The Gikuyu soprano is an amazing thing. Alternating between reedy thin-ness and shrill hearing-destroying, it is, I suspect, one of colonialism’s last (and worst) jokes. For many years, I did not know that the PCEA choir at my local church—dominated by Gikuyu women—was singing hymns that had words. Instead, their ventures into music always sounded like a flock of high-pitched locusts descending to consume hearing and sense. I thought God did not like words. He preferred sharp entreaties—if nothing else, I learned the sound of “crying out to God.”
The Gikuyu soprano had so deformed language that it became unrecognizable except as agonizing sound. One experienced penance and marveled at God’s grace and excellent hearing and patience. If nothing else, this piercing soprano also ensured one did not sleep during church services. (I have often imagined that the opera singer in TinTin, Bianca Castafiore, sings in a Gikuyu soprano.)
Four years of an all-boys school saved my hearing. And many years abroad helped to restore some of my belief in the power of the human voice not to wound in the name of music.
But one cannot escape the Gikuyu soprano forever.
It blares at me from radios owned by strangers, emerges from my neighbors’ joyful throats, steals into my dreams, disturbs my being.