Silence! We are making Noise

Work hard in silence, let your success be your noise’ – Frank Ocean

Let me ask you this: why would I hush my silence for you to make your noise? Why should I let your noise rule over my life?

The place I call home is not the same anymore. The atmosphere has changed. Lately, a somewhat peculiar sound pattern has imposed itself, settling over my city uninvited and unwelcome.

Cities around the world are no stranger to sounds. Just like sight, smell, touch and taste, sounds confer a distinctive character, rhythm and ambiance to a place. The confluence of sounds, constantly intermingling, overlapping and bumping against each other, creates layered and textured vibrations unique to each city.

One can easily, almost instinctively, form an emotional connection with a particular place on the basis of sounds, as they tend to leave a lasting impression on residents and visitors alike.

Africa’s recent awakening is rapidly transforming our cities into hustling and bustling metropolises. Even as our landscape is morphing before our eyes, our soundscape too is undergoing profound changes – albeit not always positive, and much less structured.

An explosion of sounds has taken control of African cities in a rebellious manner. Sounds have been multiplied, amplified and magnified. New sounds have emerged while old ones are quickly fading away into the distance.

These days, our cities are moving to a different beat altogether. Louder, faster, wilder seems to be the new style. Indecently high level of noise has become the new trend. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sprawling, major African cities.

As I move around my city or as I stand still to tune into its vibrations, all I hear is a medley of roaring and unrelenting sound bites and pitches, a cacophony of loud, raucous and chaotic noise.

These sounds are telling me of a place that is thrown off-balance, of a place I am failing to recognize, let alone relate to.

I don’t recall such a harsh soundscape back in the day.

It was not that long ago when my mornings were graced with the chirping of birds; when I could hear the calm calls to prayers from mosques and churches in the distance, the faint laughter of children playing, the light traffic in the streets, the soft tones of conversations; when the sound of rain on a tin roof would lull me to sleep; when the sound of rustling leaves would help me unwind – sounds that were music to my ears, sounds that made me feel home.

Why then this sudden noise rush?

As if to keep up with the pace of Africa’s transformation, the rumble of our cities has grown increasingly louder. Noise is manifesting itself in every shape and colour, becoming a permanent fixture in our urban lives.

Sadly though, nothing is off-limits.

Ever so intrusive, noise is invading all spheres of our lives – our households, our neighborhoods, our streets, our places of worship, our workplaces, our schools, our recreation areas and even our hospitals. Within the confines of our own homes, noise is gradually laying claim to the quiet corners and spaces of our lives, without our assent.

What I find most worrisome is the deliberate intent to create the noise madness that is engulfing our cities, with blatant disregard for its inhabitants and the surrounding natural environment.

Noise is unleashed indiscriminately from all directions, in all places and at all times, disturbing the peace and quiet of our cities and making life unbearable for city-dwellers such as myself.

From the moment I step outside the house, a deluge of noise and commotion is the first thing that greets me. The crushing wave of sounds coming my way feels like a huge slap on the face. All day long, my ears get assaulted by the deafening barrage of noise.

Blaring car horns, screaming emergency sirens, raucous hum of diesel generators, annoying cellphone ringtones, shops and cars blurting out ear-splitting music and promotional broadcasts, rowdy hawkers touting their goods to passers-by, educational and religious programs shouted through megaphones, wedding parties and funeral services blasted out over loudspeakers – surely, there must be an all-out war of sounds.

A fierce battle for noise supremacy is clearly underway, with everyone jostling for the spot of the loudest noise-maker.

My door closes, shutting out the outer world, and, for a split second, I feel a sense of calm descend upon me. Alas, my relief is short-lived.

The walls of my poorly soundproofed house are unable to contain the outside noise, yielding to it without much resistance. Despite my best attempts to block it out or drown it with music, I fail miserably to create the oasis of serenity that my body and mind desperately long for.

Nighttime becomes alive with its lot of sounds, taking over my city as if on stand-by. Once punctuated by the barking of dogs and the laugh of hyenas, open-air concerts held in outdoor venues, merry-makers clamoring in clubs, bars, parties and other social events that run well into the night, boozy crowd having a wild time, are now regular features of the city’s nightlife.

As a new dawn reveals itself, I stir in my bed, sleep-deprived and tense, dreading the prospect of yet another day of sheer noise. But I have to get up and get on with my day, as every day, forced to endure the constant pounding, with no respite in sight for my battered ears.

Our cities have literally turned into noise-making machines, making our life hell-on-earth while sucking silence out of our existence.

Even nature has somewhat withdrawn itself from our urban landscape. Birds have become less frequent visitors of our gardens and parks, whereas hyenas have severed their ties with our cities, becoming a rare nocturnal event.

Yet, there are those who view noise as the ubiquitous sign of dynamism and vitality, as the necessary evil in our pursuit of modernization. They take pride in the fact that their cities are likened to a beehive teeming with life and activities. To them, noise is the gateway to the exclusive club of cities on the move, of cities that never sleep just as New York or Hong Kong.

