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The (Mis)Use of Kiswahili in Western popular culture

That Kiswahili words and phrases sometimes crop up in western pop culture is not surprising; it is, after all, the most widely spoken African language on the continent. But every so often its use leaves native speakers a little puzzled.



Kiswahili is a language spoken by more than 100 million people, predominantly in several states of East Africa. The language also has a significant presence in major cities of Europe, the United States of America and the Gulf states where African Diaspora communities are found. As a result of its global reach and millions of speakers the language pervades the lives of many across the globe and is never far away, even if not realised. For example it is taught in several universities around the world, and many media stations such as the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Deutsche Welle, Radio Moscow International and Radio Japan International all have programmes in Kiswahili.

In the United States the African American holiday Kwanzaa takes it names from the Kiswahili phrase ‘matunda ya kwanza’ meaning ‘the first fruits of the harvest’; ‘kwanza’ is the Kiswahili word for first. If you’re English, American or Canadian you may have also found yourself shouting out a Kiswahili word when playing the popular wooden block game Jenga; Jenga being the Kiswahili root word for build. In western popular culture Kiswahili has found itself in film, television and music. Sometimes its been used in short snippets, while other times complete monologues of characters have been in Kiswahili. However while its use is apparent the correct use of the language has not always been so.

Hakuna Matata

Disney’s 1994 animated feature The Lion King is perhaps the most popular western film featuring Kiswahili. The film tells the story of a lion cub and future king named Simba. The film is full of Kiswahili words and phrases. The main character ‘Simba’ means lion (in Shona it means strength or power) and the friendly Baboon called Rafiki means friend. There are also many songs in kiswahiki in the film. One of which is when Rafiki sings to Simba ‘Asante sana squash banana, Wewe nugu mimi hapana’, which is Kiswahili for ‘Thank you very much, squash banana, you’re a baboon and I’m not.’


The most famous, though, is Hakuna Matata (sung by comedy duo Timone and Pumba), which they say means ‘no worries’, while a literal translation is ‘there is no problem’. The phrase has become popular among tourist locations in East Africa, though is not often used among native speakers, more common is the phrase ‘hamna shida’. However ‘Hakuna Matata’ became recognisable through its use in popular culture many years before The Lion King was released. In 1982 the Kenyan band Them Mushrooms released a song called Jambo Bwana (Hello Mister) which went on to sell over 200,000 copies. The song features several phrases, including ‘Hakuna Matatu’, and was later covered by a number of other groups including the German pop group Boney M.

Kiswahili is also featured in other popular children’s films. The 2005 film Madagascar, which tells the tale of four animals escaping from New York Central Zoo, features a granny who beats up the main character Alex the lion. The granny is wearing a t-shirt that has “Jambo” on it, a popular phrase coming from ‘hujambo’ , meaning how are you? In the follow up movie, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, released in 2008, Kiswahili is used again. This time the big sexy male hippo, voiced by, is named ‘Moto Moto’ which literally means ‘Hot Hot’. There are many other box office hits that have made use of Kiswahili, such as George of The Jungle (1997), Mighty Joe Young (1998), Nowhere in Africa (2001), The Last King of Scotland (2006), The A-Team (2010) and Inception (2010).

Liberian Girl


Kiswahili has also been incorporated into the lyrics of several pop songs. The late great king of pop Michael Jackson first visited the continent in 1974 when he arrived in Senegal as part of the Jackson 5. In the 1990s Michael Jackson spent time in Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Gabon, South Africa, Tanzania and Tunisia. Michael Jackson expressed his feelings for the continent describing Africa as “the root of all rhythm. It’s home.” It’s no surprise then that his love of Africa was written into his lyrics as early as 1987 when he released Liberian Girl, from the album Bad. The song celebrates the beauty of African women with Jackson singing about a special girl from Liberia. The song opens with South African female singer and anti-apartheid campaigner Letta Mbulu saying the Kiswahili phrase ‘Nakupenda pia – nakutaka pia – mpenzi we’, which translates as “I Love you too. I want you too, my love.” However the use of Kiswahili here is a little odd as Kiswahili is not spoken in Liberia or anywhere in West Africa. Nevertheless his inclusion of East, South and West African elements in this song was perhaps in honour of his love of sub-Saharan Africa.

Lionel Richie, the American singer-songwriter, also used a Kiswahili word in one of his hits from the 1980s. The 1983 song All Night Long featured the Kiswahili word Karamu in the chorus ‘We’re going to party, Karamu, fiesta, forever’. Karamu means ‘party’ in Kiswahili.


The Swahili speaking nations of East Africa have created their own localised forms of hip hop which incorporate Kiswahili, such as Genge in Kenya and Bongo Flava in Tanzania, however Kiswahili has also been used in a number of American hip-hop artist’s songs. One example is the 2010 hit As We Enter from Nas featuring Damien Marley in which Nas raps “Y’all feel me even if it’s in Swahili, Habari Gani” (meaning whats the news/how are you doing) to which Marley replies “Mzuri sana” (very good). The song called I’m In It from Kanye West’s Yeezus album uses the word “Swaghili”. While there appears to be no apparent relation to Kiswahili, apart from rumours that Kanye is Kiswahili meaning “the only one”, one commentator decided that Swaghili should be a creole that mashes English with Swahili. Little did he know however that Sheng, a combination of Kiswahili and English, has existed for decades in Kenya’s multilingual environment.


Kiswahili will continue to be used in Western popular culture and through doing so it will spread the culture of East Africa and the beauty of the language. However, as language can be symbolic and have the power to shape the understanding of the world its use, or misuse, should be understood and explored to celebrate Kiswahili and the Swahili culture. The above are just some examples of the (mis)use of Kiswahili in western popular culture, what are the others.