Ethiopia is not the only country suffering from an increasingly aggressive use of loudspeakers by religious groups who compete with each other over influence in the public sphere. Religious acoustic war has now been waged for more than a decade in much of middle and southern America, in many parts of Africa, in the Near and Far East and even on some Pacific Islands. It is in fact its recent arrival in a formerly quiet and peaceful Ethiopia, which I find so disturbing and which has prompted my present call for a concerted and sustained campaign against loudspeaker misuse in Ethiopia and beyond.
Noise pollution counts among the most hiddeous hazards of modern times because it invades our personal spaces in ways which are difficult to define, and because it deminishes the quality of our lives to degrees which are hard - even impossible - to measure. Governments have been evasive, have shied away and have tried to shelve the problem. This is why throughout the world we are now witnessing the rise of initiatives against the menace. Also, the Internet has become the forum for a vast number of complaints, and - most importantly - a source of hope that eventually justice will reign. I quote here at length a case which happened at Madras but can also serve as a model for all other parts of the world:
In a significant judgement, the Supreme Court has held that no community has a right to use microphones or loud speakers to amplify their religious preaching and prayers. A division bench comprising Justice M B Shah and Justice S N Phukan gave this ruling while dismissing an appeal by the Church of God (Full Gospel) in India challenging a Madras high court order. The order had directed it to keep the use of loud speakers at a low level. Rejecting the contention that by this order the church's fundamental right under Article 25 was violated, Justice Shah said the fundamental right to preach religion was subject to 'public order, morality and health'. No religion prescribes or preaches that prayers are required to be performed through voice amplifiers or by beating of drums, the bench said. Justice Shah said, "Undisputedly, no religion prescribes that prayers should be performed by disturbing the peace of others nor does it preach that they should be done through voice-amplifiers or beating of drums." In our view, in a civilised society, in the name of religion, activities which disturb old or infirm persons, students or children having their sleep in the early hours or during day-time or other persons carrying on their activities cannot be permitted, the bench said. It should not be forgotten that babies in the neighbourhood are also entitled to enjoy their natural right of sleeping in a peaceful atmosphere, the court said. Giving more instances of the disturbances caused by such use of loud speakers, the apex court said a student preparing for his examination was entitled to concentrate on his studies without being unnecessarily disturbed by neighbours. Similarly, the old and infirm are entitled to enjoy reasonable quietness during their leisure hours without there being any nuisance of noise pollution, the court said. Aged, sick, people afflicted with psychic disturbances as well as children up to six years of age are considered to be very sensitive to noise. Their rights are also required to be honoured, it said (http://www.rediff.com/news/2000/aug/30loud.htm).
Some perceptive - and bold - Ethiopian journalists have already addressed the misuse of loudspeakers in Addis Ababa (as well as other cities in Ethiopia) pointing out that, "urbanization requires a new code of conduct, new habits and sensibilities and adopting a way of life appropriate for a metropolitan setting. As the city is developing and growing in all respects its inhabitants also have to develop a culture suited to urban life. People, businesses, and organizations that ignore the responsibility to not interfere with the rights and wellbeing of others and their enjoyment of the common environment by producing noise pollution are, in many ways, acting like a bully in a school yard. Although perhaps unknowingly, they nevertheless disregard the rights of others and claim for themselves rights that are not theirs" (Addis Guide', Issue No.12 - 2004/04, July-August 2004).
In the "Reporter" (17, January 2007), Abinet Tesfaye called attention to the fact that, "among the greatly irritating acts that most of the public in Addis Ababa is complaining about, albeit in private, is the use of loudspeakers by churches and mosques. People are afraid to talk about this for fear of retribution… Leaders of the major religions in the country act with impunity while the government watches in silence. The public feels betrayed by both."
