Hakuna Matata: the East African Phrase Now Owned by Disney

Hakuna matata一the carefree mantra that we have carried with us since our childhood.  This worry-free philosophy has grown to be so familiar to this generation due to its appearance in the wholesome Disney film The Lion King.  However, we have become so inherently familiar with this phrase that its roots and etymology are often ignored.  Although, yes, the popularity of Hakuna Matata can be owed to the Disney film, it’s also important to point out that this expression originates from Kiswahili and it means “no problem, no worries”.

Acknowledging the etymology of this expression may seem relatively insignificant. However, it’s important to recognize the cultural significance behind Hakuna Matata. Besides being a catchy phrase sung by our very own Timon & Pumbaa, Hakuna Matata is a greeting that is often used in Kiswahili speaking cultures around the coast of East Africa.  Despite being such a significant cultural element around East Africa, Disney has appropriated this slogan to the extent that they have gained US trademark over the phrase.

Although it may seem reasonable in a business aspect for Disney to gain ownership over a phrase that appears in many of their merchandise products, it is questionable in a moral aspect because of its cultural background. Business Daily states, “there are a lot of lessons for Kenya and the East African Community (EAC) to learn. The first is the need to have a structured framework to protect our national and regional heritage. Kiswahili is spoken throughout EAC and it would be unreasonable for one particular country to claim ownership of the language. However, some words form part of our heritage and ought to be protected where possible.

 

“It is unfortunate that there has been a lot of pilferage of African culture over the years, through the use of intellectual property rights. This means that heritage that ought to belong to a certain group of people is instead pilfered using legal methods, whereby third parties end up being awarded sole rights", they continue. Therefore, clearly it is important to value Hakuna Matata for its cultural significance and acknowledge the fact that it wasn’t originally created by Disney.

To a certain degree, one might even feel that Disney is culturally appropriating Hakuna Matata. Despite how questionable acquiring ownership over an expression from a foreign language may be, these are the measures that Disney has opted for.  However, as fans of Disney’s The Lion King, we can compensate for what may seem like the loss of a cultural element for Kiswahili speaking cultures. This can be achieved by acknowledging the East African heritage of this mantra everytime we sing along with Timon and Pumbaa.  As themselves might express, this would at least grant us with a less problematic and worrisome form of expression for the rest of our days.