A gospel music thunders on gigantic speakers positioned at all the corners of a spacious rectangular hall in a building opposite Mutaasa Kafeero Arcade on Luwum Street in central Kampala.
It is lunch-time prayers at Calvary Chapel. The music is paused, the preacher bellows out an extended hallelujah and the worshipers scream back Amen in unison. The minister speaks in tongues, spurring divine blessings.
Some worshippers let out a shrill. The drummer hammers the ride cymbal before banging the bass drum to signal a harmonic crescendo.
The uncontrollable electric atmosphere inside the church is the new standard in Uganda’s epidemic of faith heralded by the fast-expanding Pentecostal churches.
Ms Susan Nabatanzi, 38, who runs an electronics shop on the Luwum Street in the inner-city, has prayed at Calvary Chapel every afternoon on Sundays for the past year.
“I rarely miss this service because it’s through seeking God’s power that we become successful in life, and without him, everything we do is useless,” she says.
The cacophony of noisy prayer sessions, loud music blaring from different shops and the shouts by taxi touts beckoning commuters is earsplitting.
Calvary Chapel is one of the several worship places housed in permanent and makeshift structures in the inner city, upcountry towns as well as residential neighbourhoods and, in Ms Nabatanzi’s words, for people to “communicate with the Lord”.
Rather than heal, the noise pollution and the unregulated establishment of the churches is hurting neighbours and beyond, manifesting in property wrangles and incompatible land use arguments.
In Uganda, freedom of worship is a constitutional right. And so is citizens’ right to a clean and peaceful environment.
The spread of the battle for the soul has in its trail courted controversy.
Why the noise?
Dr Paddy Musana, a lecturer of religious studies at Makerere University, who has extensively researched about religion and society, says the crusading by Pentecostal churches derives from Book of Acts 2:1-5.
It thus says: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
This, he said, explains why their preaching is based on “emotions rather than reason”.
To understand the reason for their noise-making, Dr Musana adds, one ought to appreciate the fact that some of the born-again believers have spontaneous thinking; do what pleases them. But he acknowledges the fact that their operations need to be checked to contain the unnecessary noise they cause to their neighbours while communicating to God.
For instance, Dr Musana shares that it is difficult for some lecturers at Makerere University to teach, especially in the Main Hall when some students are praying at the nearby St Francis Chapel.
However, he says these churches aren’t supposed to be blamed, but rather the regulatory institutions.
“The biggest problem we have is the functionality of our institutions that are mandated with power to do particular job. For instance, why must these churches keep playing loud music on their speakers, day and evening, when there is the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) in place to fight such type of noise pollution?”
Dr Musana further questions why born-again churches are allowed to be established in residential areas yet they aren’t ready to comply with standards, particularly on noise.
According to Section 28 of the National Environmental Management Act, no person shall, for an activity specified in Regulation 6, emit noise in excess of the permissible noise level, unless permitted by a license issued under these regulations.
Nema spokesperson Naome Karekaho acknowledges that some religious institutions and other entertainment places like bars emit unnecessary noise, but she notes that this problem ought to be collectively handled at an inter-institutional level.
She says whereas Nema is mandated to enforce the law on noise pollution, it has been let down by institutions such as Kampala Capital City Authority and other urban authorities that licence religious institutions and bars to operate without consultations.
“First of all, why should licenses be given to more than five churches or bars in the same residential area?” she asked. “This is purely a planning issue, which must be urgently handled so that we can also come in to enforce the law instead of every one running to Nema when there is a crisis yet it was actually never consulted while giving out licences,” she says.
The purpose of physical planning, or urban planning, is to separate incompatible land uses and juxtapose compatible ones in order to minimise conflict and promote liveable towns.
As a solution to the haphazard developments, Nema’s Karekaho said they have engaged the leaders of born-again churches, the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda and other relevant authorities for discussions to reach a win-win solution.
Shs said public address systems at non-compliant open-air churches, bars, hotels and hang-outs operating in residential areas have been confiscated.
In 2013, Justice Benjamin Kabiito ordered KCCA to enforce Nema Act on noise pollution after Ahmad Mahera, a resident on Plot 3 Kyadondo Road, sued Emin Pasha Hotel and KCCA for failure to regulate noise in the leafy Nakasero neighbourhood.
Mr Mahera was awarded Shs20m in damages for his disturbed peace. KCCA allows a maximum noise level of 75 decibels during day and 50 decibels at night in commercial areas.
Because noise level measurement is technical, those adversely affected by it have no way of determining or proving that noise emitted is above threshold. And City Hall declined to pronounce itself on the matter when asked about noisy overnight prayers.
Numerous bon-again churches in makeshift structures dot the city, many unplanned and unlicensed and without sanitation facilities, according to a spot check by Daily Monitor.
Besides safety threats, they present health risks to followers and neighbours.
Dr Musana said many churches are sprouting for reasons, many not entirely holy.
“Some of them are established basing on selfish interests because there are some churches that we have gone to, to interview particular pastors but we are never given chance to see them because we were asked for specific sums of money first. This shows you that although some start churches to purely preach the gospel, others do it for selfish interests,” he said.
Clothing in religious cloak and using the church to extort money from unquestioning worshippers is not new in Uganda.
Ms Frances Adroa, supported by Pastor Solomon Male of the Arising for Christ Ministries, in 2007 sued a pastor at the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God for taking her car and failing to cure her of HIV/Aids as promised. The church later sued her for defamation.
Such battles, not over salvation but worldly property, have opened some of the preachers to public criticism of ungodly conduct.
