Noise pollution: Why business owners must adjust rather than play the victim

In November 2012, John Habimana opened a restaurant cum bar at Kisementi, Remera. Rosty went on to become a popular spot in town. Once the business picked up and, possibly due to client demand, Habimana could not resist the temptation to extend the happy ambiance to an open air club of sorts, complete with a DJ spinning hot, pleasant music that blared from loudspeakers. It proved to be a client magnet.
A Deejay plays music in one of the licensed night clubs in Kigali. (File)
A Deejay plays music in one of the licensed night clubs in Kigali. (File)

In November 2012, John Habimana opened a restaurant cum bar at Kisementi, Remera. Rosty went on to become a popular spot in town. Once the business picked up and, possibly due to client demand, Habimana could not resist the temptation to extend the happy ambiance to an open air club of sorts, complete with a DJ spinning hot, pleasant music that blared from loudspeakers. It proved to be a client magnet.

What started as a daytime restaurant and standard bar soon turned into the place to be for many a Kigali night revellers and club goers, a longed-for thrill in the capital’s ‘dull’ nights! A place to reconnect with long-time friends, make new contacts and relax with a glass or two! One of those things that complete a perfect middle class lifestyle isn’t it?

Indeed it was not long before this became a popular trend at Kisementi, with most residential houses on the stretch between Rosty and the CSS building turning into pubs and open air night clubs. There could be 15 or so pubs that opened in the area in a space of two years. In Rwanda, businesses are good at imitating each other. You would be hard pressed to find business amateurs who came up with unique ideas!

One would be forgiven to conclude that the residential neighbourhood had officially been turned into an entertainment zone, with the households that remained in the area increasingly looking out of place. And along came a couple of jobs and other opportunities.

For a year or so the place was teeming with activity, from hooting motorists to the ever-strategic ladies of the night. Private vehicles, taxicabs and taxi-motos jostling for space and passengers often blocked the road, making it virtually impossible for one to access or leave a home in the neighbourhood at night or for revellers to find their way out of the area. Finally, we had a place that rivalled the ever-lively Nyamirambo under the beautiful night skies of Kigali.

But behind the scenes, there were always issues. There were complaints from neighbours who craved a good night’s sleep in the quiet of their own homes, while proprietors and owners of the booming business and premises were also facing undesirable but legitimate questions from the authorities. Indeed, both the building and business owners knew something was technically wrong. They knew you simply do not wake up and turn a residential building into a nightclub or pub overnight, without requisite approval from the authorities – in this case the City of Kigali. And that’s law.

The rules were being flouted in the open– from the Penal Code to the Environment law and the instructions on noise pollution as adopted by the Rwanda Standards Board. It was always a matter of time; that situation when it’s the question of when, rather than if, the law will take its course.

“There were always concerns, initially it was the neighbours complaining about the noise,” Habimana said.

“Later, authorities started to ask questions, especially after several bars sprung up in the area – and were all playing music at night.”

Make no mistake, these businesses were fetching billions in taxes and it was being felt (which government wouldn’t wish to support a business that’s helping its tax collector meet revenue targets, especially when its budget is still heavily funded by donors)?

But then again, there is a choice to make; as a government or country, do you choose to discard or bend the law whenever there is an opportunity to make money and create whatever number of jobs (of any form), or uphold the law and ensure that everything else adapts to the legal framework in place?

You can choose to be a nation that has respect for rule of law or one where every action is going to be unpredictable and subjective depending on the issue at hand and who is involved. I would choose rule of law any day.

Now, post-Genocide Rwanda has built a reputation of discipline and accountability, even when that has to inconvenience some of us. We are where we are as a nation because we have learnt to put common good above self interest. The enforcement of the laws on noise pollution is for common good, and the alternative cost, in this case handsome profits and a few jobs, self interest. But it’s a price many a Rwandan are willing to pay for the greater good, for an almost crime-free, organised and modern metropolis.

And so, about two months ago or so, authorities decided to crack down on noise pollution that emanated from such spots as Rosty-Kisementi that had graduated from pub restaurants to nightclubs without following the law.

Its one’s right to challenge the law and lobby that it be changed, but while you are awaiting the breakthrough, you have to be seen to be respecting the law in its present form. And this is a principle that does not change because the enforcement has upset people who are vocal and are able to speak out against the legislation they disapprove of and can use social media and other platforms to launch scathing attacks on enforcement organs and government in general!

