Wanuri Kahiu

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Wanuri Kahiu
Wanuri Kahiu.png
Born (1980-06-21) 21 June 1980 (age 42)
EducationUniversity of Warwick
University of California, Los Angeles
Notable work
From a Whisper (2008); Pumzi (2009); Rafiki (2018)

Wanuri Kahiu (born 21 June 1980) is a Kenyan film director, producer, and author. She is considered to be “one of Africa's most aspiring directors, being part of a new, vibrant crop of talents representing contemporary African culture”.[1] She has received several awards and nominations for the films which she directed, including the awards for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture at the Africa Movie Academy Awards in 2009 for her dramatic feature film From a Whisper.[2] She is also the co-founder of AFROBUBBLEGUM, a media collective dedicated to supporting African art for its own sake.[3][4]


Kahiu was born in Nairobi, Kenya. She currently[when?] lives between Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya.[5] In an interview with Vogue Italia, the filmmaker describes herself as a black sheep to her conservative parents; her mother is a doctor and her father a businessman.[5] Yet, her aunt is an actress in Kenya and her uncle is a sculptor. She comes from a line of “strong, forward-thinking women”,[6] with her mother being one of the first female pediatricians in the area they lived in. In her 2014 TED talk titled No More Labels, Kahiu mentions that growing up in Kenya, she didn't encounter a lot of love stories coming from Africa. Because of that, some of her work attempts to depict such love stories. Despite her family's professional background, Kahiu decided to pursue a career in the arts. At the age of 16, she discovered her passion for filmmaking that came from her love for reading and storytelling. However, after graduating from high school, Kahiu decided to get “a proper degree”[6] at University of Warwick in England.  Upon graduating from the University of Warwick in 2001 with a BSc degree in Management Science, she decided to go back into the arts and obtained a Masters of Fine Arts degree in production/directing at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Theatre, Film and Television.[2]

Kahiu began her filmmaking career by interning for F. Gary Gray's office, which allowed her to work on the production of his 2003 film The Italian Job (2003). As she explains, Gray taught her to

“keep an eye on the bigger picture but not to take the details for granted”.[7] In 2006, Kahiu made her professional debut directing a behind-the-scenes documentary The Spark that Unites about a feature film Catch a Fire directed by Phillip Noyce. Working together led to Kahiu and Noyce becoming close friends. When talking about this experience, Kahiu notes that it was Noyce who encouraged her to go back to her home country, Kenya, to tell stories. As she explains, Noyce emphasized the importance of “[being] a local success first before becoming an international storyteller”.[8]

Ras Star

Ras Star is Kahiu's first short narrative film, which she directed in 2006. It tells the story of Amani, a teenage rapper, living with his Islamic aunt and uncle in Nairobi. Amani dreams of being a rapper, and secretly practices for a local talent show. However, he and his brother get dragged into local criminal activities in their neighborhood.[9]

From a Whisper[edit]

Her first feature film, From a Whisper (2008), received a total of 12 nominations and earned five awards at the 5th Africa Movie Academy Awards in 2009.[10] Among other nominations, the film was nominated for the Best Picture Award, Best Screenplay Award, and Best Director Award. It ended up winning in all three categories. The film fictionalizes the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. It tells the story of a young girl, Tamani, who loses her mother in the attack and is told by her father that her mother is missing when she is actually deceased. Tamani searches for her mother, painting hearts across the city, she also befriends a policeman named Abu. Abu helps Tamani as the viewers discover the shame he feels for not stopping his friend who helped attack the embassy.

As Dennis Harvey writes in his review for the Daily Variety, the “interactions between the young woman and older man let both come to terms with a painful past they were helpless to prevent”.[11] Film scholar, Clara Giruzzi highlights Kahiu's display of an African feminist sensibility, displayed by the egalitarian relationships in the film, and the pacifist messages in the wake of national trauma, which challenge essentialist and universalist western perspectives of Africa.[12] Dennis Harvey, for the Daily Variety, writes that despite the film's occasional "titled" writing and performances, the drama "effectively puts the causes and aftermath of large terrorist actions in personal terms."[11]

As she notes in an interview, Kahiu still remembers the event, despite being a young teenager at the time. She refers to the bombing as “a horrific and traumatic event from Kenya”.[7] She remembers her mother treating several patients who were the victims of the bombing. Although the event itself was a tragedy, Kahiu notes that it united Kenyans, regardless of their “ethnicity, social status or tribe”.[7] When talking about the pre-production process for From a Whisper, Kahiu notes that casting for the role of Tamani, one of the protagonists of the story, took months before she met Corrine Onyango, who ended up getting the role. Although the film was Onyango's debut, Kahiu stated that she was “the perfect fit” and “did an amazing job with the character”.[7]


