Jeanette wearing giant model bat ears

Some people are really sensitive to noise – Jeannette with simulated bat ears at Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

Here in Tanzania I am reminded of peoples’ different tolerance of noise. Back in Tucson, our close neighborhood has firm rules about noise pollution. No power tools or loud music between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. One new resident complained angrily to the community about a loud rattly power tool being used on a metal roof at dawn – the culprit was a Gila woodpecker, who had found this to be a much more effective territorial display than drumming on a dead tree!

In our gardens, leafblowers are banned. However, we dispose of our tree prunings on site with a rather noisy chipper that converts them into mulch. Recently I was running it late in the evening and next day we received a complaint from a neighbor about 300 yards away. We worked it out amicably, that I wouldn’t chip after dark. So there are layers of noise prevention – mutually accepted constraints, policing by neighbors, and if that fails, policing by the police.

In the suburb of Arusha where we’ve been staying (picture), it’s a different story. Moshono Juu is about as densely populated as our Tucson suburb, but people are either more tolerant, less organized or both. A lot of the noise is due to religion, particularly evangelical preachers. They get behind a powerful amplifier and pour hellfire on the whole neighborhood. Last night it woke us up about 2:30 a.m. An insane bellowing in Kiswahili, the same phrases repeated over and over, definitely channeling a god of hate and vengeance rather than love. I wondered what sleepless cult attended this harangue. Would they be stoked on drugs or booze to endure such cacophony? And would our PC friend Dave call it “entitlement” if I, a mzungu (paleface), were to walk into an African village and demand a good night’s sleep? But then, what if other neighbors also wanted to sleep, yet didn’t dare make a fuss? This must be a powerful cult indeed. Would a wild-eyed enraged congregation fall on me with rocks and cudgels for interrupting their religious ecstasy?

Eventually, insomnia and curiosity won. I took a big maglite that could double as a club, and slipped out into the moonlight into unscripted territory. The gravel road down the hill was treacherous, like walking on ball bearings. The demonic sound grew ever louder. Half a mile away, its source was a low barn of poles and tarps with a tin roof. A simple church. Easy to burn down – but I had no matches. A long white power cable connected it to a nearby hut – easy to cut, if only I had a panga. OK, I get cranky when sleep-deprived; those are last resorts. Let’s first assess the strength of the enemy and try a polite request. The doors were shut so I peered through a window opening and was amazed. The benches were empty! There was a makeshift altar and a table full of sound equipment. Taped hymns were playing, and a lone young man in a shabby Tshirt was pacing to and fro, yelling into his microphone. I leaned in through the window and he turned down the sound and came over. He looked sheepish.

“Please can you make less noise?” I asked. “It’s 4 a.m. and we can’t sleep!”

“Where you from?”he asked.

“Up the hill. It doesn’t matter. Can’t you let us sleep?”

I wished him goodnight and left him leaning on the sill, his head bowed, perhaps seeking divine inspiration. All was quiet as I trudged up the hill. Then a short final outburst, slightly less loud, barely enough to blister paint or singe nearby trees, and he was done for the night. It was nearly 5 a.m.

3 Responses to Noise

  • That was so fun to read!

  • Okay, I’ll leave my mike at home when we do GCA next…great story!

  • Noise is definitely one of the problems I face living in India. Our house is about 100 meters from the Western Railway and less than 100 meters from National Highway 8. These are the main roads between Mumbai and Delhi (think I-95 between NYC and DC) — very busy and very noisy 24/7. I know I’ve had significant hearing loss from walking along roads with horns blaring constantly. (I’ve actually seen driving students practicing their horn skills!) I’ve been to weddings where the music was so loud, you couldn’t hear firecrackers going off 20 feet away. I don’t understand why Indians aren’t deaf before they hit 40, but the seniors I know here seem to hear quite well.

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