The once common phrase “Hakuna Matata” (No Problem!) is now off limits for African speakers of Swahili. Any commercial use of the two word expression is reserved for its new owner – the American company that produced Lion King. That’s right – Walt Disney!
The California-based company is preparing to release its remake of The Lion King next year and just to keep an enterprising African from capitalizing on the film’s success, the company registered the phrase in the U.S.
But the revelation that Disney is taking ownership of a popular Kenyan phrase has created some “matatas’ for the giant multimedia corporation. A wedding company in South Florida and a New York-based maker of vitamins and dietary supplement also own a trademark for a variation of the phrase.
And in 1982, the Kenyan band “Them Mushrooms” used the phrase in their song Jambo Bwana, over a decade before Disney entered the scene. Band leader John Katana called it “the national tourism anthem in Kenya.”
In Business Daily, a Kenyan essayist characterized Disney’s trademark as an example of cultural appropriation.
“It is unfortunate that there has been a lot of pilferage of African culture over the years, through the use of intellectual property rights,” wrote Cathy Mputhia, author of the article. “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.”
In the latest twist, Zimbabwean activist Shelton Mpala started a change.org petition that urges Disney to “relinquish its trademark of the phrase, which is commonly used in eastern and southern Africa”.
“While we respect Disney as an entertainment institution responsible for creating many of our childhood memories, the decision to trademark ‘Hakuna Matata’ is predicated purely on greed and is an insult not only the spirit of the Swahili people but also, Africa as a whole.”
Mpala explained: “While we respect Disney as an entertainment institution responsible for creating many of our childhood memories, the decision to trademark ‘Hakuna Matata’ is predicated purely on greed and is an insult not only the spirit of the Swahili people but also, Africa as a whole.” The page currently has over 150,000 signatures.
An opposing perspective was put forward by Kenyan attorney Liz Lenjo. “The use of ‘Hakuna Matata’ by Disney does not take away the value of the language. East Africans or whoever speaks Swahili worldwide are not restricted from using the phrase.”
Meanwhile, The Lion King remake will be released in theaters on July 19, 2019.