Why and How “Hakuna Matata” May be Reclaimed from Disney

Our last article recalled Disney’s bullyish move to patent “Hakuna Matata.” Reminiscent of similar efforts involving the Kikoi and Kiondo in the UK and Japan, it may not be inaccurate to label world powers a thorn in the developing world’s flesh.

As promised, in this article we sample Kenyans’ varied reactions. We also have suggestions for possible actions anyone can take to get Disney to relinquish “Hakuna Matata” at the end of the article.

Courtesy of Change.org

Needless to say, many were dismayed noting that it was an impingement on their way of life. Some, seemingly in denial, benightedly dismissed the move as nonsensical and inconsequential arguing that Kenyans could use the phrase any way they pleased without consequence since it is in their own language. Hardly ever missing on any social discourse in Kenya, some of the waggish ones fantasized about being sued for subversively using the phrase in which event they would speak in African languages and conclude “Hakuna Matata,” to the confusion of the imagined foreign court. A few treated the issue more pensively, considering the economic angle to the trademarked phrase. They argued that one could use it in everyday contexts just like Nike’s “Just do it” but not for commercial purposes. These revealed the capitalistic self-centered nature of Disney’s move in their quest to maximize profits regardless of the cost to lowly, deserving people. In fact, some businesspeople complained of having already experienced the effects of the decision – the restriction of using the phrase on their products. In a show of protest, some tweeps posted pictures of themselves in “Hakuna Matata” branded caps and T-shirts.

A section of Kenyan social media users thought that the patenting of “Hakuna Matata” portends the promotion of Kiswahili. Others blamed Kenya for not trademarking “Hakuna Matata” in all the years it has been in existence and had now been beaten to it. Some even defended Disney for the move arguing that the multinational was justified as it made the phrase global. This was not without opposition though as a different section thought Kenyan leaders must have pocketed lots of money in bribe. One tweep sarcastically quipped that Pumbaa and Timoni of The Lion King gave us “Hakuna Matata” while another warned that “Jambo” and “Rafiki” would be next in line.

The question of who has or should have agency over a cultural product like “Hakuna Matata” may be complicated because such a cultural product is “society’s property.” As such, it can be deemed free for use by anyone who wants to, similar to orature.

That said though, I doubt there is ambiguity about who cannot have agency over such cultural property. No one individual may solely claim ownership over the phrase “Hakuna Matata.” But how plausible is it that the phrase is the property of an entity outside of Kenya, its birth and “nurturing” place? Maybe it would make sense if “Hakuna Matata” was just two random Kiswahili words that were used in The Lion King. But “Hakuna Matata” are not random words. They did not just come into existence. The two words make a phrase that has surrounded itself with rich culture over time. You will find the phrase in music, advertisements, comedy, and even in greetings! It became embedded in and intertwined with the Kenyan everyday life, long before the West knew about its existence.  

The use of “Hakuna Matata” by Disney (and by extension that of other Kenyan and African cultural products) exemplifies commodification of culture. Any people should be able to monetize their cultural products without restriction from foreigners. If anything, foreigners should get permission from locals before they can benefit from such cultural products in whatever manner. Disney’s move to trademark “Hakuna Matata” entails an unfair restriction of the use of the phrase by its owners. Worse still, it is theft of cultural property. It is not too different from colonialism in which case the colonizer forcefully settled on and used Africa’s land. This is cultural imperialism. It is unacceptable and must be resisted.

But who will resist it and how?

Well, thanks to Shelton Mpala, a Zimbabwean-Canadian activist there is an ongoing online petition for Disney to relinquish “Hakuna Matata”. It might be a good starting point for anyone who views Disney’s action as cultural infringement. It is probably a moment to ask not what your society can do for you but what you can do for your society, to paraphrase JFK. Consider signing the petition here.

In addition, one of the best reactions on social media about the first part of this story was a promise by a lawyer friend to ask his patent attorney colleagues about the possibility of filing a lawsuit against Disney! Any Kenyan lawyers out there feeling up to the task? Perhaps our concerted efforts may bring a palliation, and in time, even a remedy. It may be possible after all, to cut short Disney’s tormenting claws.

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