If you disobey the laws of God, the serpent will bite you. Satan will consume you,” shouts Apostle Michael Sarfo at a major road intersection in Ghana’s capital, Accra. He preaches for five hours every weekday morning, with a stack of speakers amplifying his evangelism. Passersby stop to receive prayers and blessings, some tossing their money offerings from moving cars.
In Accra, you are never far from religious sermons. According to one estimate, there are approximately 10 churches per sq km, and open-air preaching, whether on public transport, in bus terminals or at road intersections, is commonplace.
The population of Greater Accra was about 4 million in 2010, but the city’s rapid growth means that number is expected to reach nearly 10 million by 2037. And as the population increases and the city gets noisier, residents are becoming more willing to fight back – resulting in a rise in noise complaints.
Sarfo has been preaching at this intersection with his speaker system for the past four years. He says he used to be a lot louder but lowered his levels after people complained. He believes those who complain about the noise are not true Christians.
“Not everybody will like what we are doing here – not all know Christ,” he says. “That is why we are here.”
While he considers his roadside preaching a church, he says he eventually wants to take it indoors into his own space.
According to the city’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 70% of noise complaints are about churches. Authorities and residents across Accra point to what are known locally as “one-man churches” – small, independent evangelical churches with no organisational structure – as the biggest offenders. They spring up in backyards, unfinished buildings, under trees and on porches. And despite their small congregations, they often use loudspeakers and musical instruments during worship.
For Gifty Gbana, zonal head of the environmental health and sanitation unit at La Nkwantanang Madina Municipal Assembly, dealing with noise complaints is taking over her daily work in her small, concrete office in the outskirts of Accra.
“Every single day somebody is complaining about noise,” says Gbana. By her reckoning, about 65% of her time is spent dealing with noise complaints. Most frequently the complaints are about a church.
Although Gbana’s department attempts to intervene or mediate wherever possible, cases often end up in court. One such case involves a church that had apparently been set up inside a family home in a new development on the city’s outskirts.
The pastor says his church was simply a fellowship of his family members and brands neighbours’ complaints as “unjustifiable” and an infringement of his right to practise his religion. Lambert Kwara, prosecutor for the local assembly, says there has been an increase in noise complaint cases over the past six years. On the day he argues this particular complaint, he has two others to prosecute.
Gbana is often on the frontline in these cases. She says things can quickly turn ugly when she serves notices.
But Gbana is resolute that peace (and quiet) must prevail – although she admits that systems need to be streamlined and agencies need to work with each other better to be truly effective.
One yearly respite from the noise comes during the month-long ban on noise-making imposed by chiefs in the lead-up to the Homowo harvest festival, when it is common for local volume vigilantes to seize loudspeakers of recalcitrant noise-makers.
But aside from this annual break, the state of noise in Accra is a public health concern, affecting issues ranging from increased stress levels to hearing loss, says Dr Dzidzo Yirenya-Tawiah, an environmental and public health research scientist at the University of Ghana.
She finds people are unaware of bylaws on noise-making, or are put off complaining because of fears it will affect their reputation or standing in the community.
“You may end up being branded as having an evil influence,” Yirenya-Tawiah says.
Being tagged as evil or a witch or wizard can be a serious insult, says Dr Cyril Fayose, general secretary of the Christian Council of Ghana. “Witchcraft accusations are very serious matters in Africa,” he says, “and sometimes if you are seen as doing witchcraft you can even be punished by society.”
In August last year, religious leaders, local and national government officials created a taskforce to combat to Accra’s increasing noise levels, focused on education and enforcement.
“People have become very interested and aware of the danger that noise poses, so now the complaints are coming,” says John Tettey, a taskforce member and head of the education department at the EPA.
Samuel Teye Doku was at the August taskforce meeting representing independent churches. He personally visits churches within his organisation to ensure they don’t make excessive noise. “The Bible taught us noise-making – God says we should use instruments,” he says, “but that doesn’t give us the opportunity to misuse God’s work.”
There are some churches taking preemptive measures, such as the Tesano Baptist church, which has invested over the years in new equipment and adapted its interior design in order to reduce noise levels. Members of the congregation had complained about too-loud services, says administrator Kenneth Palme. “Loud sound doesn’t necessarily mean good sound,” he says.
When churches do not regulate their noise, going to court can take a lot of time and effort due to Ghana’s notoriously slow legal processes. It took 14 years of tenacity and “indescribable pain and suffering” for two residents in the outskirts of Accra to be awarded damages in a high court ruling against two noisy neighbouring churches.
The January 2019 ruling laid out a saga of complaints, letters, meetings and failed district court action, as well as a brazen re-zoning by local authorities of one of the church properties to allow it to continue to hold services despite the complaints.
The ruling found both churches in breach of building rules and regulations. They were fined for causing a nuisance, and the municipal chief executive was fined “for reckless disregard” of the two residents’ rights to “quiet enjoyment of their properties”.
‘My fear is my baby will have a hearing problem’
Such bureaucracy was what stopped Isaac from following through on his complaints to local authorities – about a pastor who appears intent on keeping on with his preaching regardless of the complaints.
The noise makes Isaac feel like a bad father and husband, he says in the living room of the small one-bedroom flat he rents in a family house in Madina.
When he moved in, in mid-2016, he saw no problem with the small prayer service held by his neighbour. However, since then, he says his neighbour has started holding very loud church services, screaming into a microphone in the evenings along with 10 worshippers.
Isaac only began to complain when his son was born in early 2018.
“My fear is that my baby will have a hearing problem in the future … [but] when you complain they see you as evil,” says Isaac, who is himself a Christian.
After reporting the matter to the EPA, he gave up complaining, feeling his concern was being passed between local and national agencies. With his tenancy lease ending in April, he and his family are counting down the weeks until they move out. But his neighbour does not see any issue with the noise he and his congregation make.
But mostly he believes the end times are coming so there’s not much point worrying about noise levels. He just wants to focus on his “soul-winning” and says noise is part of that.
Meanwhile, Yirenya-Tawiah warns of significant socioeconomic impacts from the rising noise levels including on tourism, health and even biodiversity.
“Should Accra continue in the business-as-usual approach to noise-making,” she says, “I anticipate a chaotic city where everyone can do anything without accountability.”