When Hakuna Matata Became a Phrase in English

     I visited Tanzania and Zanzibar in my last year of primary school on an organized school trip. It was in Zanzibar, touring the baths of the Sultan, his wives and concubines, that I decided I wanted to pursue a travel related course in university. I was 13 years old at the time.  Eight years later, I enrolled at the University of Nairobi for my studies.

     As a Kenyan, I had grown up being aware of the Kenyan tourism sector and its significance to our economy. I knew that the rest of the world also knew about our big game and the Maasai tribe. As a matter of fact, I reveled in the fact that my country of origin was considered an attraction elsewhere in Africa and overseas. But only a handful of Kenyans ended up in the tourism sector because it took passion to pursue something as a career choice.

     Ironically, while the tourism sector brings in billions of shillings in revenue, the course itself is not considered a top choice among many. This quickly dawned on me as a bright-eyed, first year student. Still, I was undeterred because mine was a combination of passion and a strong desire to see the world.

     In my first semester’s “Introduction to Tourism” Unit, I learnt of Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt’s voyage to Kenya. In March 1909, the 26th President of the United States had departed Washington for East Africa, just weeks after finishing his second term. He arrived in Kenya with a 250-member entourage that included his son, Kermit, and renowned British hunter and conservationist, Frederick Selous. Thus began what would be a yearlong safari on a big game hunting adventure.

     Our lecturer for the unit was an elderly, well-travelled professor who spoke in the lowest of tones. As a result, it was always a struggle to catch anything he said. Imagine our collective, pleasant surprise when we discovered that everything he “whispered” in class was arranged in the exact same manner in a book he recommended for further reading.

     But like all books written and published by foreigners that tackled subjects involving the African continent, you only got what was positive about retired President Theodore Roosevelt’s trip. Nobody spoke of his perception of the inhabitants he encountered, but rather the emphasis was on his agenda which was big game hunting. If you wanted to learn additional aspects about his voyage, then you had to dig deeper and certainly not in your recommended tourism related campus reads.

     In a March 27, 2010 article on the East African paper titled “Teddy Roosevelt Came To Kenya Guns Blazing,” what could arguably be touted as one of the earliest hunting voyages to Kenya, is described in further detail. After wrapping up his safari and returning back home, Roosevelt wrote the African Game Trails which went on to become a bestseller in the US. Of course, everyone at the time loved a read that spoke extensively of what was known to them as the “dark continent,” and especially if it was delivered through the eyes of a white man.

    Roosevelt, in his book, constantly refers to the Africans he encountered in Kenya as “savages.” In addition, he seemed particularly in support of the European colonization of East Africa and the Congo.

     “Africans had not advanced beyond the cave-man stage,” he pointed out at some point.

     Then, he proceeds to be impressed by what he perceives as courage when he got a chance to witness some Nandi hunters encircle and kill a lion. From the African Game Trails, one gets the impression that while the African landscape was more of a curiosity to foreigners in Roosevelt’s time, it was also an easy target for plunder and destruction as evidenced by the motivations that brought visitors to it. Their perception of the locals was equally that of disregard unless their actions fascinated.

     At the end of Roosevelt’s trip, his entourage had bagged over 500 big game animals that included 11 elephants, 17 lions and 20 rhinos in what would have been criminal in present day Kenya. Indeed, his safari which had been partly financed by the Smithsonian Museum, an institution that oversaw the running of a couple of US museums, had thoroughly “accomplished’ its mission — that of hunting wildlife. And upon his return to the US, he donated a huge percentage of his specimens to the natural history museums in Washington and New York.

     The African Game Trails is additionally credited for inspiring yet another American adventure — Ernest Hemingway’s Kenyan safari 25 years later.  Interestingly, Roosevelt’s adventures in the country were hardly enough to influence anything to be named after him, or perhaps, he was not that intent on leaving his name behind. Not so for Ernest Hemingway.

     In 1935 the American writer embarked on his own first African safari accompanied by his second wife Pauline and a friend, Charles Thompson. From a Marseilles port, the three boarded a ship and over two weeks later, arrived in Mombasa, Kenya. Hemingway explored the areas around Mombasa and Malindi before venturing inland. He spent some time in Watamu and must have made such an impact that a resort in the area ended up being named after him — Hemingway’s Watamu. The hotel exists to date with favorable reviews to boot.

     After his coastal adventures, Hemingway travelled to the home of Philip Percival, a white settler that had previously turned safari guide to many renowned foreign visitors including Theodore Roosevelt, who lived in Machakos. He was able to convince Percival to do the same for him, and they subsequently headed into neighboring Tanzania, again on a hunting expedition.