However, if we open our ears and listen carefully, we can hear the mounting resentment against noise.

Take the largest African cities, for instance. City-dwellers in Lagos, Addis Ababa and Kinshasa are denouncing the abusive use of loudspeakers and megaphones by religious institutions to spread their message.

Restaurants, nightclubs and bars set up next to residential areas, schools, offices, and hospitals are accused of causing great disturbances, with complaints filed by schools in Kinshasa while schools themselves have become an unlikely source of noise in some cities (A Place to Kill Time).

Similarly, chaotic and loud traffic is cited as a top noise nuisance in Cairo, ranked the third noisiest city in the world (Where is the world’s most stressful city?), and in Lagos (Lagos Horn-free Day: How Free?).

Unapologetic and unrestrained noise has altered the rhythm of our lives, disrupting the world we once knew and shattering the lifestyle we once had.

So powerful is noise’s sway in our lives that it has changed us in a profound way.

We have become unabashed and aggressive in our loudness, always yelling at each other and not hesitating to make use of our car horns, our cellphones, our loudspeakers and megaphones to make ourselves heard and prove our points.

We are trapped inside a wall of noise that is closing in fast on us as we get pulled further into the whirlwind of sounds. Dazed by all the raucousness, we push ourselves and others to the edge, numbing our senses and surrendering ourselves to the noise madness that has taken us hostage. Overwhelmed by the sensory overload, we end up mimicking and echoing the mayhem around us.

We have become noise itself at the expense of the very things we value – our well-being and our lifestyle.

The harmful effects of noise on our health are well known.

Exposure to high level of noise – above the 55 decibel threshold set by the World Health Organization (WHO) – is affecting all members of our societies. It is linked to higher stress and blood pressure levels, increased risks of heart and mental disease, sleep disorder and impaired hearing, which are some of the health issues on the rise in our cities.

Likewise, we have become easily irritable, impatient and accident-prone. The loss of our silence, and with it our ability to focus and think properly, is translating into poor work and school performances.

An interesting study undertaken on a Namibian cattle herder community has shown how city-dwellers are more distracted and less focused than their counterparts in rural areas, highlighting the noise divide between the rural and urban settings.

Unfortunately, as African cities continue to emerge and grow rapidly, the noise culture will keep expanding its tentacles. Migrants from rural areas tend to quickly adopt the noise practices of African cities, even as the noise trend set by big cities is catching on like wildfire in secondary and smaller urban centers.

Being loud and conspicuous rarely – if at all – equates with progress, substance or prestige. Rather, it gives individuals and societies the illusion of purpose and importance.

What is noise if not a craving for attention, a yearning for affirmation?

Are you not making noise just so you draw attention to yourself and feel relevant in others’ eyes? Are you not screaming at the top of your lungs because you are too afraid that your voice might get lost in the din around you? Are you not seeking to make your mark, to leave your sound footprint in a world that chooses to ignore you?

Perhaps, noise is your way of hiding your insecurity, your lie or your life of pretense behind bells and whistles, to deflect attention away from the truth, and to bury the voices that might expose you. Or, it might simply be for you an escape, even if briefly, from your daily grind, from a reality which can be at times ugly.

Whatever your reasons, you are constantly seeking my attention, vying to control my mind. But in your quest, you have chased silence out of my life and filled the void with your noise, only to leave me empty like a hollow calabash rattling in the wind.

Why is your noise so vengeful of my silence?

Silence, the perfect antidote to your noise, a rare treat for my tired ears!

In today’s world, silence is a precious commodity, although undervalued and underappreciated. Labeled as outdated, silence has been relegated to the backseat of our lives, whereas noise has emerged as the fashionable trend, a winning trait that individuals, companies and societies alike should possess.

Far from being a foreign concept, silence is still a prized quality in many African cultures. But in our haste to embrace modernity, we are increasingly opting to forego our silence in favour of noise.

Yet, silence is fundamental to our lives. It remains a vital tool to navigate our world.

Instead of shying away from silence, we need to get reacquainted with it in order to understand its special value and reap its numerous benefits. The good thing about silence is that it requires no disguise or pretense from our part, but rather lets us be.

Silence offers us the opportunity to strike the delicate balance in our relationship between ourselves and the outside world. It allows us to delve deep into the wilderness of our inner self, reconnect with ourselves, and discover the hidden treasures of our world within and without.

It is silence that lets us tap into the potential locked inside of us, helps us unleash our creativity, and elevates us as human beings. It is silence that puts us in the driver seat in our march towards our destiny.

Silence is powerful.

We can feel the healing power of silence in the way it calms down tensions and brings about peace and sanity in our lives, in the way it soothes and restores our minds and bodies, and in the way it helps us regain our balance, reset our buttons and start afresh.

Silence is a powerful tool to engage in deep reflection and meditation. It lets us collect our thoughts and sift through them, stimulates our minds to think creatively and find solutions, and helps us find renewed perspective and purpose. It also allows us to immerse ourselves in contemplation of a higher order.

