Africans join fight to take back Swahili phrase ‘Hakuna Matata’ from Disney

Ismail Akwei December 19, 2018
Scene from The Lion King released in 1994/ Disney

Over 37,000 people have signed a petition to get Walt Disney to reverse the trademark of the Swahili phrase “Hakuna Matata” which means “No Worries” or “No Problem”.

Hakuna Matata was registered since 2003 in the United States after the release of the 1994 film, The Lion King, which made the phrase popular.

Disney’s recent announcement of a live-action remake of The Lion King, which will be released in July 2019, revealed the registration of Hakuna Matata as a trademark and this incensed some Africans who accused the entertainment company of cultural appropriation.

The protesters include Zimbabwean-Canadian activist, Shelton Mpala, who launched an online petition on to reverse Disney’s action.

“I liken this to colonialism and robbery, the appropriation of something you have no right over. Imagine, if we were to go that route, then we owe the British royalties for everyone who speaks English, or France for when we speak French,” he wrote on the petition.

Even in the 1980s, way before the release of The Lion King in 1994, Hakuna Matata was the title of the classic song recorded by Kenyan band Them Mushrooms.

Mpala wants to stop Disney, any corporation and individuals who want to trademark languages, terms or phrases they didn’t invent.

“For hundreds of years, Africa has been exploited in some shape, fashion or form whether its been our arts where we have billions of dollars of African artefacts in museums all over the world, through our natural resources. And this to me looks like one of those things that I will have to fight,” he told the BBC.

For Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Kenyan writer and professor of comparative literature at the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, Disney cannot own a phrase that is used commonly used every day. 

“It would be like trademarking ‘good morning’ or ‘it is raining cats and dogs’ in the case of English … It’s a common phrase we use every other day. No company can own it,” he told NPR in a recent interview saying he was “horrified” by Disney’s claim.

Until Disney decides to cancel the trademark, anyone in the United States – including Africans – would have to pay royalties to print the phrase Hakuna Matata on a T-shirt.

Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: December 19, 2018


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