Hakuna matata: a problematic philosophy

Funny how “speaking Swahili” is the example so often used for jokes about CV-padding. I’ve only met one genuine Swahili speaker in my life, and she was a cleaner. Of course she bloody was. The joke about speaking Swahili is for white people born in rich countries. They get a badge for it; actual native speakers don’t.

But today I’m talking about the one Swahili phrase that clueless white people are pretty much guaranteed to know, and how much I loathe the reasons for that.

I’m talking about “Hakuna Matata”. As the song in the Lion King tells us, it means “no worries”. Well, actually the song tells us that it means “no worries for the rest of your days”, because Tim Rice couldn’t be bothered to give us a proper boundary between translation and interpretation.

It’s sung by Timon (a meerkat) and Pumbaa (a warthog), who are trying to teach young Simba about their philosophy of life. At this point in the film, Simba has been tricked into thinking that he’s responsible for his own father’s death. He’s run away from home and is on the point of dying from exhaustion in the desert. It’s nice of Timon and Pumbaa to take him under their wing at this point, but maybe not actually a good time for their song & dance routine. Of course, Simba forgets how close to death he is and adopts the usual Disney-musical expression of childish wonderment.

Timon and Pumbaa explain: “Those two words will solve all your problems.” How exactly? Let’s give an example! Show, don’t tell!

Take Pumbaa here
Why, when he was a young warthog…

He found his aroma lacked a certain appeal
He could clear the savannah after every meal

I’m a sensitive soul though I seem thick-skinned
And it hurt that my friends never stood downwind
And oh, the shame
Thought of changin’ my name
And I got downhearted
Everytime that I…

But “Hakuna Matata” solved his problems! Did it help him to stop farting so much? No! It just helped him to shrug off the problem by pretending it didn’t exist. Those friends who were careful not to stand downwind have now disappeared from his life altogether. He presumably still has dreadful wind, but who cares, right? Hakuna Matata! Why face up to your problems when you can ignore them instead?

Later in this sequence, Simba is given a grub to eat. He doesn’t want to, because he’s a lion. He’s evolved to eat actual proper meat like gazelles and stuff. He chokes it down because he has no choice, no other food. But it’s OK because… Hakuna Matata!

This is literally one of my worst songs in the entire world. I can’t bear the tune either. And I cannot bear the message of the lyrics.

So much of what’s wrong in the world is perpetuated by people who put up with bad stuff instead of trying to change it. I’m not necessarily blaming people who choose this course of (non-)action; if you’re powerless and focused on survival, maybe it’s your only option. But that doesn’t mean we have to think that endurance or denial are good strategies for dealing with bad stuff. And we certainly don’t have to write songs in praise of that denial.

If you think that denying problems is the happy-go-lucky approach, people who actually face up to problems look uptight and boring in comparison. The whole song is a giant smack in the face to people who want to solve problems, make the world a better place, face up to their demons, right wrongs. That stinky warthog is trying to shut you up, make you out to be the bad guy. That fucking warthog needs a reality check.

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One Comment on “Hakuna matata: a problematic philosophy”


  1. […] their privilege. But it’s also used to silence the powerless and discourage action. Remember the warthog in The Lion King who “solves” his problems by shrugging them off? On the subject of that damn warthog, I once […]


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