When you’re learning and living a new language, sometimes you discover beautiful words. I’m talking about a word for which the beauty lies in the concept it represents, a concept that’s not represented in your mother-tongue, causing it to strike you and grab your attention. And the beauty of these kinds of words grows as you live in the culture and experience these culture-specific concepts.
Take the following Wolof word: gunge. (or GOONG-gay in English quasi-phonetics)
This is one of several Wolof words that I find particularly beautiful. In fact I find it more beautiful now that when I first learned it. In English, the closest we get to this concept is perhaps in the word “accompany,” but gunge has a more specific usage. It means “to accompany a guest home.” When I first learned the word and its definition, I thought it was interesting as I’d heard about other African cultures in which the custom was common. When one receives a guest, it’s an honor; when the time comes for the guest to leave, a host will accompany him or her out to the door, down the road, and sometimes all the way to the guest’s destination — just to repay the honor. In Wolof, this action is gunge. I found it interesting, but nothing more. It hardly stuck out to me in the mountain of new vocabulary I was living and trying to put to memory.
Gunge became a beautiful word to me, though, as I began experiencing it. That word jumped off the abstract list of new vocabulary and began wearing the tangible clothes of my daily experience as a foreigner, a perpetual guest in West Africa. Gunge for me is now a word rich with feeling, meaning, memories, a word that lives and breathes reassurance to solitary me.
It’s not rare for me to be on my own here, as I go from one place to another, as I run errands, as I travel, as I visit people. This is nothing new for me. But being on your own where you’re a foreigner, where there’s no chance of blending it, where there’s no avoiding the curious gaze — is a different experience. Being solitary in that kind of environment, in my personal experience, can bring with it a certain weight, a sense of vulnerability and always being exposed, even fear at times. In West Africa I’ve learned to appreciate company like never before. Going anywhere with someone (even someone I’ve just met) is a completely different experience for me (and almost always preferred) than walking alone. And so when I’ve been spending time with someone and the time comes for me to leave, their company to gunge me, to see me out and on my way — putting off even by a few minutes the moment where we part ways and I’m once again solitary — simply means the world to me. Sometimes I almost feel like I’m being passed from hand to hand of kind hosts and friends who are looking out for me here. It’s a huge blessing to live in a culture where that is simply normal. I’ve tried adopting the custom and seeing visitors at least as far as the bus stop if they live some distance away. It just seems right to honor and enjoy the presence of a companion a little longer. That’s what gunge represents for me, and that’s why it’s a beautiful word.
Well this beautiful word popped up in a new place for me recently. I was going on a short trip and, as I often do, taking my leave. The people seeing me off were Wolof, and this sort of occasion is one of many where the Wolof love of blessings is heard. I’m used to hearing the most common traveler’s blessing, which I love: Yàlla na la Yàlla teeg ci yoonu jamm. (“May God put you on the road of peace.”) But this time a different blessing was uttered, grabbing my ears and my heart: Yàlla na la Yàlla gunge (“May God gunge you.”)
The blessing sent my mind spinning and flooded me with a wave of reassurance and comfort as I imagined the presence of God Himself, accompanying me from one place to the next. Wherever I go, solitary or in human company, ultimately God is gunge-ing me. What a miracle! And His is a presence with which I don’t even need to part ways, a presence beside me that lasts. His company endures. In that moment, considering the Wolof blessing I’d just heard, I decided that from now on, whenever someone gunges me, instead of dreading the moment when the gunge will end and the weight of solitude will once again descend on me, I will try to see the human company as a symbol of the divine company that promises to not turn back.
Last year, a stranger gave me Brennan Manning’s Abba’s Child which I finally got around to reading. In it, I found Manning’s reminder — fitting and also beautiful:
The miracle of the gospel is Christ, risen and glorified, who this very moment tracks us, pursues us, abides in us, and offers Himself to us as companion for the journey!
Wherever you are coming from or headed to, Yàlla na la Yàlla gunge — may God gunge you too.