     It was in Tanzania that Hemingway fell ill with amoebic dysentery and had to be evacuated to Nairobi, Kenya, for treatment. He eventually cut his trip short and returned to Europe. The next time Hemingway would again consider Africa as a travel destination was in 1954. He came accompanied by his fourth and last wife, Mary, with the intention to explore Belgian Congo, Uganda, and Kenya. But it seems his African voyages were somehow jinxed.

     Two plane accidents happening consecutively ended his trip before he had accomplished much in terms of sightseeing. And like Roosevelt, Hemingway wrote not one, but a couple of books detailing his adventures in Africa. It was through the eyes of these early visitors that perhaps the rest of the world began to catch a glimpse of the touristic side of Africa, albeit shrouded by white perception of the continent.

     As a Travel and Tourism Management student, I found myself spending a lot of time reading recommended and non-recommended books in the library, and it always struck me as odd that few writers of African origin wrote tourism-related course books. Many of us students were aware of the earliest Europeans to explore and visit Africa, but none of us had any idea who the first Kenyan or African to embark on a tourism related tour was. We knew of Queen Elizabeth II learning of her father’s death while on a trip to Kenya in 1952 with her husband and her subsequent ascension to the throne.

     The hotel in question was Treetops Hotel in the Aberdares National Park in Kenya, and a common description has always been, “She went up a Princess and came down a Queen,” in reference to the storied building among trees.  In fact, she was at Sagana Lodge when she learnt of her father’s passing, due to her having departed from Treetops earlier.

     I don’t remember much mention of Kisoi Munyao, the 25-year-old Kenyan who hoisted the Kenyan flag on Mt. Kenya’s Lenana Point on the eve of December 12, 1963. Described as someone who was an outdoors type, Munyao is probably the first mountaineer from Kenya to undertake an activity now associated with adventure tourism. Worth mentioning is the fact that Kenya attained self-rule on December 12, 1963, and Munyao’s act needed to be celebrated coming on the eve of it. However, he lived quietly and modestly most of his life until his death when the nation seemed to remember him again.

     My own education journey seemed to be just as jinxed as Hemingway’s trips to Africa were. After a five-year struggle, I was forced to drop out of campus in my third year. Later that year, I got a job in the hotel industry. On my first day at work, I remember my supervisor taking me around the large hotel favored by foreigners and the well-to-do and declaring proudly to me how Prince William and his girlfriend, Kate Middleton, had once spent the night in the suite. I would later learn that it was probably on this trip to Kenya that the Prince proposed to his longtime girlfriend.

     My time working at the hotel was indeed enjoyable but short-lived. And while I gained some level of exposure, I also got to experience firsthand the colonial mentalities that refused to go away in the travel and hospitality industry. One time, long after I had stopped working at the hotel, I decided to take a walk to the game park in my hometown which is quite near where I live. I intended to visit a shop that sold amazing art and souvenirs which fascinated me.  

     However, I never quite understood why each time I visited said shop, I always got a hostile reception. This day was no different. When I got in, a shop attendant quickly came up to me. I touched an African necklace and asked him how much it was. “15,000kshs!” he mouthed, unsmiling. I proceeded to walk further inside, but he stopped me.  And with the straightest of faces, he told me in Swahili, “We are waiting for visitors, Wazungu!” That meant I had to leave because of the white visitors – Wazungu- they were expecting. I was livid.

     Never had I ever felt that disrespected in my own country, past experiences in this very shop notwithstanding. I left vowing never to come back, but my anger made me create a thread on it on Twitter which attracted quite some attention from travel and hospitality industry stakeholders. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be in agreement with me that the colonial mentality in the Kenyan tourism sector needed to change.

     The decolonization of African tourism sectors is indeed a crucial subject that is very rarely tackled. Decades after the very first foreign explorer set foot in Africa, tourism has thoroughly evolved on the continent, but African disregard still persists. The first picture that often comes to mind for many Africans is that of a white man in Safari wear, arriving in game parks in a tour van. The driver is always an African employed by a tour company who is just doing his job. Any other African who arrives in a tourism establishment is almost always automatically assumed to be an employee or up to no good, and the treatment quickly changes from warm to cold and stern.

     The establishments, which happen to treat all visitors alike, will tend to dismiss the Africans whom they deem as not “properly” dressed or spoken. The unspoken pressure is for an African travel enthusiast to carry themselves and dress in a certain way in order to be accepted in the travel and tourism class. I have experienced waiters and waitresses scramble to offer service when I once showed up at a restaurant in the company of a white man who had stopped me to ask for directions and then insisted we have coffee together at the said establishment.

