Pupils at Degel Children’s School Aguda are lucky to have a teacher who’s raising them to be polite. One afternoon this September, the little ones learned, with the aid of a song, why they should always use the “five magic words” – please, excuse me, sorry, thank you, and pardon me. Overwhelmed in a grinding task on a sunny day, I welcomed the melody of this song which I had never heard (so much for being educated). How lucky I was to be within earshot of a classroom where future leaders are bred in such fashion! But fancy moments like this are not the norm for me; on more evenings than I can bear, the sounds from those premises are anything but harmonious and orderly.
Lagos is the noise capital of Nigeria. We can infer this by strolling through inner city neighbourhoods on any given day, with the possible exception of public holidays. Of the varieties that exude the megacity’s irrepressible and often depressing energy, noise from religious organisations have a glaring signature. Take Sundays and Fridays away and you still recognize throbbing dance music, the thudding of bands, uber-vocal congregations and jerking sounds off intrusive megaphones from one residential street to another. In November 2017, the state government’s Commissioner for the Environment, Samuel Adejare, proclaimed a 90-day ultimatum for churches and mosques to use soundproof materials for noise control. Pastors and imams largely called the government’s bluff, safe in the knowledge that the sensitivity of religious discourse in Nigeria means enforcement of such ultimatums almost never happens. The consequence is that for at least one week in a month, I can do no meaningful mental work from dusk to two hours before midnight. While Degel’s pupils are being trained to be polite, nothing about the cacophony from “power-packed” week-long programmes (September’s edition lasted nine days) hosted by the school’s parent Church shows much regard for one’s neighbour. On the foundation of a failure in municipal planning, a major public health headache blooms.
More people are likely to die from an excess of carbon monoxide in their lungs than from being constantly shouted at. But health experts are unequivocal on what portends for a society with out-of-control noise levels: it does get bad. Having to sleep with earplugs, like I have to on some days, is only a part of the coming troubles. In a 2012 study of noise pollution in Ilorin Kwara state, Olayinka Oyedepo, a professor in the department of Mechanical Engineering at Covenant University, describes noise pollution’s effects as “numerous, pervasive, persistent, and medically and socially significant”. Heart disease, hypertension, elevated stress levels, sleep deprivation and broad forms of cognitive impairment are among a host of associated risk factors. Under regular bombardment from uncontrollable external sound, my brain will often try to compensate for the turbulence. Seeking escape, shortcuts from irregular eating to forced sleep become handy remedies, each with a cost to health and productivity.
Noise has been a designated pollutant by the WHO since 1972. Responsible governments who acknowledge this have a duty to foster an ambient environment within which citizens can lead psycho-socially balanced lives and produce their best work. Nigeria’s environmental standards regulator, NESREA, has its definitions of permissible noise levels gazetted as the National Environmental (Noise Standards and Control) Regulations 2009. But in the decade since this, there is no shortage of microphones disturbing the peace.
I am yet to confront my neighbours. The church is, to be sure, not the only source of unpleasant sounds militating against my peace of mind. Typical of an apartment in much of suburban Lagos, there are other (literally) surrounding neighbours. Within and outside my compound, generators produce the most awful vibrations. It’s the case, sometimes, that I am subject to noise from the Church and generators at same time: in those moments, I convince myself that they cancel each other out so that no one is distinct enough to excite particular attention and frustration. Even as I expect to purchase my own generator and absolutely wish not to be told by anyone when and how to use it, this inclination is, maybe, responsible for the persisting environmental noise pollution. As a chorister in a church located close to a residence in another part of town, a tacit admission hovers that, however moderated the tones of our Sunday morning Gregorian chants, I might also be emitting pesky waves against another’s wishes. I condone an unconscionable intrusion at my window for the pleasure of causing a mild inconvenience elsewhere. Possibly, so the cycle goes.
Yet, libertarianism of this sort is not a valid get-out-of-jail card for grooming an undesirable bug into a feature. There is, in the matter of noise pollution, a more than fair argument for regulating the shared public space and preventing any individual or group from using more than a proportional share to the detriment of others. The fact is that there are acceptable sound levels and beyond such, negative externalities are generated. A society of reasonable people must be able to agree that, for residential areas, some noise levels are absolutely not to be tolerated, whoever’s ox is gored. On the tenth anniversary of NESREA’s Noise Control legislation, the time is right for the Federal Ministry of Environment to consistent, faith-neutral enforcement of its anti-noise pollution standards.
Technology can provide means for easing those challenges that make discoursing ‘Church noise’ difficult. One necessary route would be to facilitate easy and discrete citizen reporting of bad noise sources. NESREA and associated state government agencies could work in synergy to develop a technology service or web application by which a smartphone user captures noise and sends to a database. The app should have a GPS functionality that captures the location where the sound is recorded, to forestall foul play, plus other features that guarantee authenticity and quality assurance. Building this service requires modern design thinking and a problem-solving rather than a bureaucratic approach. If done well, the costs will be recouped in gains to well-being and quality life.
Of course governments at all levels must plan better municipalities that afford sufficient spacing between apartments, and ensure regular power supply to consign generators to a forgotten age. Maybe we can have change in both areas before pupils at Degel become adults. But till then, I want to cease being bothered by their Pastor’s noise. ✚
Onukwue covers innovation and technology regulation at TechCabal.