In my youth I was a Cub Scout. The life of a Cub was one of camping, climbing, and adventure. We would play games in the day and then huddle round a camp fire at night and be encouraged to sing songs. I wasn’t one for singing so ordinarily I would just mime the words and sit, content in my deception as everyone around me continued seemingly unaware of my ruse. However, there was always one song that I would bellow out loudly and gleefully: Kumbaya. I liked the way this strange word sounded, the way it tumbled off my tongue and dolloped into the fire.
It wasn’t until recently that I heard this song again and was reminded of all those weekends I spent trampling ferns and talking about girls that I suddenly thought, I have no idea what ‘kumbaya’ means.
‘Kumbaya’, it turns out, translates directly from a tiny and fascinating creole language called Gullah, as ‘come by here’. The song pleads with God to visit the singer and their community as it literally urges God to ‘come by here’. When I sang it as a kid, surrounded by woodland and friends and fire, I never once realised the song had a religious connotation despite the fact that the following two words are ‘my lord’. I was not a smart child.
Gullah, as a language, was originally developed by slaves that were brought to South Carolina and Georgia in the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries. The language has it’s roots in pidgin english and is heavily influenced by a range of West and Central African languages such as Igbo, Wolof and Yoruba.
Today, Gullah is estimated to be spoken by around 250,000 people and is said to be surviving as a language partly because of a negative stigma attached to speakers of the language which has caused an insular culture and developed a prestige and surreptitious pride amongst those that do speak it.
I still don’t like singing, but if I do make an exception I think it’ll be for Kumbaya. The knowledge that it has roots in history and originates from the hopes of those that were treated so poorly, gives the word, and the song, a whole new weight.