During a two-month trip to Kigali, Rwanda last summer, a friend invited me to an outdoor yoga class one evening. The class took place in the spacious yard of a home in Nyamirambo, a neighborhood known both for its lively atmosphere—many of the country’s most well-known musicians and artists live in the area—and for its historic status as the city’s Muslim quarter. Yet, about halfway through the class, the sounds of Pentecostal praise and worship music started up from a church next door: singing voices amplified through loudspeakers, the rush of percussion, the trills of an electronic keyboard. The American couple who lived in the house complained that they could never predict the church’s schedule—noise would start up at all hours of the day. While I sympathized with them I also found the sounds comforting. They called to mind the many Pentecostal services I had attended during my earlier research. Although much had changed in the five years since I had last been in the country—new paved roads, new international hotels, new shopping centers—this Pentecostal way of music-making, of occupying the city’s soundscape, had at least stayed the same.

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It has become commonplace to remark upon Pentecostal “noisiness” and the fact that Pentecostals across the globe use sound to occupy public spaces in novel ways. These sonic practices include Pentecostal praise and worship music (known in Rwanda as guhimbaza Imana), vigorous (and often all-night) prayer meetings, and public preaching through loudspeakers on city streets. These sounds are distinctive, setting Pentecostals apart from other Christian denominations. Without knowing anything about the church mentioned above, for example, I was able to identify it as Pentecostal precisely because certain kinds of sounds have become associated with Kigali’s new, post-genocide Pentecostal churches. It is not only the particular words of these sonic practices that define them as Pentecostal but also their material properties—the specific forms of amplification and musical accompaniment employed, the pitch and tone of the Pentecostal voice itself.

Sound is key to how religion is made public. Yet sound, to my mind, must equally be understood through its relationship to silence—not only by contrasting Pentecostal “noise” to other forms of religious mediation (in the Rwanda case, Catholics’ insistence on the centrality of silence in communicating with God) but also to forms of silencing. In Rwanda the rise of the new Pentecostal churches after the genocide has been accompanied in recent years by a government crackdown on “noise pollution” in Kigali and the widespread closure of thousands of (mostly Pentecostal) churches across the country. What makes Pentecostal “noise” so dangerous in this context? Why is this so, especially when vision has become central to the country’s development, in particular through the government’s Vision 2020 plan that aims to transform Rwanda into a Singapore-style, middle-income economy by the year 2020? Why might certain sounds disrupt this “vision”? To the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), noise—due perhaps to its association with unruliness, troublemaking, distraction, and disorder—seems to be antithetical to the country’s post-genocide future, which it has mapped out to the most intimate detail.

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Since the 1994 genocide, during which approximately eight hundred thousand Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed, Rwanda’s religious landscape has been dramatically transformed. The historically dominant Catholic Church—which arrived in the country at the turn of the twentieth century via the Catholic missionary order the White Fathers—was shaken by its complicity in the genocide. Catholic leaders failed to condemn the violence while it was taking place and some priests and nuns participated in the violence. Catholic churches—as well as other Christian churches—became massacre sites. Many have since been transformed into genocide memorials. The complicity of the Catholic Church led to a flourishing of Pentecostal churches in the country after the genocide. Although the country’s religious landscape had been tightly controlled by the government in the pre-genocide period, after 1994 hundreds of new churches were planted in the country. These new churches were founded for the most part by returnee Tutsi who had grown up in exile in neighboring countries such as Burundi, Uganda, the DRC, and Tanzania. In interviews with these pastors, many of them told me they had heard a calling from God telling them to return to Rwanda and minister to a traumatized population.

