It is about 11.30 pm when we pull over at a popular nightclub along James Gichuru Road in Nairobi’s Lavington area. There is pin-drop silence in the compound and a few vehicles in the parking lot.
The big black gate at the entrance is closed. For a moment, we doubt whether the club is open. As we mull over our next move, a security officer approaches and asks us what we are looking for.
We inform him we are looking for a place to unwind, upon which he lets out a burst of contagious laughter and quickly opens the gate for us. Out of about 25 tables inside, only five are occupied.
On each of these tables, there are several bottles of liquor and a pot of shisha. There is little music here. The only music is from a mobile phone connected to the speaker, playing at a low volume. A lone lady seated opposite us puffs her pot of shisha, leaves her seat, and makes a few dance moves before sitting back.
We approach the supervisor and inform him that we are not happy that there is no loud music in this club. Mistaking us for county government inspectors, the supervisor decides to engage us in a conversation as he orders the waiter to hurry up our order for drinks.
“We are very compliant. I know you have come to check… but you are not doing us good. This club at this hour should be very full, but we just decided to comply so that our licence is not taken away,” he says.
He tells us that a few days ago, a senior police officer had walked into the club as if to survey its compliance levels.
“He came here, walked around. He never talked to anyone. We tried to engage him, but he remained quiet. Ever since that day, we are afraid of what might happen to our business,” he says.
After spending a few minutes at the club, we set out for another one nearby. At 12 am, we pull over and park among many other cars squeezed by the roadside. Things are different here. Unlike the previous club, this one is full of revellers, but there is no music. Cameroon versus Brazil World Cup match is underway, which is going down well with their drinks.
It is already 1.40 am, but at another popular club along Thika Road, the party seems to be just starting. Our sound meter App indicates the sound level in this club is at an average of 89 decibels, way above the permissible level of between 25 and 35 decibels for clubs located in residential neighbourhoods as per the Environmental Management and Coordination Act.
The place is fully packed. Occasionally, the DJ stops the music, much to the chagrin of the revellers. He then asks those who have just graduated from school to step forward, as he engages them in a dance. So loud is the music that we also momentarily get lost in the merriment before we step out to visit other nearby joints.
At a lounge located behind a popular mall on Thika Road, things are no different. The average sound volume, according to our sound meter App, is 88 decibels. Revellers are singing along to the lyrics of Afro-pop artist’s hit ‘Suzanna’.
Several other clubs that the Sunday Nation team visited, especially those located within the mixed residential zones, were not compliant with the noise pollution regulations. A few, especially those in Lavington and Kilimani, had partially complied.
In other areas, such as Kasarani, several clubs are ensconced between residential apartments with little adherence to regulations or soundproofing.
When the outcry over noise pollution began, Governor Johnson Sakaja had refrained from addressing the issue and assigned his deputy, Njoroge Muchiri, to negotiate a solution with club owners.
Mr Njoroge had already initiated conversations with those operating pubs in residential areas. However, all hell broke loose when a clip from the meetings was shared on social media.
In the viral video clip, a popular TV presenter who operates a pub offered to soundproof the houses of complainants, a suggestion that irked the public. Following public outcry over the comments, Mr Muchiri is said to have abandoned the talks all the same.
Mr Sakaja would later issue directives announcing that the county government planned to revoke the licences of all the clubs operating in residential areas. He also said that nightclub licences would be issued strictly for entertainment spots within the central business district.
According to Pubs, Entertainment and Restaurant Association of Kenya (Perak) chairperson Michael Muthami, the directives came as a surprise as they had already initiated talks that were later abandoned under unclear circumstances.
“The process had already begun with the reconstitution of the alcohol licensing board, which was to look into all issues. We were shocked when Mr Sakaja issued a directive that pubs within residences should be closed,” he says.
But Mr Sakaja has accused the pub owners of seeking public sympathy by linking the enforcement of the law to the loss of jobs.
“There is no one who makes money by making noise for other people. It is an unpopular decision that I made and the right thing to do,” Mr Sakaja defended his stance.
President William Ruto last week also weighed in on the debate and assured Mr Sakaja of support from the national government in his efforts to restore order in the capital.
However, when queried on whether he would take the same action against churches that cause noise pollution in Nairobi County, Mr Sakaja has taken a soft stance.
“Of course, you do not expect me to close churches. Churches spread the gospel. We will have discussions with them so that we can see how to spread the gospel while obeying the rules and regulations,” he added.
Atheists in Kenya Society president Harrison Mumia has already threatened to go to court over Mr Sakaja’s utterances, which he claims are discriminatory. “Your decision to hold talks with the clergy and not the business community on this matter is direct discrimination against the business community… Noise pollution should be dealt with without favouring anyone,” Mr Mumia said.