Links I liked

The photo shows a bar of chocolate with Ghanaian adinkra symbols printed on itEdible art from 57 Chocolate in Ghana

The image shows a tweet reading, "my dream is to send a rural African village girl to Mars in a spaceship designed, built, and launched in Africa" - Elsie Kanza, WEFDreaming big (source)

  • Song of the week: Run, don’t walk, to listen to “Republique Amazone,” the debut album from new West African supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique.  Angélique Kidjo, Kandia Kouyaté, Mamani Keita, Mariam Doumbia, Mariam Koné, Massan Coulibaly, Mouneissa Tandina, Nneka, Pamela Badjogo and Rokia Koné all in one place!

Cartographic literacy and the rise of Uber in Africa


Yinka Adegoke set off an interesting thread on Twitter yesterday with the above observation about Uber.  People chimed in to agree that this was common in Accra, Nairobi, Abuja, Bangalore and Beijing as well, and seemed connected to poor local mapping (see the whole thread on Storify).  I was put in mind of a conversation I had with an Uber driver in Accra last year:

  • Driver: “Where should I pick you?”
  • Me:  “Do you see my location on the map?”
  • Driver: “Yes.”
  • Me: “Ok, please pick me there.”
  • Driver: “But where is that?  Tell me where to turn.”

This didn’t actually reflect a problem with the map, as Google Maps is quite accurate in central Accra.  But it did remind me of a point I’ve been making in conversation for years now: cartographic literacy is a historically recent skill.  For most of human history, the average person never would have seen a map, let alone needed one to navigate a well-known environment.  Mentally translating a eye-level view of (say) an urban street into a bird’s-eye view on a map and using this to navigate is a rather unusual task, and an understandable challenge if one hasn’t had to do it very often.

A bit of a detour through European and African cartographic history here.  People have been making maps for a very long time, but up until roughly the Enlightenment, it would have been difficult to use them for overland navigation in the way that we assume maps are to be used today.  In part this was due to limitations of cartographic knowledge and the difficulty of accurately depicting the spherical Earth on a two-dimensional map. However, many maps were also intended to depict connections between places of political or religious significance rather than a literal representation of the terrain between them.  Here are two European maps from the 1480s that capture this variation in intent.

The Martellus world map was made in Italy around 1489.  There’s a clear attempt at cartographic accuracy here, and the coastlines of Europe and northern and western Africa are presented in great detail.  Knowledge of coasts and maritime routes was quite important at the time because the vast majority of long-distance trade went by sea (as in fact it still does today).  The interiors of most countries are largely unlabelled, however, even for European states which were presumably better documented at the time.

The image shows a map of the world from 1489Source: Wikipedia

Compare that map to this Mappa Mundi produced in Germany around 1480.  This is an example of a politico-religious map which places Jerusalem in the center of the world.  It lists a number of contemporary Christian European cities and states, such as Rome and England, but makes no attempt to accurately depict the terrain between them.

The image shows a map of the world from 1480Source: The Morgan Library

In States and Power in Africa, Jeff Herbst argues that many early maps drawn by African cartographers adopt the same politico-religious schema.  He gives the example of a map drawn by Caliph Muhammad Bello of Sokoto for a British explorer in 1824. There’s a brief acknowledgement of some natural features, like major rivers, but this is primarily a map of political relationships between the Sokoto Caliphate (shown many times its actual size) and the smaller cities which were vassals or rivals.  Check out the tiny, misplaced Timbuktu (“Tonbaktoo”) at upper left and Kano (“Kanoo”) at lower right.

denham12Source: Princeton Library

For comparison, here’s an 1844 map of the same area from a British cartographer. It’s a bit hard to read, so I’ve labelled the relevant cities.  Putting aside the “uncharted” areas of the interior, this looks like a recognizably accurate map of the region.

The image shows a map of West Africa from 1844Source: David Rumsey Map Collection

One of the key points here is that these maps are serving different purposes.  For west African merchants, or aspirants to the Caliphate, the roads between these major cities were probably well known, but a map of contemporary political alliances would be quite useful.  For foreigners coming in to conquer, a detailed road map was important to make up for their lack of local knowledge.

All of this brings me back to Uber.  If you’ve lived in a city for most of your life, why would you need to read a map rather than navigating by well-known landmarks?  It’s like being asked to calculate distance in inches when you’re used to kilometers — an inefficient means of producing the same result.  And the mental math of doing a 3D rotation of a familiar street and projecting it onto a horizontal map is rather challenging — perhaps especially for places you know well.

I’ve got my own story about this from the time I was living in Tamale in 2010.  Google Maps hadn’t really made it to Africa yet, my guidebook had only a very small map of the city center, and I wasn’t able to find a paper map of the area.  I bought a bicycle and ended up getting to know the city quite well without ever glancing at a map.  I’ve been back four times since then, now in possession of Google Maps, and to this day I can’t look at a map of the city and make it match up to the streets I know so well.  I have to find the same landmarks that I used at the time and use them to orient myself before the map makes sense.  And I say this as someone with a BA in geography — I am not unaccustomed to maps as a rule!  But it’s given me sympathy for Uber drivers who might be facing the same challenge.




Links I liked

The photo shows a beachfront scene, framed by a window, in Durban, South AfricaThinking of this beautiful view in Durban on a rainy day here in Berkeley

The image shows a tweet from Tolu Ogunlesi, expressing admiration for the percentage of books on South Africa which are by South African authors

  • Enthusiasm for universal basic income is spreading, with new pilot projects recently announced in Scotland and Finland.  An interesting argument for the positive effects of UBI is that it already exists for the 1% in the form of capital income.