According to literature scholar Mich Nyawalo, Pumzi (2009) challenges the pessimistic representation of African realities and futures by using the aesthetics of Africanfuturism to demonstrate African-led creativity. It depicts the story of a young botanist Asha, thirty five years after World War III (aka the water war).[13] Asha discovers life outside of her post-apocalyptic underground community. In her protectionist community, members must take dream suppressants to quiet hopes of a better future.[13]

Pumzi premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival as a part of the New African Cinema program. It won several awards, one of them being the Best Short Film Award at the Cannes Film Festival.[14]

Mitch Nyawalo argues that Pumzi's destruction parallels the economic devastation in the aftermath of the World Bank's structural adjustment programs. The film also displays an "ecofemninst critical posture" where women are most affected by environment devastation but also are at the forefront of bettering their societies.[15] Art scholar Omar Kholeif writes about Pumzi's interpellation of Western understandings of Africa: "Kahiu's film poses a poignant allegory in that it espouses an indirect commentary on imperial essentialism of the superficial Other. This is achieved by correlating the disenchantment that gave rise to science fiction with the perceived notions of Africa as a barren and impoverished social and geographic entity."[16] Aboubakar Sanogo, a scholar and professor, describes Pumzi as “post-nature”, a term that describes the relationship between humanity and the environment.[14] African Studies scholar MaryEllen Higgins describes the film's "untraceable sound" suggesting "motion...without any visually perceivable movement" that "breaks the quiet stillness of a devastated, dead landscape".[13] The sound, Higgins writes, is "strange" like an "approaching storm".[13]

For Our Land[edit]

Kahiu's documentary For Our Land documents Nobel Peace Prize laureate Professor Wangari Maathai's story. Maathai's filmed biography takes part of a series "The Great Africans" for a South African television channel (M-Net).[17] The documentary gives voice to the professor's environmental and political activism.[17] Although film critic, Kathryn Mara, criticizes some of the "unexplained chronological gaps", she notes that the film does present the professor's legacy "in a lively and engaged manner".[17] The documentary underscores the "relationship between European colonialism and environmental change" as well as the "intersectionalities" of battling over land with housing developments.[17]


Kahiu's 2018 film Rafiki ("Friend") received funding by the Netherlands Film Fund. The production company is Big World Cinema, a South African company supporting young African filmmakers. In her interview with Olivier Barlet, Kahiu mentions working with Steven Markovitz, a South African producer, whom she also worked with on her short film Pumzi. She states that “having two people, from two different countries actually makes a project stronger” and helps “grow the industry on the Continent”.[18] The rest of the production team came from Kenya, France, and the Netherlands. Rafiki chronicles the story of two Kenyan girls who fall in love with each other and struggle to navigate this love with their families in a homophobic society. In an interview with Olivier Barlet, Kahiu says that she chose to adapt Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko's short story "Jambula Tree", due to its "texture and nuances" in the taboo love story. Homosexuality in Africa has long been debated, but Kahiu tells Olivier Barlet that homophobia is not of the spirit of Ubuntu since it marginalizes people in the community. Above all, Kahiu finished her interview with Olivier Barlet by saying that she hopes the upcoming film will portray a "normal love story" that acknowledges the heroic challenges of choosing a "difficult love".[18] In addition, Kahiu discusses in an NPR interview with Sacha Pfeiffer how her films are not necessarily meant to be political, how she does not create them for that purpose, but they are "deemed political" because of her race and gender. She goes on to lament how unfortunate it is "that sometimes that when two people are in love, the moment that you change the gender and the race of the people in love, it becomes increasingly political" and that is all audiences and critics tend to see.[19]

Rafiki is the first feature film portraying a love story between two girls to ever come out of Kenya. The film tells a story about Kena and Ziki, two girls living in the same neighborhood, and the way their relationship develops despite the conservative environment they live in. Kena comes from a working-class family; her dad is a store owner who decided to run as a candidate in the local elections. Kena comes from a “broken” family with her dad separating from her mom and starting a family with a different woman. Ziki, on the other hand, has a different family background. As members of the upper middle class, her family has access to things Kena's family doesn't. Ziki's dad, as the opposing candidate in the local elections, has an easier time with his campaign because of his financial state, while Kena's dad has to rely on the support of the local people who come into his store.

