Movie audiences in many parts of the world associate the Swahili phrase “hakuna matata” with Disney’s 1994 animated classic “The Lion King,” but one activist is rallying to change that.
Shelton Mpala, who is of Zimbabwean heritage and based in Toronto, launched an online petition earlier this month calling on The Walt Disney Co. to give up its trademark for “hakuna matata,” calling it “an assault on the Swahili people and Africa as a whole.”
Though Mpala acknowledged Disney is “an entertainment institution responsible for creating many of our childhood memories,” he blasted the company’s trademark as “predicated purely on greed.”
“Hakuna Matata has been used by most Kiswahili-speaking countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he wrote. “Disney can’t be allowed to trademark something that it didn’t invent.”
More than 110,000 people had signed the petition as of Thursday afternoon.
The petition was launched around the time Kenyan newspaper Business Daily published a Nov. 25 article in which writer Cathy Mputhia cited “The Lion King,” and specifically the film’s use of “hakuna matata,” as an example of cultural “exploitation.”
Public records show that Disney first applied for the still-active trademark in 1994, the same year “The Lion King” debuted in theaters. This means the company can potentially sue if the words “hakuna matata” appear on unauthorized clothing and products.
“The Lion King” became a box office smash and won two Academy Awards. It has since spawned a hit Broadway musical, a TV series and a number of direct-to-video sequels. A live-action version of the film starring Donald Glover and Beyoncé is slated for release next year.
A Disney spokesperson told HuffPost in an email that the company’s “registration for ‘Hakuna Matata,’ which was filed in 1994, has never and will not prevent individuals from using the phrase.”
“Indeed, for many years, trademarks have been registered for popular words and phrases such as ‘Yahoo!’, ‘Vaya con Dios (Go with God),’ ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Seasons Greetings’ without impeding the use of these phrases and words in any cultural way,” the statement continued.
Liz Lenjo, a Kenyan intellectual property and entertainment lawyer, sided with Disney in the social media dispute.
“East Africans or whoever speaks Swahili worldwide are not restricted from using the phrase,” she told CNN. “The conversation on the internet has been blowing up because of a misconception and misunderstanding around intellectual property law, the ethos behind intellectual property law and the various regimes of protection.”