Links I liked

The cartoon shows Jacob Zuma sitting in a kiosk labeled "Black Friday," with the items for sale including "parastatals," "principles" and "prosecutors."

The Mail & Guardian‘s editorial cartoonist has been on point about Zuma lately

  • Zimbabwe is descending deeper into economic crisis as shortage of dollars have forced the reintroduction of a domestic currency.  Rudo Mudiwa writes a moving account of daily life amongst cash shortages in Harare.  For background, check out the excellent long-form essays on Zimbabwean law and politics by Alex Magaisa at The Big Saturday Read.
  • Here’s a new graphic from UNICEF addressing common myths about cash transfers. If you’re interested in learning more about social protection and welfare policy, check out the excellent short course offered by the Centre for Social Protection at the University of Sussex next June.  I attended this year, and can attest to its quality.

The image has too much text to easily summarize, but it points out that cash transfers make poor people better off, and aren't wasted.

  • Video of the week: I’m choosing to believe in Sinkane’s message of positivity in his glossy new video for “U’Huh.”  Okayafrica has a great summary of the Sudanese-American singer’s work.

Travel tips: Accra on two wheels

The photo shows two men driving motorcycles with the setting sun behind them in Kigali, RwandaPhoto: Getty Images

The major innovation of this trip to Ghana (at least for me) has been my commute.  I’ve been zipping around Accra on a Yamaha Crypton, which has been fantastic.  In cities with heavy congestion and limited infrastructure, motorcycles offer a commuting option that’s cheap, fast and versatile.  They’re good for cutting through stalled traffic, or navigating unpaved roads with ease.  They offer a great chance to explore areas that couldn’t otherwise be easily reached with public transportation.  And sometimes you just want to drive along the road by Labadi Beach with the salt wind in your face.  In short, very fun and highly recommended.

That said, learning to drive a motorcycle well enough to to do safely in Accra required a substantial amount of up-front investment.  Here are some tips for getting started with a motorcycle and learning to ride safely in urban traffic.  I don’t mean the volume of them to sound discouraging, but there is real risk to riding a motorcycle, and if you can’t commit to doing it as safely as possible, then you shouldn’t do it.

  • Spend a few weeks as a bike commuter.  No bike lanes allowed!  Riding a bicycle is the best way to prepare for handling a motorcycle at low speeds, which is mostly what you’ll encounter in traffic-plagued cities like Accra.  You’ll also need to get used to being in close proximity to cars.
  • Get a new motorcycle.  The used motorcycle market here is large, cheap, and full of lemons.  You do not need your mirrors to fall off at the first pothole you hit.  I bought a new moto from a dealership here for about $1300, and expect to recoup most of that cost when I sell it at the end of my next research trip.
  • Get geared up.  A helmet is non-negotiable.  For preference, you should also wear close-toed shoes (or ideally over-the-ankle boots), jeans, a jacket and gloves.  An armored jacket is ideal, but at minimum you should do a durable raincoat or denim jacket.  All of this can be rather hot if you’re stopped in the sun, but as long as you’re moving I’ve found it to be quite comfortable.
  • Find a safe place to practice.  It took me at least a month of daily commuting on quiet back streets before I felt like I had an intuitive sense of how to handle the moto.  It’s essential that you find a safe place to practice until you reach this point.  If you have to consciously think about how to turn, swerve, or stop, it will be difficult to respond rapidly enough to all the challenges you’ll encounter in places like Accra.
  • Be prepared to respond to problems coming from every direction.  Anyone who’s learned to drive is used to scanning for potential obstacles in front of them, and to the sides when changing lanes.  You’ll also have to get used to scanning below you, for potholes or loose gravel; above you, to avoid things being thrown out of car windows; and behind you, where cars are likely to creep up to your back tire to try to force you to speed up or move over.  (In situations like these, slow down, move over, and let the other car get their way.  You can’t control their behavior and you’re not going to win a contest with them.)
  • Obey the traffic laws, but don’t expect that others will.  I would say that 75% of drivers here follow the laws fairly well, with the exception of small things like failing to signal turns or stop completely at intersections.  The worst offenders by far are other motorcyclists, who have all collectively decided that they are bound by neither law nor physics and drive in a manner which reflects this.  I spend more time scanning for motorcycles than any other type of traffic, since the erstwhile advantages of being small and fast make it difficult to see them in advance and respond quickly to any unpredictable behavior.
  • Don’t outride your brakes.  Or, put differently: you always need to try to identify a safe path forward, and be prepared to stop if you can’t find it.  Even if you’re on a well-lit road with limited traffic and a clear line of sight, it’s difficult to predict what you might find ahead of you — uneven pavement, a pedestrian dashing across the street, a turn that comes up more rapidly than you expected.  Drive more slowly than you’d like to, particularly if it’s your first time on a certain road.
  • Be extremely careful at night.  I’ve driven several thousand kilometers in a wide range of conditions, and am confident in my ability to handle most driving challenges.  I still actively limit the amount of time I spend driving at night in Accra because of the high levels of risk involved.  Take all the issues outlined above, add a lack of street lights and the problem of having opposing cars’ headlights constantly in your eyes, and an accident becomes a question of “when” rather than “if.”  If you are going to drive at night, stick to well-lit routes and drive even more defensively than normal.

In short: be safe and have fun!