As we watch Kena and Ziki's relationship blossom, we are constantly reminded of the surroundings they live in. Although the way they interact with each other and openly showcase their fondness for one another completely challenges heteronormativity, Kahiu juxtaposes that with the conservative, narrow-minded mindset of the people around them. In her interview with Olivier Barlet, Kahiu emphasizes the importance of the rejection of labels through her work, as a way of opposing the heteronormative world we live in. She states that she wants Rafiki to be a love story first, before being seen as a queer love story.[18]

The film was selected to premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and was the first Kenyan film to screen at the festival where it received a standing ovation.[20] The film was nominated for the Queer Palm Award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It was shown at the 2018 London Film Festival.[21] In total, the film received 17 nominations and 17 awards at different international film festivals.

In her interview for CNN, Kahiu admits that being a filmmaker in Kenya is “ridiculously difficult”, because film is not “an appreciated art”.[1] Despite being an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, Kahiu still struggles to get recognition in her own country, due to her progressive way of thinking that contradicts societal norms. When talking about the production process for Rafiki, Kahiu stated that making a film in Kenya requires a license, which the Rafiki production team was able to obtain, despite the film's controversial topic. However, after the production had wrapped, the Classification Board required Kahiu to change the ending and make it “more remorseful”, because they felt it was “too hopeful”, in order to avoid having the film banned.[22] Kahiu refused to change the ending, which resulted in the film being banned.

The Wooden Camel[edit]

The Wooden Camel is Kahiu's first children's book. It tells the story of a boy, named Etabo, who dreams of racing camels. His older siblings tease him and his family sells their camels to survive. With the help of his goat friend and his spirits, who tell him his "dreams are enough", he continues to daydream. His sister then carves him a wooden camel, bringing Etabo closer to his family.[23]


Kahiu's co-written short story, "RUSTIES", indulges a futuristic world. The story tells the story of the relationship between a young girl and a traffic-directing robots. In an interview with Quartz, Kahiu says that creating images for African children is important to correct "being written out of our histories" and to hope for a future Africa.[24]

In June 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, an event widely considered a watershed moment in the modern LGBTQ rights movement, Queerty named her one of the Pride50 "trailblazing individuals who actively ensure society remains moving towards equality, acceptance and dignity for all queer people".[25]

The Thing About Jellyfish film adaptation[edit]

In April 2019, Kahiu and Millie Bobby Brown teamed up for a film adaptation of the YA novel The Thing About Jellyfish for Universal Studios.[26] Kahiu is set to direct the film, which will be produced by Gigi Pritzker and Rachel Shane of MWM Studios, Bruna Papandrea, and Reese Witherspoon.

The Thing About Jellyfish, written by Ali Benjamin is a stunning debut novel about grief and wonder that was an instant New York Times bestseller.[27]

Wild Seed film adaptation[edit]

Wanuri Kahiu is also among writers who will be working on the adaptation of Octavia Butler novel, Wild Seed into a film, in a project by Amazon.[28]

Wanuri, who will also be director of the Wild Seed series, will develop the script alongside Nigerian author Nnedi Okorafor. The show is produced by Viola Davis and Julius Tennon of JuVee Production.[29]

Once on This Island film adaptation[edit]

In July 2020, it was announced that Wanuri Kahiu would direct the film adaptation of the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens stage musical Once on This Island for Walt Disney Pictures and Marc Platt Productions from a screenplay by Jocelyn Bioh. It will be released on Disney+.[30]

Creative influences[edit]


Kahiu engages with Africanfuturism, both in her artistic creation and as inspiration. Drawing on the depth, power, and histories of African mythologies, spiritualities, and naturalisms, Kahiu has made the argument that African peoples and cultures have been engaging in afrofuturistic thought for centuries, if not longer.[24] Primarily, she locates Africa as relatively close to the spirit world, allowing for a blending of spirituality and reality both in story and in lived reality. She positions Africa as an inherently futuristic space, one that disrupts and does away with Western binaries surrounding technology, nature, and linear time. Africa's futurity is one far older, deeper, and richer than anything that the West has come up with. Contemporarily, Kahiu has identified Africanfuturism as one that undergoes a postcolonial reclamation of its own timelines, narratives, and spaces. This becomes apparent in Pumzi, in which reclamation and reuse are shown to be authentically, inherently African practices.[12] Pumzi's celebration of an Afro-centric future criticizes Afro-pessimism. In Pumzi, Kahiu challenges the pessimistic representation of African realities and futures by using the aesthetics of Afrofutirism to demonstrate African-led creativity.[12] Furthermore, in an interview with Variety, Kahiu says she enjoys the genre of sci-fi for its "flexibility" and "the ability to use metaphors to say a lot more challenging things about the politics or social climate in Africa."[31]

Critique of non-governmental organizations[edit]

Kahiu has critiqued the ways in which Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) control the popular imagination of Africa. She has expressed that how you get money to be able to be a filmmaker in Kenya is through making films about whatever NGOs are funding – films that are about AIDS or female genital mutilation.[32] These images, Kahiu says, reconstitute Africa as the Other.