People suffer silently while being subjected to extreme stress due to persistent loudspeaker noise, which, as international medical research has shown, has physical effects on individuals such as changes in blood pressure leading to heart attacks and strokes, problems with the digestive system, general fatigue and even neurosis and nervous breakdown. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) postulates that the noise levels produced by loudspeakers should not exceed 60 decibels. Abinet has suggested that secular institutions, in particular the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Ministry of health should step in "to see to it that the public is not subjected to health hazards" and can enjoy the "democratic right for citizens to live a quiet life of harmony, free from any disturbances caused by unwanted noise". This would be in line with the Ethiopian law, which states in the 1957 Penal Code article 770 that anyone who disturbs others by the "abuse of noisy instruments apparatus, machines or other noise-producing articles, is punishable with fine or arrest" (International Encyclopaedia of Laws, Environment law Ethiopia, Chapter 6: Noise pollution; August 2000). Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been given the mandate by Parliament "to develop noise pollution standards in the Ethiopian context" (ibid.).*
The sound coming from loudspeakers differs from other environmental noise in that it is directed, addressed and intentional. Loudspeakers are not neutral like the manifold unintentional sounds created in the bustle of every-day life (factories, traffic etc.). On the contrary, the sounds they emit are usually partisan, purposeful, and deliberate. They carry meaning and what is called "rhetorical energy", which aims at persuasion and affects both people's mental and emotional sensitivity and therefore can be far more menacing than any kind of unintended noise.
It is important to note that "rhetorical energy" can make itself felt already on a low noise level, and that even a whispered addressed sound can disturbe if it is not welcome. Everyone who does not adhere to the same cultural values advertised by a particular form of rhetorical energy, everyone who is not in tune with it will recoil and experience the sound as an imposition.*
In order to explain why I am personally converned about loudspeaker misuse in Ethiopia (and elswehere) I provide here a short account of my personal experience: The first thirty-seven years of my intermittent stays in Ethiopia were blissfully free from loudspeakers. I would wake up in the morning to the chirping of birds and perhaps the faint sound of a service in a nearby church, and would rise refreshed after a good night's sleep to go to work cheerfully and engage in my various activities with positive feelings and a clear mind. But during the past years things have changed. At first, small churches were being built around where I lived (in the town of Jinka and in Addis Ababa). This arrival of new churches was pleasant, even charming, until powerful loudspeaker equipment was introduced, the speakers often mounted on specially erected towers. The 110 decibel blasts of the loudspeakers (yes, I have measured their sound levels) reached me defenseless and unprepared, so I asked my neighbors, employers, local administrators and finally my embassy, to appeal to the Church authorities on my behalf for a lowering of the sound level. But their efforts were to no avail.
On the10th of March 2007 I could not endure the strain any longer and wrote to my employer that because of the loudspeakers I was suffering a nervous breakdown. I would leave and only return to Ethiopia once the harassment had ceased. But my colleagues urged me to continue, so after recuperating at home I returned to Ethiopia to do my job, but also to tackle the loudspeaker problem. There is no room here to tell of all my attempts to convince church officials, administrators, ministries, embassies and the press of the need to do something against the misuse - if not to say abuse - of loudspeakers. Although everyone agreed that the state of affairs was deplorable, no one was ready to do anything. The reason given was either that the issue was too sensitive and could lead to religious conflict, or on the contrary that it was a minor issue and that there were many more pressing matters such as road construction, housing and medical facilities.
By the middle of Nevember 2007 my diary began to fill up with remarks like "the church loudspeakers are at it again from all directions" or "the church loudspeakers are really making me sick", and once again I was caught in the dilemma to decide whether to leave or stay on in this stressful environment. Unable to choose between one or the other I eventually fell ill and had to return home again. My doctor in Berlin diagnosed a classic 'helplessness syndrome' - physical, mental and emotional exhaustion stemming from a prolonged inability to choose between the options of 'fight' or 'flight'.*
I know that others, Ethiopians and expatriates alike, have similar tales of suffering to tell. This is why I herewith call for a campaign against loudspeaker misuse in Ethiopia, which is aimed at a reduction of loudspeaker noise in all domains of social life, but above all in the realm of religion. Here the misuse of loudspeakers - whether by churches, mosques, evangelical congregations or other religious persuasions - not only affects individual health. As Abinet says, the competitive use of loudspeakers by the various religions also amplifies social dangers like "fanaticisms and extremisms that we see in everyday life; or the violent confrontations that we observe every so often."
A solution - it seems - would be for all religious groups to accept the authority of the World Health Organization, which recommends 60 decibels as maximum loudspeaker output in public. Control can be achieved by means of instruments such as the Voltcraft sound level meter. Model No. 33-2050. They are cheap, robust and easily handled.
If you have any ideas of how to help in the campaign, please let me know.