Everyone’s on a journey somewhere—sometimes with a lot of planning and agonized worry, and sometimes not. But in southeastern Mali, where we lived for a long time, you never set out on a journey without asking for the road. Kuni kan—“Give me the road”. This was the moment when you made sure you’d fulfilled all your pressing obligations and said proper good-byes. “No hard feelings?” “Everything okay?” “See you later.”
At first we thought you only asked for the road when you were on your way to somewhere else in the world—Bamako to Abidjan, or Mali to America. But in time we realized that of course, you also ask for the road when your destination lies beyond the borders of this world. Then, more than at any other time you need to make sure you are leaving in peace, and have tied up all the loose ends that might otherwise trouble everyone staying behind.
When two people are saying a long goodbye—a goodbye that might last for years—a goodbye that brings grief with it—they might just offer each other the left, not the right hand. It shows everyone in a single gesture just how topsy-turvy the world of grief is. “Come back soon. Don’t stay away forever. I miss you already.”
We’re always having to ask for the road because the journeys we’re on aren’t over yet. You can offer us the right hand of fellowship if you wish. But the left hand is good too.