Kahiu situates her work as a filmmaker making films about Africa to combat these images. She says her films are for the next generation: "Because we have children that we are bearing, and because there are people already here now who exist (my daughter exists now), that we are telling stories to: we need to be very clear about the messages we're putting out."[32]


In an interview with Vogue Italia, Kahiu says: "We have to be careful and sensitive, like in my film Pumzi we have to be the mother of mother nature and if we are not mother of mother nature than mother nature will stop mothering us."[5]




Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Award Work Category Results
2009 African Movie Academy Awards From a Whisper Best Picture Won
Best Director
Best Screenplay
AMAA Achievement in Writing
Best Original Soundtrack
Best Actor in Leading Role Nominated
Best Actress in Leading Role
Best Child Actor
AMAA Achievement in Sound
AMAA Achievement in Art Direction
AMAA Achievement in Cinematography
AMAA Achievement in Makeup
2010 Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival Best Feature Won
Cannes Independent Film Festival[34] Pumzi Best Short Film
Venice Film Festival Award of the City of Venice
Dubai International Film Festival Muhr AsiaAfrica Award Nominated
2018 AFI Fest Rafiki Audience Award Nominated
Bratislava International Film Festival Viewers Choice Award Won
Cannes Film Festival Queer Palm Nominated
Un Certain Regard Award Nominated
Carthage Film Festival Best Music Won
Best Actress
Tanit d'Or Nominated
Chicago International Film Festival Silver Q-Hugo Won
Gold Q-Hugo Nominated
Durban International Film Festival Best Film Nominated
Madrid International LGBT Film Festival Jury Prize: Best Acting Won
Audience Award: Best Feature Film
Merlinka Festival Jury Prize: Best Feature Film Nominated
NewFest: New York's LGBT Film Festival Audience Award: Narrative Feature Won
Oslo Films from the South Festival Audience Award Nominated
New Voices Award
São Paulo International Film Festival Best Film Nominated
Seattle Queer Film Festival Audience Award: Favorite Narrative Feature Won
Jury Award: Best Feature Film
Sydney Film Festival Audience Award: Best Narrative Feature Nominated
Valladolid International Film Festival Best Feature Film Nominated
2019 Black Reel Awards Black Reel Nominated
Dublin International Film Festival Young Programmers Choice Award Won
Göteborg Film Festival Dragon Award Nominated
Kingston Reelout Film Festival Outstanding Lead Performance Won
Outstanding Supporting Performance Nominated
Lucas - International Festival of Films for Children and Young People Youngsters Award Won
Bridging the Borders Award
Milan International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival Grand Jury Award: Best Film Won
Special Jury Award: Best Feature Film
Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival Audience Choice Award Won
2020 Chlotrudis Awards Best Adapted Screenplay Nominated
GLAAD Media Awards Outstanding Film - Limited Release Won

