I remember visiting the Johabeto Home after a long absence. Our dust trail must have been visible from a long way off because Martin and Ruth Shikuku, adorned with a layered skirt of a dozen bright-eyed children, surrounded our car, dancing, leaping, and ululating until we arrived. We were ushered in with fanfare. They hung glittering garlands around our necks and continued to lavish songs and celebrations upon us.
We offered back handshakes and a hug.
I am moved by the way Kenyans channel joy or grief. They have an outlet for raw, visceral emotion. I observed the same expressions among the children at the Veronica Home, and even, remarkably, the students at St. Anthony’s School for the Deaf. They feel with their bodies, their souls, and their lusty cries.
I, on the other hand, have learned to polish feelings.
I train my children to be emotionally regulated. Resilient. Stoic.
Ruth Shikuku saw the need to to teach me to ululate.
She laughed at my feeble, controlled attempts to let a full-throated cry rush from my lungs. Again and again, she modeled the marriage of sound and piercing emotion. Her lips spread and she released a long, wavering howl, trilling with the rapid back and forth movement of tongue against uvula.
I heard war welling deep in her chest.
This summer, I took my children to Killbear Provincial Park. From the cliffs, we watched the sun set over the bay. Then, we saw the moon rise. Low, large, otherworldly.
Someone howled like a mournful, lone wolf. His cry was answered, deep in the park, by other campers haunted by the moon. Then, forgetting myself, I ululated, Ruth-like, into the night. My cry ricocheted back. My girls chimed in, wailing with release and delight. Then, ripples formed - loudly at first, then faintly, as our ululations spread across the park.
We stool still, letting them rain over us, these familiar and beloved echoes of Africa.
By Manon Christensen
Example of ululation (not by Manon Christensen):