April 1, 2017
#SoCool | How Africa-rooted Terms Acquired Great Meaning Worldwide
According to the Bible, there was a time everyone on earth spoke the same language. They could therefore easily communicate with a great lot of other people. This is probably the reason why so many of them decided to make bricks and build a giant city and a tower with its top in the sky. This is the ultimate example of how great people can be when they come together. So great it is said God remarked that as one people with one language, nothing that they sought would be out of their reach. God confounded then their speech, to scatter them over the face of the earth and avoid the building of the “Babel Tour”.

This is to say, once upon a time, the world was already a global village thanks to language. People were able to easily communicate and it made them able to dream big and realize their dreams. However, we would probably not have “diversity” if God had not created different languages.

Indeed, it made people seek after those they could communicate with and eventually create these many subcultures. We have different cultures today because of the different languages God blessed us with. Language is the main factor of identifying with a group even before behavior and beliefs, it all starts with language. Obviously, we first have to understand each other.

Africa is so rich because of it. But, there is something in human beings that makes them want to connect more with other people. That’s why we as people are working daily on better means of communication including books, the post office, TV, planes, social media, the Bible itself, and so forth. It is all about communicating better with others. Indeed, we have come back full circle to that same global village disrupted centuries back.

In Africa, we do experience the phenomenon, just as the rest of the world, through new technologies. The language of emoticons alone homogenizes a multitude of languages.

In celebration of the contribution of African languages in powerful concepts that have transcended cultures and even millenniums, we bring forth 3 terms deep-rooted in the motherland that have acquired full philosophical meaning worldwide.

Hakuna Matata

"Hakuna matata" is a Swahili phrase roughly meaning "no worries". It is formed by the words "hakuna" which means "there is not here" and "matata" meaning “problems”. This phrase was more commonly used in Zanzibar and Kenya, but not in  Tanzanian Swahili, where people rather said "hamna shida" in the north and "hamna tabu" in the south.

In 1982, Kenyan band Them Mushrooms released the Swahili song "Jambo Bwana" ("Hello Mister"), which repeats the phrase "Hakuna matata" in its refrain. Originally from Mombasa, Them Mushrooms was well known for their hotel pop music genre, a music style that comprises tourist-oriented pop covers and employs more live bands than authentic Kenyan folk and pop genres. 'Jambo Bwana' written by band leader Teddy Kalanda, is the band’s most famous record, which went on to sell 30,000 copies back then. Jambo Bwana, borrowed from a popular Kenyan folk song of the same name. The song was later covered by a number of other African artists, including Mombasa Roots, Safari Sound Band and Khadja Nin.

The European touch in that song made it appealing enough for German group Boney M. to release their own version in English under the title "Jambo—Hakuna Matata" in 1983.

In the mid-1980s, the saying appeared many times in the Swedish comic book Bamse by Rune Andréasson as a secret motto between some characters, but it was never said directly that it was Swahili.

It was in 1994 that the saying “Hakuna Matata” was brought to international recognition. In the Walt Disney Animation Studios animated movie The Lion King, a meerkat and a warthog, named Timon and Pumbaa, teach the main character, Simba, that he should forget his troubled past and live in the present, with a song called “Hakuna Matata”. The song was written by Elton John (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), who found the term in a Swahili phrasebook.  “Hakuna Matata” was nominated for Best Original Song at the 1995 Academy Awards, and was later ranked in the top 100 best song in movie history by the American Film Institute.

The success of the original 1994 American animated feature, led to two direct-to-video sequel films, a television film sequel, two spin-off television series, three educational shorts, several video games, merchandise, translations in many languages around the world, becoming the third-longest-running musical in Broadway history, with six Tony Awards including Best Musical and a live-action reboot in the making to be released late 2017 or early 2018. With so many offshoots of the original version of The Lion King, the term "Hakuna Matata" surely followed. It is a term that is now known worldwide by kids and adults alike, reminding us all to stay hopeful for the future.



The word Ubuntu finds its roots in Southern Africa and summarily means "humanity". It is  also translated as "humanity towards others", but is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean "the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity". In Southern Africa, including South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, the term refers to the humanistic philosophy.

In 1994, with the transition to democracy and the presidency of Nelson Mandela, the word became widely popularized by Desmond Tutu.

In 2002, during the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), the Ubuntu Village exposition centre was created. Also, Ubuntu was the theme of the 76th General Convention of the American Episcopal Church.