The power of silence also lies in its ability to convey our messages and our emotions more eloquently than actual words. We can witness its elegance in the silent scenes of movies (The Mystery Box) or in the intervals of silence in a piece of music.

Going back to my first question, here is what I want to say to you.

No. I will not hush my silence for you. I will not let your noise rule over my life.

I need my silence.

I need silence to give my ears a break. I need silence to find myself and my voice. So, I need you to hush your noise so that I can slip into my silence.

Just as you relish your right to noise, I am entitled to my slice of silence to indulge in my moments of reprieve and retreat, away from your noisy world.

But I am not here to start an argument or a needless fight with you. What I am suggesting instead is that we lay down our arms, set our differences aside and meet halfway.

This is why I am inviting you to step out of your noise and be in my silence.

Let us experience silence together. Let us pause our frenzied life for a while, unplug from the outside noise and tune into a world of tranquility. Let us allow silence to gently wrap itself around us and let us soak up silence in silence.

It is important that we learn to welcome silence back into our lives and our cities, to stop and give ourselves and others moments of silence.

For this to happen, we have to work hand in hand to reconcile your noise with my silence.

If we want to build a harmonious lifestyle, we have to accept the fact that silence and noise can coexist peacefully. Contrary to the belief that silence and noise are mutually exclusive, the two are actually complementary. Therefore, noise will have to make room for silence to grow and strive in our cities.

Together, we have to agree on where to draw the line between the competing demands of noise in our modern world and our basic needs of silence in our lives. We have to rein in on the lawlessness of noise and devise adequate solutions for the noise pollution prevailing in our cities.

Otherwise, we will end up in a crisis situation opposing noisemakers to silence-seekers. Where no authority is willing to take city-dwellers’ plight seriously enough to take actions, the dispute can escalate and people will take justice into their own hands.

A good case in point is China, a tightly regulated country which witnessed recently protests against noise disturbances that went out of control (China’s noisy dancing retirees have local residents up in arms), sometimes in a funny way (Residents buy speakers to yell at Noisy Public Plaza Dancer).

Beware, people will not stand around idle as they watch noisemakers like you disturb their quiet and ruin their existence.

In our countries where instances of noise nuisance abound and where citizens’ complaints keep falling on deaf ears, this begs the following questions: Has noise become a tool to divert our attention from the real issues that we face every day? What does it say about the chaotic urbanization process underway in our cities? Are the authorities’ talks on addressing noise pollution just hot air? Why polarize our societies around the issue of noise?

At a time when Africa is in desperate need for peace and creative solutions for its problems, there is a particular urgency to promote silence, so that it takes strong foothold in our individual and collective conscience.

Since we cannot afford the pockets of silence or noise detoxification centers of richer countries, we have to tackle noise pollution at its root by establishing and enforcing strict regulation and control, identifying noise sources, and taking punitive actions against noise offenders.

Better still, we can adopt a more constructive approach to help resolve the noise issue of our cities and protect the right to silence of our citizens. The remodeling of Africa’s urban landscape presents a formidable chance for us to start integrating noise management into the planning of our future cities.

In the meantime, an independent body comprised of various members of our societies could be set up to map out, manage and control the current noise pollution. Education will also prove crucial in changing mindsets and entrenching a healthy silence-noise culture in our cities.

However, if you refuse to join hands with me and insist on bullying me with your noise, rest assured that I will not hold my silence for you.

Let me make one thing clear. My silence should not be mistaken for fear or approval of your noise.

I will make noise when you disrespect my right and torture me with your noise. I will not keep quiet when you try to silence my voice. I will not stay mute when you disturb my peace, upset my life, and destroy my potential and aspirations for a better life.

I will raise my voice. I will speak up to tell the truth – my truth (The Danger of Silence) – for my sake and that of our societies.

I will not let you clutter my mind with your noise – with other people’s noise. I cannot agree more with Steve Jobs’ word of caution which says: ‘Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice’ . Indeed, why should I get carried away with other people’s noise when I can listen to my own voice?

It is only a matter of time before your arrogant noise is met with stiff resistance.

When people will find out the real motivation behind your noise, when your cover is blown and your mask drops to reveal your true self, they will come after you to silence your noise and get their silence back.

African citizens, go ahead and reclaim your right to silence for it is yours for the taking. Don’t be afraid to hush the noise around you and tune into your inner self to find your strength, your way and your voice.

Inasmuch as it is essential for you to find your own image in the mirror (Africa – Image in the Mirror), it is equally important that you find your own voice in silence. Make reflection and meditation a priority in your life, but most importantly, act on your thoughts to turn them into reality.

Finally, my word of advice to you, noisemaker, is this. Every time you think of making noise, think about thunder, nature’s spectacular show of light and sound.

Let us come together to work in silence, let our actions shine bright, and let us then celebrate our success by making a resounding noise in the end.

A fair deal for both of us, don’t you say?

(25 December 2015)


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