When most people hear this phrase, the first thing that comes to mind, no doubt, is The Lion King and images of Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa freeing themselves of worries and heartache. This is how I had always thought of it as well: what a wonderful but empty phrase from a Disney movie.
The summer before my junior year, however, I got to hear it in a different context and learned what it truly meant to have “no worries.” Ironically, I learned it from people who–if our typical American mindset is to be believed–should have been very worried.
The moment I stepped off the plane in Tanzania, poverty became something real and visceral for me. Mosquitoes the size of my thumbnail sucked at the flesh of shirtless and emaciated children. The smell of trash on the unpaved dirt roads was enough to make me wretch.
Prior to my trip to Tanzania, there was nothing to distinguish my mindset from that of a typical teenager. I stressed out about applying for college, balancing my heavy workload, and, of course, facial hygiene. I certainly didn’t wonder about whether I had to drop out of school to provide for my family. I never had to think about where my next meal was coming from.
But, I realized when living amongst the villagers that these are very real issues for a very large percentage of the world’s population.
First, there was the banana man. Every day, he would load an enormous basket of bananas onto his back and walk up and down the street, calling out to passersby’s. I would always feel bad for him on days when he didn’t sell very many bananas, but what truly stuck out to me was when he told me in conversation that even if he were able to sell all of his bananas, he still wouldn’t have enough money to make a living for his family.
There was also the fisherman in Zanzibar who had to stay on a boat for 16 hours a day in order to catch enough fish to make a living. His skin was cracked and dry and his hands were those of an old man even though he couldn’t have been more than thirty.
Despite the insect-bitten scabs, the calloused feet, the intense pressure to simply survive, all of my new friends kept using that wonderful phrase: “Hakuna Matata”. No worries. The fisherman’s boat was even named “Hakuna Matata.” The closest equivalent phrases in English are “no worries” and “that’s life”, but Hakuna Matata had a slightly different feel to it. It wasn’t a resigned “oh well,” it was an actual statement of joy and exultation, regardless of the challenges life presented.
And that’s when it began to hit me. These people weren’t happy because they were resigned to their fates. They were just happy. I started to realize that maybe all of the things that we consider to be necessary for happiness–education, career, technology, money–are not as necessary as we think they are. Maybe happiness can be as simple as playing soccer on a dirt field.
To make sure I actually internalize and live out some of the lessons of Hakuna Matata, I plan to go back to Tanzania to live full-time and continue volunteering. In the meantime, I have altered my lifestyle in preparation. I no longer shop. Of course, food is an exception, but clothes, makeup, jewelry–I have vowed to make whatever I have now last as long as humanly possible. And it’s not just because I think I can live without these things–it’s because I sincerely don’t believe that they will have any impact on my happiness.
I visualize my future in a hut in Zanzibar, living next to my neighbor the fisherman, with none of the “luxuries” and “necessities” that we are told over and over again that we need, and I think, “Hakuna Matata.”