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The (Mis)Use of Kiswahili in Western popular culture
October 10, 2014 — 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.
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.’