For about two weeks, Daily Monitor tried to engage religious leaders, especially those from Born-Again churches to ascertain what informs their mind to make much noise while praying.
Head of the Born-Again Faith in Uganda Apostle Dr Joseph Serwadda initially asked this newspaper to email him questions, which we did but later declined to comment.
“Just go ahead and use the information that you have gathered but as far as I am concerned, I will not be in position to speak to you on that matter,” he said by telephone.
Ms Lydia Kakooza, a physical planner, said although worship is part and parcel of a diversified urban setting and an engine of social-economic good, the use of public address systems to amplify noise is in many cases unjustifiable and breeds conflict.
Residential neighborhoods, she noted, should be undisturbed for dwellers to enjoy a healthy and serene environment suitable for relaxing and families upbringing.
Ms Kakooza further says perpetrators of ‘holy noise’ who only rely on Article 29 of the Ugandan Constitution to defend their actions, especially Article 29(c), which provides for the freedom to practice religion of one’s choice, Ms Kakooza noted, because Article 39 of the Constitution also guarantees citizens’ right to a clean and healthy environment.
“Noise whether holy or not lowers the quality of life and welfare of residents. It may force some people to relocate; sell their homes and move to quieter neighborhoods and in some cases, fights have broken out over noise pollution,” she said.
She added: “A party can be an enjoyable experience to the organisers, but a serious nuisance to the rest of the neighborhood. The same applies to ‘holy noise’. Individuals should be considerate to others when emitting noise in shared space.”
While handling planning applications, Ms Kakooza said policy makers such as KCCA should pay attention to social issues likely to arise from a grant of development permission, and that local communities within which a place of worship is to be built, should be consulted from the onset in to identify the likely impact and for social cohesion.
“Residential areas should be clearly demarcated and gazetted to restrict the number of Pentecostal churches or mosques in one locality. There is no justification for having five or more churches or mosques on the same street or the use of loud speakers in the houses of prayer, especially in residential areas,” she said.
She further notes that KCCA should develop a noise map for the city and apply planning laws to all religious groups without favouritism.
Mr Ronald Ssenfuka, a resident of Namungoona in Rubaga Division, said although they have tried to engage the surrounding churches on the unnecessary noise which they emit, the situation hasn’t changed.
“Why must one’s life be inconvenienced just because there is a group of people who are worshipping the whole night? We have complained to authorities in vain and some of us are planning to relocate to other places because it’s too much,” he said.
He alleged that some of the church leaders boast of how they are connected to big people in government. This, he said, has left them helpless.
Mr Peter Kaujju, the KCCA director of public and corporate affairs, said for every church to be established, they must be approved by the directorate of physical planning.
“If they aren’t approved, then they are illegal. It’s also true that churches can coexist with residences but they must be approved and meet the standards such as sound-proofing, parking and sanitation,” he said.
He acknowledged that there has been non-compliance with the law as far as noise pollution in the city is concerned, and said ongoing crackdown by KCCA will help catch culprits.
About six years ago, KCCA enforcement officials confiscated the equipment at Living Word Church, previously the Living Word Assembly of God, on Lumumba Avenue in Nakasero over noise pollution.
The public address system was later returned after the worshippers tamped down noise and cut overnight prayers, which they have since resumed on the last Friday of the month. And KCCA has lately been unresponsive to renewed petition against the noisy night prayers.
Veteran journalist Joachim Buwembo two months ago posted on his Facebook wall that a makeshift church had been erected in a space next to his plot, with part of his perimeter wall fence serving as part of the church wall and the worshippers --- some stay in the structure --- make noise round-the-clock under the guise of prayer.
Towards the 2016 general elections, President Museveni visited many Born-Again churches in Kampala, as he solicited followers for votes, giving the Pentecostal churches a political currency.
Fr Simon Lokodo said he was unable to speak on the matter.
The mandate to license churches lies with the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Bureau.
Mr Stephen Okello, the interim executive director of the National Bureau for NGOs at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, told Daily Monitor in an interview yesterday that it’s hard to ascertain the number of religious institutions because they are registered in two ways.
For instance, traditional faith based religious institutions, Mr Okello said, appoint boards of trustees among themselves and then go to the Ministry of Lands to get incorporated while those that are purely Born- Again, are registered by the NGO Bureau either as NGO or company Ltd by guarantee.
“However, the 2010 NGO policy doesn’t specifically cater for religious-based organisations but rather categorises them in general as NGOs hence it’s hard for us to discriminate since we register them as NGOs. However, the directorate of ethics and integrity is working on a framework that will come up with clear guidelines of registering organisations either as faith-based or purely NGO.
Powers to suspend
Apart from registration, the NGO bureau also monitors, inspects and resolves conflicts. Mr Okello noted that the Bureau also has the powers to suspend the permit of any NGO which violates the rules.
Asked about the noise emitted by religious organisations, Mr Okello said they rarely receive such cases but rather receive complaints about their internal wrangles, especially money matters.
“We only received one complaint of noise pollution from residents of Nsambya. But when such cases come up, we investigate them and then hand over to KCCA and Nema to enforce the law. On average, we register 500 NGOs every year,” he said.
what others says
Naome Karekaho, Nema spokesperson: This is purely a planning issue, which must be urgently handled so that we can also come in to enforce the law instead of every one running to Nema when there is a crisis yet it was actually never consulted while giving out licences.
Mr Stephen Okello, the interim executive director of the National Bureau for NGOs: We only received one complaint of noise pollution from residents of Nsambya. But when such cases come up, we investigate them and then hand over to KCCA and Nema to enforce the law.