When I spoke to members of these new Pentecostal churches, many of them told me that in addition to new discourses and practices of salvation, they were equally attracted by these churches’ lively soundscapes. Unlike the staid and sober styles of Christian liturgy in the Catholic and Anglican churches, Pentecostal churches encourage believers to dance, sing, proclaim, and in general make noise during services. Indeed, sound—in the form of prophetic words, noisemaking through clapping, horn-blowing, speaking in tongues, etc.—and praise and worship music are considered to be central to healing and prosperity. These sound practices allow Pentecostals to “unblock” the obstacles they face in their lives, whether illness, trauma, marital discord, or unemployment. After special prayer sessions, for example, Pentecostals might testify that the “stones” or “nails” they had felt in their bodies and hearts had been miraculously removed. They were now prepared for divine intervention in their lives—further miracles (ibitangaza) were just around the corner.

This emphasis on sound, however, contrasted significantly with how Catholics understand divine presence in the world. Despite Pentecostal inroads, Catholicism remains the dominant denomination in the country, and the vast majority of Catholics I know view the new Pentecostal churches with hostility and contempt. What is this noise hiding? How could one pray properly with all that clatter? As a Catholic bishop made clear to me, it is through silent meditation that Catholics met God. Here the bishop evoked a Biblical passage: 1 Kings 19:10-13. In the passage, God manifests himself to the prophet Elijah not in a powerful wind, not in an earthquake, and not in a fire, but rather through a “gentle whisper.” So when Catholics complain about Pentecostal noise, this is not trivial but concerned with the “true” nature of divine manifestation and the “right” way to respond to it. If the Pentecostal voice is loud and noisy, one defined by amplification, one accompanied by certain musical rhythms played on electronic keyboards and electric guitars, then the Catholic voice is figured not as voice at all, but rather, as the same Catholic bishop told me, as “a soft wind.”

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Since 2014 there has been an ongoing crackdown on “noise pollution” in Kigali, targeting bars, nightclubs, and Pentecostal churches. Those found guilty of violating noise pollution regulations face fines and imprisonment. More recently, this crackdown has been accompanied by new, stricter regulations on churches. In February 2018 the government shut down more than seven hundred churches in Kigali and one mosque for failing to meet “minimum standards” related to safety, hygiene, infrastructure, and noise. This was part of a wider initiative that saw the closure of thousands of churches across the country, along with one hundred mosques. Once again, defying these orders was met with arrests. For his part, President Paul Kagame publicly supported the closures. He commented: “Seven hundred churches in Kigali? Are these boreholes that give people water?” He continued: “I don’t think we have as many boreholes. Do we even have as many factories? But 700 churches, which you even had to close? This has been a mess!” In mid-March 2018 the government banned mosques in Kigali from using loudspeakers during the call to prayer.

Critics have interpreted the control of noise and the closing of churches as part of the state’s longstanding efforts to squash dissent. As one critic put it, churches were shut down because they “constituted the last open space,” with Christians orienting their actions not toward the authority of the state but the higher authority of God. Indeed, there is a wider “open secret” regarding religious dominations in the country: they are “expected to pledge loyalty to the government.”

To Kagame, it seems, boreholes and factories have a purpose and fit into the government’s particular developmentalist vision for Rwanda. Pentecostal noise, however, does not (especially when pastors preach messages that contravene state doctrine, say about gender equality). Yet noise regulations also seem to be selectively employed. This became obvious to me last summer. One day while sitting in an office of a local archival center in downtown Kigali, my colleague and I were interrupted by loud noise. We looked out the window to see a truck with speakers mounted on it, swathed in RPF insignia, encouraging citizens to vote for RPF candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections (later held in September 2018). Or, as I was sitting with my host family in their outdoor garden one Friday evening in late July, we were interrupted by the sounds of an amplified voice: a man was walking through the neighborhood reminding us to participate in umuganda, mandatory community work that takes place on the last Saturday of every month, and was slated to take place the following day. Despite the fact that these sounds impinged on everyday work and family life, in the latter case reaching into citizens’ private homes, they did not seem to be classified as “noise pollution.”

Thinking about how religion is made public through sound, then, requires an equal attention to silence—silence as a form of religious mediation in its own right and various silencing techniques employed by those in power. We might ask: in what ways is religious publicity made possible through particular kinds of silence? Who decides what is noise and what is genuine communication?