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Wanuri Kahiu: 'In Kenya, I'm a hustler' - CNN.com". www.cnn.com. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  2. ^ a b "Wanuri Kahiu: 'In Kenya, I'm a hustler'". CNN International. 30 March 2010. Retrieved 15 July 2010.
  3. ^ "Home". Wanuri Kahiu. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  4. ^ "About". AFROBUBBLEGUM. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  5. ^ a b c Frigerio, Barbara (June 2010). "Wanuri Kahiu". Vogue Italia.
  6. ^ a b Erik Anderson (11 May 2018). "Cannes Interview: Wanuri Kahiu on her film Rafiki and the future of African cinema". AwardsWatch. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  7. ^ a b c d "An Interview with Top Kenyan Director Wanuri Kahiu". Birds Eye View Film. 10 March 2010. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  8. ^ "From A Whisper | African Film Festival, Inc". Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  9. ^ Ras Star (Short 2006) - IMDb, retrieved 22 May 2022
  10. ^ "The Africa Movie Academy Award (AMAA) Nominations for 2009". USA: Jamati.com. Retrieved 15 July 2010.
  11. ^ a b Harvey, Dennis (October 2010). "From a Whisper". Daily Variety. 318: 6 – via Academic OneFile.
  12. ^ a b c Giruzzi, Clara (2015). "A Feminist Approach to Contemporary Female Kenyan Cinema: Women and Nation in From a Whisper (Kahiu, 2008) and Something Necessary (Kibinge, 2013)". Journal of African Cinemas. 7 (2): 79–96. doi:10.1386/jac.7.2.79_1.
  13. ^ a b c d Higgins, MaryEllen (December 2015). "The Winds of African Cinema". African Studies Review. 58 (3): 77–92. doi:10.1017/asr.2015.76. S2CID 146497733.
  14. ^ a b Durkin, Matthew (2016). "Pumzi dir. by Wanuri Kahiu (review)". African Studies Review. 59 (1): 230–232. doi:10.1017/asr.2016.19. ISSN 1555-2462. S2CID 147225669.
  15. ^ Nyawalo, Mich (2016). "Afro-futurism and the Aesthetics of Hope in Bekolo's Les Saignantes and Kahiu's Pumzi". Journal of the African Literature Association. 10 (2): 209–221. doi:10.1080/21674736.2016.1257499. S2CID 152055404 – via Routledge.
  16. ^ Kholeif, Omar (June 2012). "Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction". Art Monthly. 357: 34.
  17. ^ a b c d Mara, Kathryn (2016). "Film Reviews: For Our Land". African Studies Review. 59: 328–330. doi:10.1017/asr.2016.120.
  18. ^ a b c Barlet, Olivier (Spring 2014). ""Homosexuality Is Not Un–African; What Is Un–African Is Homophobia": An Interview with Wanuri Kahiu on Jambula Tree". Black Camera. 5 (2): 186–190. doi:10.2979/blackcamera.5.2.186. S2CID 143561789.
  19. ^ 'rafiki': The First Kenyan Film To Premiere At Cannes, Banned At Home https://www.npr.org/2019/04/20/715533608/rafiki-the-first-kenyan-film-to-premiere-at-cannes-banned-at-home
  20. ^ Director Wanuri Kahiu, Kenya's Rising Star https://2020owovfest.org/director-wanuri-kahui-kenyas-rising-star/
  21. ^ "Rafiki - LFF 2018 Review - One Room With A View". One Room With A View. 14 October 2018. Retrieved 17 October 2018.
  22. ^ Wanuri Kahiu Speaks On Her Film, "Rafiki", archived from the original on 20 December 2021, retrieved 7 December 2021
  23. ^ Stevenson, Deborah (December 2017). "The Wooden Camel by Wanuri Kahiu (Review)". Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. 71: 164 – via Project MUSE.
  24. ^ a b Chutel, Lynsey (30 July 2016). "Science fiction has ancient roots in Africa. Why shouldn't it also have a future there?". Quartz. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  25. ^ "Queerty Pride50 2019 Honorees". Queerty. Retrieved 18 June 2019.
  26. ^ "Millie Bobby Brown, Filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu Tackling 'The Thing About Jellyfish' for Universal (Exclusive) | Hollywood Reporter". www.hollywoodreporter.com. 14 March 2019. Retrieved 6 November 2020.
  27. ^ Kelly, Jacqueline (9 October 2015). "'The Thing About Jellyfish,' by Ali Benjamin (Published 2015)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 6 November 2020.
  28. ^ "Nnedi and Wanuri developing Amazon series based on Octavia Butler's "Wild Seed"". This is africa. 28 March 2019. Retrieved 6 November 2020.
  30. ^ a b "Film Adaptation of Once on This Island in the Works at Disney+". 30 July 2020.
  31. ^ Vourlias, Christopher (January 2012). "Genre is Window On Society". Variety. 8: 3 – via International Index to Film Periodicals Database.
  32. ^ a b Black Science Fiction - Wanuri Kahiu. Transcendental Blackness. 4 September 2011. Archived from the original on 20 December 2021 – via YouTube.
  33. ^ Jones, Tamera (23 June 2022). "Wanuri Kahiu's Film Look Both Ways Gets Release Date at Netflix". Collider.
  34. ^ Durkin, Matthew (April 2016). "Pumzi dir. by Wanuri Kahiu (review)". African Studies Review. 59: 230–232. doi:10.1017/asr.2016.19. S2CID 147225669.

External links[edit]