Looking for a Balokole church: Don’t bother with signposts, just listen for sound!

Author: Gawaya Tegulle. PHOTO/NMG

What you need to know:

  • Problem is, for nine out of 10 Balokole churches, when you confiscate the machines and detain the pastors, you are essentially closing the church and killing it.

Just to be clear, a church worshipping loudly is part of the right to freedom of religion, speech, association and assembly. But when the noise levels exceed the limits prescribed by law; it becomes an offence. Clearly, some pastors – more than a dozen in various places – didn’t take this seriously and only got to appreciate it while enjoying the hospitality of the Uganda Police Force and, thereafter, that of the Uganda Prisons.

Over the past year, law enforcement officers have raided churches deemed to be too noisy, way above the maximum sound limits allowed by law. Their machines have been confiscated and, for good measure, their pastors jailed. Raid a church! Sounds sacrilegious! Malicious! Yet the truth is that the law does give licence to the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) and local authorities to do exactly that. 

And a magistrate, especially if they woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, will tuck the pastor away into some mostly deplorable prison on remand or, on conviction, give them the fullest benefit of the law – jail time.

When we talk of noisy churches, those can only be Pentecostal (Balokole) churches. The other churches are largely easy on the ear. The Seventh Day Adventists are a meek lot…you never even know they are around you. The Catholics are pretty businesslike about Mass: a short song on entry, another on exit and two or three in between, including one just before the 10-minute sermon, another during Holy Communion and it is ‘bye-bye’, an hour later. The Anglicans will last a little longer, but then again, how can one make noise when singing hymns? Usually a serene affair; so gentle that some of the congregation will sleep through the service. For the Balokole, one hour…you’re just getting started with intercession and praise and worship. And that can be loud and even riotous, for some. Then testimonies. In fact, when looking for a Balokole church, don’t bother reading signposts; just listen for the sound. You can get there with your eyes closed: just keep the ears open. The sermon, on average, is the length of a foot
ball match (complete with injury time, stoppage time and VAR compensatory time) and it’s delivered at top volume. 

In fact, the nearby villages need not come to church – they get everything loud and clear from the comfort of their houses…but for some, with considerable discomfort, given the noise levels, it must be said. And for the Balokole, if you finish the service in three hours, that church is not “anointed” enough! Four to five hours, sounds just about right! But all this is done so loudly, churches are always in combat with neighbours over noise levels.

Problem is, for nine out of 10 Balokole churches, when you confiscate the machines and detain the pastors, you are essentially closing the church and killing it. Reason one is that going by normal criminal legal process, the church will have become a scene of crime – it will be cordoned off to enable investigations by crime scene experts who will turn up in three months. 

Reason two, most of these churches are basically loose unincorporated establishments, not rooted in corporate governance and not guaranteed existence in perpetuity, so that they can outlive their pastors. This is why the Balokole churches must pursue a ‘prevention is better than cure’ strategy.

Noise pollution laws are not new – the National Environment (Noise Standards and Control) Regulations, for example, are 20 years old. Thing with Uganda is that laws are only enforced when it suits someone powerful. 

Or sometimes enforced in a manner that doesn’t make sense at all. I ask: when last was a passenger in a vehicle arrested for not wearing a seatbelt? Police only arrest the driver. If the intent is to save lives, isn’t that kinda foolish? Yes, it is! And when last was a boda boda passenger arrested for not wearing a helmet? Police only arrest the rider, and leave the passenger. Foolish? Yes, of course! But well…welcome to Kampala!

So how should the Balokole churches address themselves to noise pollution legislation? Coming up…soon.

Mr Gawaya Tegulle is an advocate of the High Court of Uganda, [email protected]