In the beginning was the word. All is different here from there. From the plug shape to the insipid taste of the margarine all is different. Strange and different. Even the plastic chair I am seated in as I write, overlooking the river waiting the dawn, is pressed from a different mold.
But then one discovers words that keep recurring. Words that become familiar. Words spoken with a force in the voice and in their recurrence begin to evoke curiosity. They are the words that one begins to listen for and then to claim for oneself. They are words we hold on to and that ground us here, in this place among people who are in the beginning as different and strange as the tools and the habits of their lives.
Let me celebrate with you some of the words. A couple glides along hugging the bank while poling against the current of the vast river and the man at the prow salutes you with the Lingala greeting “mbote” You are stunned for a moment and then moved to respond with yes I am here, I return your greeting , and I, so strange and different, am grateful for the acknowledgment.
Sometimes it is a phrase that enthralls. “Weidji la weidji” rolls off the tongue with a lilt and evokes grand thoughts that lift and empower. It is Lonkundo, the tribal language’s expression that encompasses everything, meaning “in all parts, everywhere”. Go ahead and say it with a sweep of the arm and you will move closer to its true meaning.
“Elombe” will bring a smile and for a male particularly it establishes an instant bond. How to translate the Lingala when it is learned where nothing is the same. But when one is strong, takes on the difficult and succeeds at least some of the time and even does it with a flair, sure that one is unique, that person merits the term “elombe”. What a pleasure to confer on a brother – or a sister.
Which leads to the word reserved for special occasions, a word if used prematurely feels so much weaker. It is a word that must be preserved and unwrapped when the time is ripe. Sure one can bring it out prematurely but by doing so one risks losing the weight of all your words. One risks feeling like one who is suspect and undeserving of trust. So let’s preserve this word for a celebration of a job well done together, for a crisis risen above, or a shared loss. There are times when we who are so different feel it is truly the time to say “ndeko”, to say “brother, sister” and in saying this word know that this journey is one we were meant to take.