Jennifer Lee Johnson
- Pronunciation: je-baa-leh (ʒɛ:bʌ:lɛ)
- Part of Speech: Salutation
- Provenance: Luganda
- Example: Upon seeing a neighbor replacing their formerly well-manicured lawn with native prairie grasses, a stranger collecting aluminum cans to recycle for a bit of cash, or a protester blocking traffic to halt the construction of an oil pipeline, you might say, “Gyebale!” Your interlocutor might reply, “Gyebale!”
When two adults meet in passing along the southern shores of Uganda, they do not say hello. Instead, they say gyebaleko: thank you for the work you do. Gyebaleko, or more colloquially gyebale, is an informal greeting used to acknowledge the presence of others by first expressing appreciation for the contributions they make toward the everyday work of living well together. It is a common courtesy extended no matter how large or small a person’s work may be, whether it is paid or unpaid, known or unknown, or ongoing, already completed, or to be started sometime in the future. When one is greeted with gyebale, the customary response is to return the sentiment with kale, nawe, gyebale—literally, yes, and you, thank you for the work you do. Regularly recognizing the work of others, and being recognized for your own, strengthens relationships required to live and work well into increasingly uncertain futures.
As my Ugandan colleague and self-proclaimed fisherman by birth Bakaaki Robert explains, everyone—young and old, rich and poor—will do some kind of work worth doing on any given day. There may be children, gardens, livestock, and businesses to tend, fish to catch, dry, and sell, water to carry, grounds to sweep, clothes to wash, meals to prepare, books to study, homes to build, buses to catch, and almost always money that must be earned. Gyebale is a word quickly but generously uttered, so that the everyday work of living well with others may continue, no matter the social standing of an individual or the specific nature of the work they do.
Greetings are important. In Uganda, as in many other cultural contexts, it is exceedingly rude to encounter another person without verbally acknowledging their presence. Family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers all deserve the mutual respect that convivial recognition affords. Failing to greet another properly may engender suspicion, mistrust, or ill will between parties. The regular practice of exchanging greetings helps people to remember past social interactions as they negotiate present and future ones. For those who say gyebale, ignoring the presence of others is no way to lead a life worth living.
Gyebale is most commonly used as a brief informal greeting when either party appears unable to engage in lengthy formal greetings. Indeed, it is often impolite to expect individuals actively hard at work—for example, carrying heavy things, heading quickly from place to place, or already engaged in close conversation with another—to begin extended routinized greetings. In these moments, gyebale offers a conscientious way to extend one’s appreciation and encouragement for the ongoing work of another within shared contexts without having to impede their activities (or have them impede one’s own). The appropriate time to greet another with gyebale is not unlike wishing someone happy birthday. The good wishes are welcome any time—before, during, and after the event itself. In Uganda, those who spend their days in freshly pressed white-collared shirts behind computers in air-conditioned offices and those who wear tattered T-shirts and trousers to dig and sling dirt in the midday sun all may be thanked for their work and thank others with gyebale. All people in all walks of life may use gyebale, but it is an especially useful greeting to offer friends and acquaintances actively engaged in work, and for visitors, hosts, and travelers of all kinds.
Gyebale belongs to a category of greetings common within a wide geographic and linguistic range of African languages, but without a clear equivalent in American or British English. Although there are many greetings within African vernaculars specific to particular kinds of activities, most address others at work. By way of a few examples: for speakers of Kerebe on Ukerewe Island in Tanzania, the greeting is issued as a question, Milimo? (How is work?), with the person at work responding Milimo nizyo! (Yes, this is work!), meaning “the work is going on well.” In Kinyakusa, also spoken in Tanzania, the term is instead ubombile (you have worked). In Igbo, spoken in southeastern Nigeria, it is daalu olu (thank you for work/greetings to you at work) or onye oly daalu (worker, thank you). A number of additional African greetings, including gyebale, are glossed specifically in English as “well done.” For example, in Uganda, the vernacular term [o]gyebale used in the Runyoro, Rutooro, Luganda, and Lusoga languages and apowyo used in Dholuo are all glossed in Ugandan English as “well done.” The Yoruba phrase e ku ise, according to Femi Akindele, and the Akan phrase mo ne adwuma, according to Kofi Agyekum, are similarly glossed as “well done” in Nigerian and Ghanaian English, respectively.
