Car horns, dogs, cockerels & muezzins…

Warning: The following story is not supposed to suggest that I think every African is noisy and offensive! It may seem that I am complaining about something very trivial and some sections of society will read this and say “If you don’t like it them leave”. To them I say… I am not asking anyone to change – I love it here – merely writing about the fact that I havent managed to sleep through a night since coming here. I love the life and energy here and wouldnt want it any other way (My god, these white church going middle class americans are really a difficult audience!) Like I’m doing this for them!

I’ve been in Uganda for over two months now and even though we’re living in one of the quietest parts of town, I’m pretty sure that I haven’t managed to make it through an entire night without being woken.

I’m getting used to it now – I’ve stopped expecting to get a solid night’s sleep. The locals here not only have much smaller personal spaces (if none at all), but they also have less consideration when it comes to making noise at night. There’s never a question of “I’ll be quiet now, some people could be sleeping” – even at two or three in the morning. It’s not uncommon for someone to return to their home in their car from their evening activity at some point after midnight and repeatedly honk their horn or simply hold it down until their night watchman opens their security gate for them. Even in the quiet of the night it doesn’t occur to them that a simple tiny hoot – or better still, getting out of their car and knocking on the gate – would be more considerate to their neighbours. Maybe it does occur to them but waking others out of their sleep is not considered rude here.

Maybe it’s because that even if they don’t wake me up with their horn they know that the Islamic call to prayer will be upsetting me at four or five in the morning. Even though Uganda is a Christian country the small minority of Muslims seem to have strategically placed their mosques so that it’s simply not possible to avoid the wailing call to prayer – five times a day! I can deal with the screeching tones coming from the muezzin at three o’clock in the afternoon but to be woken by “Allah hu Akbar, Allah hu Akbar” at four thirty in the morning is starting to get a little bit annoying. Maybe it would be alright if the muezzin actually had a decent voice and I could enjoy his song. Oh no. Our local muezzin not only has possibly the worst voice in the entire world but he insists, as so many of them do these days, to unashamedly broadcast his call at full volume via a sub-standard amplifier and speaker system. So not only does the singing sound like it’s coming from a donkey’s arse, it’s also cranked up to max volume and pumped out through a system that’s probably failed quality control at the Panashiba factory in Taiwan. Put it another way, even if I was the world’s most devoted Muslim I’d still be offended by this guy’s attempts to entice us all to mosque.

Even if by some miracle, none of the neighbours returned late incessantly blasting their car horn, there was a power cut and the mosque’s back up generator has failed the pack of homeless dogs that roam our streets at night would find a way of interrupting my slumber. It doesn’t take much to start them off – usually a car horn or the muezzin does the trick! And they just don’t know when enough is enough. They’ll continue to bark, howl, yap and wail until about quarter of an hour before my alarm is due to go off. Why is it that noisy dogs keep you up all night with their relentless barking – for hours and hours, completely unrepentant – and then suddenly go all quiet only a few minutes before you were going to wake up anyway? And then just as you’re finally nodding off the beep-beep-beep of your alarm comes crashing through the beautiful silence, reminding you that you need to leave for work in half an hour. Just perfect!

There is the hope (although it’s not good for the state of the dirt roads in the morning) that it rains heavily through the night. This forces all the dogs to look for shelter and forget about their need to bark for no apparent reason all night. So, on a rainy night when the mosque’s power cuts out and the neighbours all stay home I might just be able to get a decent night’s kip. If only it wasn’t for the cockerels!

Even without the muezzin, the car horns and the wild dogs, you can guarantee that the day always breaks and the dark turns to light. It’s the signal for the cockerels to stretch their vocal chords, mark out their territories and have a crack at wooing the hens. How can any female be even slightly attracted that that repulsive noise? I know it doesn’t do much for Genevieve – but poultry’s not really her thing I suppose. So, from around six o’clock every morning, without fail, the cock-a-doodle-dooing starts – in 5.1 surround sound.

There’s no real solution to my sleep deprivation problems. The neighbours won’t understand that I think it’s selfish to beep their horns in the early hours of the morning. It’s a different culture – there’s no point even trying. There’s a fine balance between wanting a storm to rage all night to shut the dogs up, and not being able to sleep through the thunder. If the rain’s not heavy enough the dogs don’t hide and if it’s too heavy the roads become an impassable mud-bath in the morning. There’s no simple resolution to this complex dilemma!

Maybe, if there’s an extended solar eclipse during the normal sunrise hours, the cockerels would miss their cue to crow? It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get to find out. Solar eclipses are rare enough for me to be waiting for one to happen at sunrise in Kampala! Anyway, I’m starting to think that the time of day bears no relevance to the timing of the cockerels’ calls. I hear them going off in the middle of the afternoon, a few hours after sunset and even in the middle of the night. This idea that they act as nature’s alarm clock and go off with the rising sun is very dubious.

So what about the off-key shrieking muezzin? Last week, I went to the mosque to find him. He wasn’t there but I asked the imam if they had electronically amplified calls to prayer in Muhammad’s day (praise be upon him). He didn’t understand the sarcastic tone to my question and told me that the prophet Muhammad was around in the 15th century – well before the joys of the electronic age. Ok, I had to be more direct. I asked him it was possible to turn the volume down for the 5am call. He was shocked! He says he gets many complaints about the early morning call. I was happy to hear that I wasn’t in the minority. I turns out that I was! Apparently all the other complaints have been grumbles about the volume not being loud enough, causing them to not hear it and miss their prayer. He also saw nothing wrong with the fact that there are literally thousands of people living in the near vicinity of the mosque and only a handful of them are devout Muslims. He told me that the Christians also like the early morning call to prayer because it acts as their alarm clock. Surely they have cockerels for that!? I was clearly fighting a losing battle.

Just as I had given up the struggle and made peace with my broken sleep, right there at the mosque with only the Imam and Allah as my witness I had an incredible epiphany – earplugs!


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