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Swahili Speakers Debate Disney’s Trademark of ‘Hakuna Matata’ For T-Shirts

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Image Group LA/Disney via Getty Images

Image Group LA/Disney via Getty Images

A years-old Disney trademark on the use of the give voice “ Hakuna Matata ” on T-shirts has stirred up a new debate among Swahili speakers about cultural annexation. The words mean “ no worries ” in Swahili, a terminology spoken in countries like the democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Estimates for the count of speakers vary wide, from 60 to 150 million. “ Hakuna Matata ” is the title of a song from the 1994 Disney movie The Lion King. Disney applied to register the words in a hallmark that year to protect the idiom from being printed on T-shirts. According to public records, the hallmark was approved for registration in 2003 and is still active agent — meaning that Disney can sue companies that use the words on a shirt if it looks like a Lion King knockoff.


The Disney trademark has attracted care over the past few weeks in african media. In November, a Kenyan writer named Cathy Mputhia wrote an op-ed in Business Daily, a Kenyan newspaper, calling for East Africans to protect their heritage, polish and identity from exploitation by outdoor forces. She cited the trademark as an case .

“ [ Hakuna matata ] is widely used in East Africa, specially the coastal region as a response to greetings, ” she wrote. “ Some words form part of our heritage and ought to be protected where potential. ” Since her article appeared, the subject has been debated on social media and among african bloggers. The conversation comes ahead of Disney ‘s 2019 live action translation of The Lion King, starring Beyonce, Donald Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ngũgĩ washington Thiong’o is a Kenyan writer and professor of relative literature at the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine. He writes in Gikuyu and Swahili and has written and spoken extensively on african linguistic process. Thiong’o says he is “ horrified ” by Disney ‘s claim on the idiom, flush though the hallmark had a specific business goal and fair covers T-shirts. “ It would be like trademarking ‘good dawn ‘ or ‘it is raining cats and dogs ‘ in the case of English, ” he says. “ It ‘s a common phrase we use every other day. No company can own it. ” Disney did not respond to NPR ‘s requests to comment on the argument over the trademark.

Esther Ngumbi, a Kenyan post-doctoral research worker at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, grew up singing a unlike “ Hakuna Matata ” birdcall in the 1980s, by a Kenyan isthmus called Them Mushrooms.


Ngumbi thinks the trademark is “ ethically wrong. ” Like Mputhia, the op-ed writer, she thinks it should be a wake-up call for african governments to take stronger steps to protect african culture — “ the authentic african things we are gallant of, ” she says .

meanwhile, a petition has been circulating on social media, calling for Disney to remove the brand on the give voice. Created two weeks ago, it presently has more than 26,000 signatures. Shelton Mpala, a Zimbabwean-Canadian activist based in Toronto, says he was inspired to start the petition because he “ thought it was wrong of Disney to just appropriate and trademark something they did n’t invent, without the consent of the people who speak the language. ” Although Mpala does not speak Swahili, his request has resonated with Swahili speakers and beyond, who saw wider repercussions to the T-shirt trademark. “ We have used [ hakuna matata ] as our Kenyan motto since fifty was born about 5 decades ago … Disney, no way you are getting this one. You borrowed it during Lion King, nowadays you think you can keep it ? … Create your own original stuff, ” wrote Florence Maina, a signer on the request page. “ It is very disrespectful to take other people ‘s languages for commercial profit. Stop it ! ” wrote another request signer, Patrick Mbugua. According to data from IMDB Pro, the entertainment database, the 1994 adaptation of The Lion King is one of the highest gross films in the U.S., raking in $ 422 million at the box office. The Lion King franchise besides includes its Broadway picture ( which grossed just under $ 8.1 billion in 2017, according to Forbes magazine ), merchandise, sequels and television spinoffs. In the wake of the T-shirt argument, some wonder whether Africa can find a way to cash in on the enterprise. In a gossip in Afro-IP, a web log on african intellectual property, Isaac Rutenberg, a member of the display panel of directors of Kenya ‘s Copyright Board, wrote : “ Disney ‘s profit from african culture/imagery goes far, far beyond the dim-witted two-word idiom … Clearly, though, there [ is ] a market for such entertainment. Can Africa capitalize on it ? ”

But some think the trademark was a chic move. “ Hakuna matata … is quite synonymous with the Lion King movie … the Walt Disney ship’s company took the healthy and capitalist step to trademark and profit off it, ” wrote Allan Tuli, a Kenyan jurisprudence scholar at Suffolk University Law School, in an article on his LinkedIn foliate. possibly the debate can be summed up in another Swahili give voice, says Ngumbi. “ Hapana iko matata, ” she says. “ It means yes — there are worries. ”