Monica Arac De Nyeko in 2007 won the Caine Prize for African writing with a creative story about lesbianism, a story about a relationship between young girls in a country where homosexuality is illegal, titled Jambula Tree.
“In Africa these are not the kind of stories we’re allowed to tell. She’s taking on a theme that Africans have been in denial about – a theme about same-sex love,” said her publisher Becky Ayebia Clarke in 2007, when Ms Arac De Nyeko won the award.
Arac De Nyeko is an Acoli, originally from the Kitgum district of northern Uganda. The region has been torn apart by conflict since 1986. Although Arac de Nyeko spent much of her childhood in Kampala, she attended Gulu High School in the north for several years. After obtaining a degree in Education from Makerere University, Arac De Nyeko taught literature and English language at a boys’ school, St Mary’s College, Kisubi (SMACK), for two years. She then completed an MA in Humanitarian Assistance at Groningen University in the Netherlands.
Indeed years on, the story hasn’t changed much. Jambula Tree is the inspiration behind the much talked about film made by Kenyan film director, Wanuri Kahiu, titled Rafiki.
Rafiki is a coming of age story, a love story about Kena and Ziki who live in a housing estate in Nairobi. The girls are unlikely friends and their fathers are rivaling politicians. When they fall in love and the community find out, the girls are forced to choose between love and safety.
The film has been making headlines after its selection to premiere at the just concluded Cannes Film Festival and being banned in Kenya by the Kenya Film Classification Board.
On the flip side, Rafiki has demonstrated the power of what can happen if African filmmakers can join heads and collaborate. The power of African collaboration.
Steven Markovitz, the producer of Rafiki while speaking to Quartz said,“Europe has been funding African cinema for decades. And what tends to happen is African creatives develop a project but they can’t find money in their countries, so they go to Europe, they find a producer who raises a lot of money and then takes control of the subject. If you do a survey of the intellectual property ownership of African cinema over the past 40 years, I think it’s safe to say the majority of ownership of those films would be in Europe.”
In agreement with Markovitz, Wanuri Kahiu, film director Rafiki adds, “I think it’s high time that we come together and do more pan-African collaborations because West Africa has a really great history of cinema. As does Egypt. Egypt has over a hundred years of cinema.”
For Rafiki to have made it into Cannes, after being in the making for 7 years, Wanuri pitching to about 200-300 people and ending up with 30 different funders who believed in the project, she and her team deserve some accolades for sure!
Alongside Rafiki, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, was first-time South African director Etienne Kallos’ film The Harvesters (Die Stropers), which was made with funding from mostly European countries, like Poland, Greece and France.
Again, Markovitz says if there were more treaties between African countries it would be boost the morale of filmmakers on the continent, because it would mean greater control of how their stories are told.
Getting funding for films has proven an uphill task in most film active countries in Africa indeed. “When Europe funds our films, they tell our stories,” says Mayenzeke Baza, sales agent of AAA Entertainment, the only African distribution company to have a visible presence at the market of the Cannes Film Festival. “We don’t want to see people in loin cloths, dancing for others at the airport.”
So do we have solutions? Wanuri Kahiu believes that if we create stronger ties and treaties amongst ourselves as African countries we can achieve more. “I think we need to work with the nations that have already been in the industry for so long — that already have established producers and a filmmaking community — to get governments to talk to each other,” says Kahiu. She wants to see co-production treaties created between African countries, just like those that African countries such as South Africa have with European countries.