Like gyebale, the African English gloss of “well done” has no clear Euro-American English equivalent. In Euro-American contexts, the use of “well done” reflects high praise after an evaluation of exceptional work already completed, whereas gyebale does its work more as a verbal tip of the hat to others in passing. Because much of the work that needs doing on any given day may be considered mundane, routine, or beneath those with comparatively higher social standing in Euro-American contexts, much of the necessary but unglamorous work that gets done every day often goes unacknowledged. Those who greet each other with gyebale (or e ku ise, apowyo, mo ne adwuma, and many others) use “well done” to reflect appreciation for everyone’s work, which is always in progress. Rather than a superlative salutation offered after exceptional achievement, in African English, “well done” is used in affirmation of one’s existence and importance in relation to others, as well as the contributions of others toward more collectively distributed forms of well-being. In the process, everyday and exceptional work of all kinds is encouraged, appreciated, and sustained.
Gyebale is notably distinct from similar words conveying thanks in use in Uganda. For example, webale, very similar to the English phrase “thank you,” is used to extend appreciation to another for a specific thing or act that directly benefits the well-being of the receiver. For example, when I enjoy a hot meal shared with a Ugandan friend who prepared the food, I say to her webale okufumba (thank you for cooking). Rather than thank me for eating, she would likely reply webale kusima (thank you for appreciating). Unlike “thank you,” which connotes gratitude for a specific act done for a specific person or group of people, gyebale is used to express appreciation for work that may not be immediately apparent but nevertheless generates collective benefits.
Although gyebale is often uttered informally, it is sometimes used to begin or signal an end to extended formal greetings practiced in accordance with the situated norms of speaking and being spoken to. The proper practice of formal greetings in Uganda, as elsewhere, are shaped by age, gender, and the particularities of any given meeting. While participants may make and answer inquiries about one’s night, day, health, work, family, and whatever and whomever else they find it appropriate to discuss, it is common to shake and hold hands. Depending on the social standing of each greeter, one or more participants may even kneel and respectfully avert their eyes as a sign of deference. One’s ability to greet others properly (or not) demonstrates the quality of a person’s upbringing and their awareness of the importance of their relationships with others within a shifting and sometimes fraught social landscape.
Indeed, it is within contexts where extended greetings are often highly ritualized, required, and actively interpreted that the use of gyebale in passing does its own work. In this most frequently used variant of the term, gyebale offers an informal and universally appropriate greeting devoid of established social hierarchy, implied evaluation, or impossible expectation. Those who continue to make themselves known to others in passing with gyebale work—intentionally or otherwise—to establish common convivial ground for extended and sometimes difficult conversations in the future.
Ugandans certainly recognize that all work is not necessarily good work, and that work that some consider good may hinder the ability of others to do work they deem worth doing. This has particularly been the case in recent years, when the Ugandan government has increasingly harnessed the military might of the state to limit public protests led by opposition party candidates and to dispossess residents of their land to facilitate resource extraction, expand highways, and clear formerly dense forests to seed palm oil plantations. Still, those who labor toward projects big and small, projects good, bad, or morally ambiguous, say and are told gyebale. Whether said in passing or as part of formal greetings, gyebale creates opportunities for continued work and also establishes a basis for mutual recognition from which to continue conversations into the future. Although there may be many reasons not to thank a member of the military police for quelling a potential riot, by failing to say gyebale in moments when it is expected and appreciated, conversations about the potentially harmful work of another may never begin.