     Then, the waiters and waitresses stood at a distance after serving us, and I could literally feel their curious eyes wondering where I had got myself a white man. I never shared this with him as he was basically a stranger to me, but it is experiences such as this that have stuck with me for a long time making me question when we got to this point as a country. Perhaps, we have always been there as a country, and this was just a continuation of it. I was sure that had I shown up at the establishment unaccompanied or in the company of a fellow African, the service would have been slightly slower since we are automatically expected to already be used to treatment that’s not too special.

     In recent times, domestic tourism has been heavily marketed by the Kenya Tourism Board (dubbed Magical Kenya), in a bid to encourage the locals to travel and explore the country more. Nowadays, it is common to keep stumbling on young Kenyan travel enthusiasts posting photos of the heavenly and exciting places they have been to in Kenya. Indeed, it is such a refreshing shift.  But has it taken too long to come?

     For the longest time, the only travel that a majority of Kenyans did affordably was going upcountry over Christmas to catch up with the rest of the family. The working class occasionally got the seminar outings that saw them booked into hotels at the coast where they proceeded to spend two or three days cooped up in conference rooms. In the evenings, perhaps they would venture out a little to the beach or pool area. And if your job was more lucrative than the average Kenyan’s, then occasional travels abroad on work or study assignments were also guaranteed.

     Our family album has always contained photos of a relative on my mother’s side who got the opportunity to study and work abroad long before my sister and I were born. Dull, in typical old, colored photographs, he was pictured walking along a bridge, with white, serious faces dotting the background.  He was probably en route to work, and there he was again at a parking lot dressed in a suit with his wife. The photos gave us a sense of pride that we had someone in our family who had gone overseas quite early. Few Africans, at the time, set out on travel missions, so work and school abroad was akin to travel as well.

     And while we now have a generation that is travelling more, we cannot overlook the generation that never got encouraged to travel or simply could not afford it.  As a result, they still perceive travel as a white man’s affair. They are a generation that long got convinced that the work of an African is only to entertain and serve the foreign visitors, and in truth, it’s no fault of their own.

     This same generation also got to witness Them Mushrooms, a Kenyan musical band from the coast, release the song “Jambo Bwana” in 1982 which contained the “Hakuna Matata” (No worries/problem) Swahili phrase in it. The song welcomed visitors to Kenya and was such a hit that the following year after its release, the German group, Boney-M released an English version of it titled “Jambo-Hakuna Matata.”

     Years later, in 1994, the animated Walt Disney’s Lion King movie popularized the phrase “Hakuna Matata” worldwide by featuring it in the plot and movie. Thus began what could easily be summed up as the cultural appropriation of the phrase culminating in Disney’s application to trademark it the same year the movie was released. Understandably, in 2018, fierce debate erupted among East Africans when for the first time, many of us learnt of the particular trademark.

     In a visionary move, Them Mushrooms shaped the Kenyan tourism industry’s entertainment circuit with a tune welcoming visitors to the country. But their efforts were seemingly trashed, when a bigger entity in the West decided to trademark a pretty normal phrase in the Swahili language spoken by millions in East and Central Africa. And although Disney clarified that they were not preventing anyone from using the phrase, it is common knowledge that the trademark gives them the right to sue anyone counterfeiting Lion King merchandise.

     Wouldn’t it have made more sense if Them Mushrooms themselves or the Kenya Tourism Board had trademarked the phrase instead? For Africans in general, the move by Disney was all too familiar, having been colonized in the past, and the uproar, indeed justified. But perhaps the first step in reclaiming what is ours is by embarking on a renaming of some of our tourist attraction sites still bearing foreign names given by explorers who first stumbled on them.

     Maybe then, we will collectively start feeling a sense of belonging and stop associating travel with one particular racial group. We need more tourism-related course books and reading material written by African travel enthusiasts and experts. We need to go back to our roots and revisit how we welcomed and entertained visitors and include that in our course work alongside foreign hospitality norms. Our culture, a great attraction to foreigners, should be at the forefront of travel and tourism learning. We can only thoroughly decolonize when we begin reversing what has long been instilled in us, while appreciating what has always been our cultural heritage.

Lorna Likiza is a Kenyan writer and tutor of French. Her fiction and nonfiction pieces have been featured in Arts and Africa, Ile Alo, Barren Magazine, Agbowo, and Down River Road. Her children’s book draft, Oi Gets Lost, was longlisted in the 2018 Golden Baobab Prize for African Children Book Writers and Illustrators. She is the founder of Heroe Book Fair, an upcoming literary event that inaugurates March 22-26, 2021. She can be found at https://twitter.com/lornalikiza?lang=en

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