Well I suppose the most obvious answer is that I love bananas and climbing things. Anyone that has known me for a second knows that nothing could make me happier than a bowl of fresh fruit (which seriously brings into question my decision to live in Japan: Land of Exorbitant Fruit Prices). And if you’ve ever seen me standing at the bottom of a tree, you’ve probably also seen me try to climb said tree.
But let’s be honest for a second; it took a lot more than my (semi-erotic) love of fruit and climbing to convince me to tattoo a children’s animation character onto my body. Of course, my long-lived love of Rafiki began with the original ‘Lion King’—and I feel the need to place the disclaimer that I have never seen the sequels. So my perception of Rafiki is solely based off the first movie. I suspect they went more of a childish route with him, unfortunately—but it has grown from my original impression of the baboon (I know he is technically a mandrill), and matured as I have. That being said, my love of the movie (having watched it enough times to wear out the VHS) was a major factor in the tattoo. So let’s look at his role in the movie and follow how my perception of Rafiki changed with age.
The first time he graced the silver-screen was at the climactic moment of Sir Elton John’s immortal song, ‘Circle of Life.’ The hoard of wild animals that have congregated around Pride Rock move to form an aisle for Rafiki to walk down—even bowing as he passes. He embraces Mufasa as a friend with a warm hug, blesses Simba, and has the privilege of presenting the new prince to the realm, atop Pride Rock. Even as a child, I was keen enough to understand that he was an important figure.
Yet, at this point, no lines have been spoken, and Rafiki has only been presented in a ceremonial sense. His whimsical nature has yet to be revealed. It`s not until the scene in the jungle with Rafiki’s famous chant, “Asante sana, squash banana. Wewe nugu, mimi hapana”, that we get to see the genius of Rafiki. As a child, the scene was playful and fun. I fell in love with Rafiki for the comical cadence of his speech and his erratic movements (including whacking Simba on the head). But as I grew older I began to understand the things that he said had much deeper meaning than seemingly nonsensical responses to frustrate Simba.
When Simba yells at him to, “Cut it out,” Rafiki replies, “Can’t cut it out. It’ll grow right back!” This can be seen as a playful excuse to keep singing, but it can also be read as a comment on Simba’s current turmoil. Rafiki is saying that you can’t solve a problem simply by ‘cutting it out’. Simba tried to cut his ties to Pride Rock and his responsibility as the next King by living in the jungle and refusing to return—despite Nala’s pleas. Rafiki is saying simply ignoring the dilemma (by running from Nala) won’t help anything.
Next we learn the meaning of his chant, “Thank you very much, squash banana. You’re a baboon and I’m not!” Again, to a child, this is just nonsense (much as it seemed to Simba). But as I look back at this line, it has several underlying themes. The first would be the cultural depictions of baboons as slightly comical animals. Rafiki could be saying that Simba is acting like a fool, or a stereotypical baboon. A second reason that this isn’t such a ridiculous song for Rafiki to sing is that he isn’t actually a baboon; he’s a mandrill (a relative of baboons)—though I’m not sure if this was actually the intent of the writers. (He is also fulfilling Scar’s prophecy of being “a monkey’s uncle,” but that’s more of my own comical interpretation than anything). And last, by singing a Swahili children’s rhyme, he is evoking an ideology along the lines of “Hakuna Matata”. He is trying to convey the folly in Simba’s turmoil. The question that Simba is asking, “Who am I?” is really much more simple than the lion is willing to admit. Rafiki is suggesting that Simba is over-thinking his quagmire and that the answer will come in the simple and carefree explanation that he is the rightful heir to the throne. Simba is the only one standing in the way of that realization.
When Simba catches up to Rafiki, the mandrill is sitting in a meditative pose upon a rock. Here, he corrects Simba’s use of the past-tense by saying, “I know your father.” This is a line that I think flew over my head as a kid. All I knew was that the following chase through the jungle was entertaining to watch: Rafiki swinging from vines and Simba desperately trying to keep up. Of course, the meaning was soon revealed in when they arrive at the pond and Rafiki shows Simba how his father “lives in him.” While this is a good visualization to help Simba connect with his departed father, I think that Rafiki’s philosophy is much deeper in this moment. Rafiki is showing Simba the interdependence of all things. Rafiki is able to connect with Mufasa—someone with whom he isn’t related—because Mufasa affected his life. The monkey wouldn’t be who he is without having encountered Mufasa—in the same way that Simba is the rightful king because of his relation to his father. The sage understands that though a person’s physical presence on Earth may have ceased, their influence continues to ripple and affect the world. Nothing that the ghost of Mufasa says to his son is new to Simba. All of it is either common knowledge, or has been previously explained to Simba in the movie (i.e. the circle of life). It was the continued effect of Mufasa’s life that made Simba realize what he already knew, and this is what Rafiki meant by saying, “I know your father.”
Despite viewing all that had just happened, Rafiki chooses to make light of the situation and sums up the vision of Mufasa to nothing more than “peculiar” weather. But Simba has yet to be convinced in the right course of action, which prompts Rafiki to whack the lion on the head. As a kid this always made me laugh—so much so that I usually missed the next lines said. Rafiki very bluntly states that Simba needs to learn from the past and face the pain (a good message), but the line before that; “It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past!” is of far greater importance from a philosophical stand-point. Rafiki is touching on some deep Buddhist philosophy (even if unintentionally) by questioning the reality of the past. Despite running from it his entire life, Simba has actually been living in the past. He has defined himself by the memory of what happened to his father, so much so that he has convinced himself of its reality. Rafiki is showing the fictitious nature of past and memory. They can be powerful tools to help us learn (as Simba shows by dodging the next attack), but the past can also be a deceptive agent that falsely defines us. “Where you are,” and “what you are doing,” may be influenced by past decisions, but that does not define “you” in the present moment. Simba has fallen deeply into the quicksand of memory and fixed identity, and Rafiki is showing him the way out—laughing and howling with joy as the lion runs off.
To children, Rafiki is a loony character that troubles Simba yet teaches him many things. I know that I learned many things from the monkey as a child, but most of it was taken at face-value. I couldn’t see much deeper than the literal words and actions of the characters. It has only been with time, and my own readings in philosophy, that I have come to understand what/who Rafiki is. He is a sage that understands the charade of appearance. He knows that the depth of his knowledge and wisdom have nothing to do with his outward playfulness and frivolity. He is a buddha showing Simba the Way through “skillful means”. He knows that the lion couldn’t understand his philosophy to the extent that Rafiki does, but the monkey knew how to convey the basic ideas without Simba ever fully realizing what was happening.
Rafiki reminds us that we must never forget our inner joy and wonder. We must be willing to swing from the trees and sing silly songs, lest we become lost in the seriousness of adulthood. He tells us that we are free to act and think as we please. That no matter what our past is, there is no moment other than the present that matters. We should act in the moment. Never dwell in the past for you cannot live there.
These are the ideas that I value in life. I strive to become more knowledgeable with each passing day, yet never to forget to take life less seriously. I know that my past does not define who I am, even though I have trouble remembering it at times. Rafiki is always resting on my shoulder to remind me of these values and help to keep me grounded in what Camus would call the absurdity of life. All I can say is, “Asante sana, Rafiki. Wewe nugu mimi hapana!”
tl;dr Rafiki is a character with much greater value than a crazy guru figure; he is a reminder that the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom should not be inversely related to adolescent wonder, joy, and frivolity. He is also a deeply philosophical character with profound ideas of ‘self’ and ‘interdependence’.