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‘ If you grumble they see you as evil ‘: Accra’s religious racket difficulty

One-man churches armed with loudspeakers proliferate in Ghanas fast-growing capital. But as the city gets noisier, residents are fighting back

” If you disobey the laws of God, the serpent will pierce you. Satan will down you ,” shouts Apostle Michael Sarfo at a major road intersection in Ghana’s capital, Accra. He urges for five hours every weekday morning, with a load of orators amplifying his evangelism. Passersby stop to receive devotions and approvals, some tossing their coin offerings from moving cars.

In Accra, you are never far from religious speeches. Harmonizing 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 entire populations increases and the city gets noisier, occupants are becoming more willing to fight back- ensuing 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 heights after parties grumbled. He speculates those who complain about the interference are not true Christians.

Apostle
Apostle Michael Sarfo, who makes up at a busy intersection every weekday morning with other pastors and their loudspeakers to spread the truth. Photograph: Stacey Knott

” 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 interference grievances are about religions. Authorities and residents across Accra point to what are known locally as” one-man faiths”- small, independent evangelical religions with no organizational structures- as the biggest sinners. They spring up in backyards, unfinished buildings, under trees and on halls. And despite their small-minded gatherings, they often use loudspeakers and musical instruments during worship.

Noise annoys

For Gifty Gbana, zonal head of the environmental health and sanitation unit at La Nkwantanang Madina Municipal Assembly, dealing with noise ailments is taking over her daily work in her tiny, concrete place in the outskirts of Accra.

” Every single epoch somebody is complaining about noise ,” says Gbana. By her compute, about 65% of her age is wasted dealing with noise objections. Most frequently the complaints are about a church.

Although Gbana’s department attempts to intervene or mediate wherever possible, cases often end up in courtroom. One such event involves a faith that has clearly 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 labels neighbours’ complaints as “unjustifiable” and an infringement of his right to practise his belief. Lambert Kwara, prosecutor for the local assembly, says there has been an increase in noise complaint suits over the past six years. On the day he insists 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 dishes notices.

Members
Members of the Tesano Baptist church at a Sunday service. The religion invests in new gear and changed its interior design to reduce noise levels. Photograph: Stacey Knott

” Some of the pastors will not take it kindly, some will insult ,” Gbana says. Branding complainants “witches” or “wizards” is a common tactic. In additive, “its not” extraordinary for Gbana to face pressure to reject suits from well-connected people in the community.

But Gbana is resolute that peace( and quiet) must reign- although she admits that organizations need to be streamlined and agencies need to work with each other better to be truly effective.

One yearly respite from the interference comes during the month-long ban on noise-making imposed by premiers in the lead-up to the Homowo harvest festival, when it is common for local capacity vigilantes to abduct loudspeakers of recalcitrant noise-makers.

But aside from this annual break, the country of interference in Accra is a public health concern, altering issues ranging from increased stress ranks to hearing loss, says Dr Dzidzo Yirenya-Tawiah, an ecological and public health research scientist at the University of Ghana.

She hears parties are not aware of bylaws on noise-making, or are put over complaining because of fears it will affect their reputation or standing in the community.

” You may end up being labelled as having an evil influence ,” Yirenya-Tawiah says.

Being labelled as evil or a witch or hotshot 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 sorcery you are able to even punished appropriately by culture .”

In August last year, religious leaders, local and national government officials caused a taskforce to combat to Accra’s increasing noise levels, focused on education and enforcement.

Gifty
Gifty Gbana, zonal head of the environmental health and sanitation unit at La Nkwantanang Madina Municipal Assembly, Accra. Photograph: Stacey Knott

” People have become very interested and well informed the jeopardy that interference 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 religions. He personally visits religions within his organisation to ensure they don’t manufacture excessive noise.” The Bible taught us noise-making- God says we should use instruments ,” he says,” but that doesn’t impart us the opportunity to misuse God’s work .”

There are some churches taking preemptive measurings, such as the Tesano Baptist church, which has invested over the years in brand-new gear and changed its interior design in order to reduce noise levels. Members of the gathering had complained about too-loud works, says head Kenneth Palme.” Loud sound doesn’t necessarily mean good music ,” he says.

When faiths do not regulate their noise, going to court can take a lot of time and struggle due to Ghana’s notoriously slow legal processes. It took 14 years of tenacity and” unspeakable agony and endure” for two inhabitants in the outskirts of Accra to be awarded impairments in a high court ruling against two noisy neighbouring churches.

The January 2019 decree laid out a tale of complaints, letters, sees and neglected territory court activity, as well as a impudent re-zoning by local authorities of one of the church properties to allow it to continue to hold services despite the complaints.

The ruling met both faiths in breach of building rules and regulations. They were penalty for stimulate a nuisance, and the municipal chief executive was fined” for reckless indifference” of the two residents’ rights to” quiet enjoyment of their properties “.

‘My anxiety is my baby will have a hearing problem’

Such bureaucracy was what stopped Isaac from following through on his objections to local authorities- about a clergyman who appears intent on saving on with his preach regardless of the complaints.

The noise stirs Isaac feel like a bad father-god and partner, he says in the living room of the small one-bedroom flat he rents in their own families house in Madina.

When he moved here, in mid-2 016, he saw no problem with the small prayer service held by his neighbour. Nonetheless, since then, he says his neighbour has started hampering very loud church services, screaming into a microphone in the evenings along with 10 worshippers.

Isaac merely began to complain when his son was born in early 2018.

” My suspicion is that my child 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 grumbling, feeling his concern was being guided between local and national bureaux. With his tenancy lease ending in April, he and his family are counting down the weeks until they move out.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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