One may be forgiven to conclude that enforcement of the law on noise pollution targeted only the merrymakers of Kigali’s burgeoning entertainment industry. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, enforcement was first felt in churches, particularly the evangelical born-again churches. I know of churches that have hopped from place to place since 2006 looking for that elusive place that allows members to freely dance and worship the Lord without being accused by their neighbours of producing annoying noise. This has been the case for many years but the men of God and their followers have not made as much a fuss of this as our party animals have in recent weeks.

Yet the truth is that entertainment spots that have adjusted their facilities to suit their new status of nightclub even without the requisite permission from relevant authorities have often not been affected by noise restrictions. And it’s not that entertainment businesses or property owners do not know what to do. They know that they need authorisation to change usage of their premises, and accordingly upgrade their facilities and services.

For instance, for a nightclub, you are required to soundproof your ceilings, interior walls, doors and windows; improve security services; put in place adequate fire safety measures; and create appropriate parking space – not roadside parking as we are accustomed to –, among other prerequisites.

Now, it’s always difficult for some of our modest bars and restaurants to meet these minimum standards but that does not in any way render the requirements illegitimate. That you sought and obtained a license to operate a restaurant and now you want to graduate to something else is fantastic, but you’ll need to dig a little deeper into your pockets for services and facilities that are commensurate with your new business.

Actually, the majority of the entertainment places have responded positively. Last weekend I was pleased to see that even small roadside entertainment spots in Nyamirambo are taking that route. Many have not only tried to install soundproof facilities, they have also hired more security guards and bouncers, with some even acquiring walk through metal detectors.

Habimana of Rosty is one of those who have adjusted positively. Perhaps aware that the outdoor clubbing at his Kisementi facility was just unsustainable for obvious reasons he decided to construct a proper nightclub in Kimironko.

“When I started building (in Kimironko) a year ago I did not know that the noise pollution issue would eventually become so serious we would practically stop playing our music at night,” he said in reference to the Kisementi joint, now virtually quiet at night.

Today, he acknowledges, his new nightclub is doing just fine. Ironically, the place opened around the same time the crackdown on noise pollution was peaking.

That’s what you expect serious businesses or anyone for that matter to do when they realise that what they are doing is simply contrary to the law and generally acceptable standards as opposed to resorting to misguided resistance and trying to attract unwarranted sympathies arguing that that kind of behaviour is acceptable elsewhere!

Those who are resistant to change play the victim card ignoring the fact that they have received official communication with regard to their consistent violation of the law – whether it’s about Rwanda Building Control Regulations, noise pollution, et cetera.

And some have even pointed to a lack of capacity to scientifically prove that their loudspeakers were actually blaring beyond the stipulated sound limit. Yet they acknowledge that residents in the neighbourhood have complained about noise disturbing their peace.

In fact, if authorities were to acquire and use sound measurement instruments (I am reliably informed that relevant government agencies are in the process of acquiring the equipment before the end of the year), music lovers – whether in residential, industrial or commercial areas –, may be required to lower or restrict their volume even further.

The Rwanda Standards Board regulations on noise pollution stipulate the maximum sound levels, at night, as follows; industrial area 70dB (decibel, the measurement of sound), commercial area 55dB, residential 45dB, and silence zone 40dB. I am almost certain that very few entertainment spots are meeting these standards even amid the current crackdown.
Most importantly, some people have tended to ignore the health aspect of noise pollution in this debate. Experts say that any long term occupational exposure to high level noise in excess of 70dB can result in a gradual loss of hearing.

And, this is not just about those who complain about loud, piercing noise from neighbourhoods, but anyone who is exposed to such sound levels – yes, including the clubbers.

There are also those who have argued that it’s not right to arrest or fine those who are break noise rules. I would like to refer them to Article 600 of the Penal Code, which provides for a term of imprisonment of eight days to two months and a fine of Rwf50, 000 to Rwf1 million or both; and the law on Environment (Art. 108), which does not only explain in detail the various forms of illegal noises but also sets specific fines.

But there have also been more logical, moderate voices. These ones have, for instance, called for the creation of entertainment zones in the City of Kigali to help minimise conflict between club-goers and those who value a night’s rest. I think it’s a good idea and have no doubt that our urban planners have given it some thought already.

It’s great that people always want to dance the night away, it’s another sign that Rwanda has moved on and an attractive investment opportunity. But we can still enjoy every bit of it without becoming a nuisance to others, or denying others the chance to enjoy themselves in their own right.

By and large, the crackdown on noise pollution offers some valuable lessons. One of them is that rather than wait to confront law enforcement organs when they are doing their job, perhaps we should start following closely and participating in the law-formulation process and challenge whatever we deem unsuitable when it’s still possible to influence the outcome.

Today it is noise pollution, tomorrow it might be air pollution, et cetera.

james.munyaneza@newtimes.co.rw

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