Former US president Bill Clinton used the term at the 2006 Labour Party conference in the UK to explain why society is important.

Also a character in the 2008 American animated comedy The Goode Family is named Ubuntu.

In a 2010 article on thedailybeast.com, Liberian peace activist responsible for leading a women's peace movement, that helped bring an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, Leymah Roberta Gbowee also saw a lot in Ubuntu. While addressing Mass Rape that African women are victims of, Gbowee said, :
Most women only take action when their own communities are
threatened. This must stop if we are to tackle the ills that are plaguing
our African society. We must ignite the spirit of “Ubuntu”—“I am what
I am because of who we all are.”
The concept of Ubuntu even trickled into American professional basketball through Kita Thierry Matungulu, a founder of the South African organization Hoops 4 Hope. In 2002, Matungulu introduced Doc Rivers of the Boston Celtics to the concept. Five years later, Rivers invited Matungulu to speak to his team, and Ubuntu became their rallying call — it was even inscribed in their championship rings in 2008. Most recently, Rivers brought the concept to the Los Angeles Clippers. “Ubuntu works in life. It works for everybody. It doesn’t have to be basketball,” says Rivers. “It’s about being resilient and sharing the joy with your teammate when he’s doing well and feeling the pain when your teammate is feeling bad.”


Kumbaya is said to have begun as the sincere plea of slaves in America for God’s intervention. A spiritual song, “Kumbaya” was sung by the Gullah people (also called Geechee), the descendants of enslaved Africans who lived on the Sea Islands and in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia.

Gullah is the diminutive of Angola, which refers to the first group of slaves to come directly from Africa to work on the coast. However the Gullah group is made of a multitde of African tribes.

The Gullahs developed their own pidgin language, based on English with strong influences of Central and West African languages. The words “Kum ba yah” mean “Come by here” in Gullah. “Come by here, my Lord,” they sang as they suffered under slavery.

The two earliest recordings of “Kumbaya” were made in 1926. The song was picked up by white folk artists in the late fifties, and by the early sixties it had become part of pop culture. It was a popular camp song and one of the anthems of the civil rights movement. However, “Kumbaya” is still sung as a religious song in many congregations around the world, even back in Africa.

The original meaning of that word has been diluted however, “Kumbaya” was originally a call for God’s presence to be a witness of what was going on during that time, the suffering of the African people in America during slavery and the injustice behind it. In fact, while someone was laughing, someone else was crying, as the song said.

The lyrics read:

Kum bay ya, my Lord, kum bay ya;
Kum bay ya, my Lord, kum bay ya;
Kum bay ya, my Lord, kum bay ya,
O Lord, kum bay ya.

Someone's laughing, my Lord, kum bay ya;
Someone's laughing, my Lord, kum bay ya;
Someone's laughing, my Lord, kum bay ya,
O Lord, kum bay ya.

Someone's crying, my Lord, kum bay ya;
Someone's crying, my Lord, kum bay ya;
Someone's crying, my Lord, kum bay ya,
O Lord, kum bay ya.

Someone's praying, my Lord, kum bay ya;
Someone's praying, my Lord, kum bay ya;
Someone's praying, my Lord, kum bay ya,
O Lord, kum bay ya.

Someone's singing, my Lord, kum bay ya;
Someone's singing, my Lord, kum bay ya;
Someone's singing, my Lord, kum bay ya,
O Lord, kum bay ya.

Today, Kumbaya has also  picked up part of its meaning from both Ubuntu and Hakuna Matata as it also refers to being in harmony with one another and forget about any problem of the past. Kumbaya is not about suffering anymore but rather forgiveness and unity among people. This translation was probably formed by the fact that Kumbaya became a camp fire song. In that context, even though two people had issues, the were supposed to forget all about it, hold hand around the fire and sing Kumbaya.

This second meaning is exactly what Nelson Mandela hoped for after the Apartheid. He wanted for the indigenous South Africans to forgive the whites for the oppression and for South Africa to become a rainbow nation where people loved each other independently from their race. It was during these times of transition that the word Ubuntu built even more meaning for people.

Ironically, Hakuna Matata also breathes the same communion between blacks and whites. Being a hotel pop song, “Jambo Bwana” was meant for tourists who were mostly white people. It was an attempt to communicate something positive to the white people.

And that is how  Africa-rooted terms transmitted great meaning to people around the world.

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