X marks the spot

MapI don’t remember when I first learned how to use a map – which means it was probably way back in primary school. That’s not how it works in Tanzania.

People don’t use maps. Taxi or bajaji drivers (especially the latter) often don’t know streets by their names, even the major ones. If you’re lost, pointing to where you want to go on a map usually results with a blank stare. Today I was working with a graphic designer (his name, Amour, is oh-so-fitting, but this guy deserves a whole blog post to himself) to create a basic country map, showing where our projects are working. He whizzes his way round Illustrator and Indesign and whatever else on his Mac, but he’d never heard of Google Maps till I showed him, and he knew less about what cities were located where in this country than I did.

It’s a weird feeling, discovering that something you thought was universal, actually only applies to your part of the world.

Of course, Tanzanians get along just fine without maps. You ask directions (once you’ve done the 5-minute “how’s your mother, work, brother-in-law, lunch etc.” greeting ritual, of course). And you refer to landmarks. Even official addresses in central Dar es Salaam are more identified by landmarks than by streetnames, meaning your government office address might appear on your business card as located “Behind Las Vegas Casino”.

There are some interesting ideas emerging though – seemingly from civil society rather than from government – to map Africa and beyond, many related to community development. As some of the experts put it:

Nowadays maps are an even more ubiquitous currency for both technologists and development organizations. With the growth and availability of mapping tools–and especially the potential for the internet and technology to make this information more widespread and participatory, the nature and barriers of mapping has changed. From projects like MapKibera in Nairobi which has mapped the largest slum in Africa, to tools like Ushahidi, which helped to map the damage and relief effort after the earthquake in Haiti — maps are playing an increasing role in development.

Will such ideas ultimately make Tanzanians map-literate? What role will growing use of smartphones play in this? Is it that there’s a point – in the course of urbanisation, say – at which maps become really valuable, and at which landmarks become simply inadequate? And what happens when conventional map-making meets a different culture, e.g. an African one that favours oral over written communication? To be continued…

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2 thoughts on “X marks the spot

  1. Map making will always change its conventions, it’s in its nature. Oral communication and the interplay between that and vernacular geography is really interesting. http://thisisntfuckingdalston.co.uk/ looks at the naming of the ‘Dalston’ area of London, while not official is exists in a fuzzy geographic sense. I would argue that even in countries with ‘official’ mapping agencies this information can compile into a gazetteer, when in countries without a mapping agency or a limited one it could be invaluable. What that looks like however, I have no idea!

  2. patushka says:

    Love the dalston idea! Wonder how something like that would work in Dar??

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