After working gyebale into my lexicon and habits in Uganda, I came home to a cold winter in the Midwestern United States to find my American English lacking a satisfying equivalent. There seemed to be no simultaneously simple and meaningful way to acknowledge the work of a woman sprinkling salt on a public sidewalk so that passersby did not slip on the ice; there was nothing appropriately quick and unobtrusive I could say to a man patiently answering his young daughter’s questions in a busy grocery store checkout line. There was nothing but gyebale I could say to the team of men hauling trash from my neighborhood’s dumpsters away and out of sight. In those moments, when I longed to say something, I said nothing at all.
Acknowledging the good work of others may well offer vital support for the everyday acts and arts of living and working well into increasingly uncertain futures. Although I have yet to hear Ugandans saying gyebale to other-than-human beings, they do express gratitude through interspecies comparisons. To give just one proverbial example: when you eat flying ants (or termites, a delicious and nutritious seasonal delicacy), don’t talk about them being tasty without appreciating the hard work of the nkuyege (work-termites) that have built up the anthill. For English speakers, gyebale may be an especially useful term for acknowledging the collective contributions of as-yet-underappreciated members of anthropos, as well as extending appreciation for the underacknowledged but nevertheless vital work of a suite of other-than-human beings—microbes, fungi, insects, and many others—that continue to do work for us all.
Another Path: In Lak’ech—A la K’in
1. Many thanks to David Schoenbrun for bringing this to my attention and to Olamide O Bisi-Amosun for explaining the use of this phrase in Yoruba for me.
2. Following Erving Goffman and Judith Irvine, some African linguists refer to these as passing greetings; see Femi Akindele, “A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Yoruba Greetings,” African Languages and Cultures 3, no. 1 (1990): 1–14. Others instead consider these to be exhortatory greetings; for instance, Onuigbo G. Nwoye situates greetings “whose purpose or function is to admonish, or urge to greater or better performance.” Nwoye, “An Ethnographic Analysis of Igbo Greetings,” African Languages and Cultures 6, no. 1 (1993): 40. Kofi Agyekum explains that as an activity, greetings are meant to “encourage, praise and boost the morale of the addressee to continue to work hard.” Agyekum, “The Pragmatics of Akan Greetings,” Discourse Studies 10, no. 4 (2008): 506.
3. Euphrase Kezilahabi, “A Phenomenological Interpretation of Kerebe Greetings,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 14, no. 2 (2001): 189.
4. Martin Walsh, “Nyakyusa Greetings,” Cambridge Anthropology 7, no. 3 (1982): 32.
5. Onuigbo G. Nwoye, “An Ethnographic Analysis of Igbo Greetings,” African Languages and Cultures 6, no. 1 (1993): 40.
6. Bernard Sabiiti, Uglish: A Dictionary of Ugandan English (Arlington, Mass.: J. C. Mugunga, 2014), 40.
7. Bebwa Isingoma, “Lexical Borrowings and Calques in Ugandan English,” Ugandan English: Its Sociolinguistics, Structure and Uses in a Globalising Post-protectorate, ed. Christiane Meierkord, Bebwa Isingoma, and Saudah Namyalo (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2016), 167.
8. Agyekum, “Pragmatics of Akan Greetings,” 506; Akindele, “Sociolinguistic Analysis of Yoruba Greetings,” 11.
9. Gyebale, gyebaleko, and subsequent attestations of this term used in other African languages are most often used as an expression of appreciation and mutual respect in the sense described here. They can and sometimes are used by familiars in a more sarcastic register to reflect one’s disappointment with something promised but not completed, or to guilt one clearly enjoying an undeserved rest into getting going on something that needs doing.
10. In Luganda: “Bwe mubanga mulya enswa: temuzitendanga kuwooma, nga temunnasaasira nkuyege ezaabumba ettaka.”
11. Although microorganisms, fungi, and insects are too often described as pests and evoke feelings of disgust among English speakers, we literally would not be alive without them. By way of a few examples: our bodies contain more microbial cells than human ones, fungi gave us penicillin, and if it weren’t for bees, we wouldn’t have honey.