Accra is a cacophony of sound.
There’s the bone-rattling hum of bass from speaker stacks in churches and drinking spots, and set up for funerals and parties. Talk radio in taxis with the volume cranked. Preachers with megaphones. Horns honking, generators humming. Speaker shops.
There is little to be done about it, besides flee the city for the solace of the country as often as possible, and be grateful that orange foam earplugs go with everything.
Unless you’re Dr. Simpson Anim Boateng, that is.
“There’s noise everywhere,” the director of the Metro Public Health Department of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly told me in his cool and quiet office on a recent Friday afternoon. Dr. Boateng is very frank when it comes to the noise pollution in this bustling West African city.
Following the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines for acceptable noise levels, Dr. Boateng says that in residential areas noise should not exceed 55 decibels during the day and 48 at night. But Accra’s levels often far surpass that. Once, Dr. Boateng and his colleagues recorded an astounding 102 decibels in a residential area at night. The reading was taken at the back of someone’s home. Beside a church.
Dr. Boateng pegs churches as the main source of all the racket. He tells me there are more than 2,000 churches in Accra, citing 2011 statistics (and noting that today there are probably even more). He says the churches use the loud music to draw in their flock, and is not afraid to call them businesses. “They thrive on noise,” he said. “The noise attracts people.”
The health consequences are serious. “Noise can affect every part of the body,” he said. “It’s sad this way.” The first and most obvious impact, of course, is hearing damage. Although he doesn’t see patients himself, Dr. Boateng has a friend who works in the Ear, Nose and Throat clinic at Korle Bu hospital, where he sees children with hearing damage believed to be caused by loud music. “So, it’s dangerous,” he said.
But noise pollution can also cause headaches, heart palpitations, and increased blood pressure.
“It can affect you psychologically too,” he said. “The reason is, it will keep you awake and then when you go to work during the day, you cannot even concentrate, you cannot do anything because you haven’t slept the whole night.”
There are laws meant to keep the noise under control. The Criminal Code says fines will be given to anyone who “makes any loud or unseemly noise howsoever caused to the annoyance or disturbance of any person,” or “without a licence from the Minister or a local authority beats or plays any drum, gong, tom-tom or other similar instrument of music between eight o’clock at night and six in the morning.” The Accra Metropolitan Assembly also has several bylaws that prohibit people from making noise that causes a nuisance to the public.
“The laws are written beautifully but enforcement is a problem,” Dr. Boateng said. When the cases end up in court they are usually repeatedly delayed, often at the request of the accused’s lawyer. Meanwhile, their businesses continue to operate and the noise continues.
So Dr. Boateng and his colleagues at the Accra Metropolitan Assembly have a taken a different tact. They’ve put together a task force that goes out at night about once a week to monitor noise levels. If it’s too high, they act.
“We take everything, the instruments, everything,” Dr. Boateng said. “Since we started that there are some areas where the noise has come down,” he said. “So we want to intensify it. It will send a very serious strong signal that if you disturb, AMA will come and take it.”
Let’s hope that signal can be heard above everything else.