thornburgh: “Hey buddy-”
Kahiu: “Calm down.”
Thornburgh: “How did we get here? Do you want to talk about it?” I think it’s very clear from the way you talk about it and obviously that just the straight facts of the ruling, it is devastating. It comes after a three-year court battle and a millennia of trying to coexist here, but still you’re finding some joy in this.
Kahiu: You have to. Joy exists whether you want to find it or not, because of the absurdity of life. Life is so absurd.
Even in the midst of war, the absurdity of life is just like it takes you out of it and you’re just like, “What the hell just happened?” Because I think that there’s this illusion that people who live in specific spaces are accustomed to a type of treatment, or accustomed to a type of way of life.
Often I’m asked, “Wasn’t I surprised?” Yes, I was surprised when my film was banned, because I’m not used to it. I’m not accustomed to being mistreated. That’s not the reality, and I’m not accustomed to seeing something very plainly written in the Kenyan constitution about freedom of expression, and having that quashed. I’m not accustomed to that, and people in places of war are not accustomed to death. It happens because of the way they are, but it’s not something they’re just like, “Mm, well, you know.” I think that everything is as real as an emotion as anywhere else and sometimes I’m kind of like, “Oh that place, oh Syria.” You know what I mean? As if they’re used to it. Nobody’s used to that. Nobody’s used to running from their homes. Nobody’s used to ending up on the overpasses. Nobody’s used to having their children put in cages. Nobody’s used to children being taken from them like it’s happening in America. Nobody is used to that. Nobody becomes used to it. And justice is not something that becomes familiar or comfortable, and justice remains uncomfortable, and it should.