Nanjala Nyabola on the political power of archives

nanjala

Last week I attended the Nairobi launch of Nanjala Nyabola‘s new book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics.  It was one of the best public events I’ve attended since I moved to Kenya.  I could have sat there for hours listening to her discuss everything from the geography of Kenyan Twitter users to why refusing to wear heels in downtown Nairobi is a political act.   Lots of credit also to Christine Mungai, who was an excellent interviewer, and to Kali Media for organizing the event.

I arrived a bit late, and by the time I settled in the conversation had reached the topic of the political nature of archives.  One theme Nanjala kept returning to was the question of whose voices are represented in archives.  She noted that when she was doing research on the 2007 – 2008 post-electoral violence, the sources she found didn’t reflect her own memories of that period.  This is a salient example of the limited availability of Kenyan voices in archival records at all.  She found as well that many Kenyan newspapers don’t digitize their older articles, meaning that anything more than a few years old gets excluded from the digital record.

Nanjala also called attention to the physical location of African archives, many of which are held near the capitals of former colonial powers.  The archives of British East Africa, for example, are located in Oxford.  Given how difficult it is for foreign scholars to get UK visas, as well as the cost of travel, this means that large portions of African history are inaccessible to African academics.  She pointed out that many episodes of anti-colonial resistance like the 1929 Aba Women’s War in Nigeria went undiscussed by scholars until someone happened to stumble across them in the archive, raising the question of how many other key events in African history we might be missing.

All this discussion led to an eloquent summary of her desire to publish this book: “I write to hold space in the archive for people like me and the people I know.”  Writing is a way of creating an alternate archive, one which captures voices that might otherwise go unheard.  Nanjala had some excellent points about citational practices as a type of archiving, asking the reader to pay careful attention to “who’s doing the blurb on the back cover, who’s in the works cited, who’s in the theory section.”  (This point is also made very well by Cite Black Women.)  She also praised the work done by organizations like The Elephant, Bright Magazine, and Popula to provide space for longform writing from African authors, which is generally lacking on the continent.

I came away incredibly impressed by the clear amount of thought and research which had gone into this book.  I really can’t wait to read it!  Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics is available now at Prestige Bookshop in Nairobi or via Amazon.

What I’m reading for November 2018

Here’s my latest link roundup, cross-posted from Africa Update.  We’ve got evangelical real estate in Lagos, the Boy Scouts of Bangui, Kinshasa’s dodgy voting machines, Julius Nyerere’s translations of Shakespeare, and more.

West Africa: Read about the three women running for president in Nigeria, in the first election which has ever had more than one female candidate.  BudgIT is making strides in using publicly available budget information to track the completion of infrastructure projects across Nigeria.  Here’s what happens when evangelical churches get into the real estate business in Lagos.  This was a great discussion of how the #BringBackOurGirls movement has expanded into other types of activism, thanks in part to a decision to reject all outside funding.  In northern Nigeria, mosque attendance is dropping as Boko Haram’s attacks make people more skeptical of organized religion.  Dakar has elected its first female mayor (in French).  In Cameroon, women and girls are disproportionately bearing the cost of the conflict in the country’s Anglophone region.

A colorful green and pink background with stylized images of Burkina Faso's president Thomas Sankara, surrounded by young men holding pink assault rifles

Via Mohamed Keita: “Artist Pierre-Christoph Gam’s mixed media series pays homage to Burkinabé revolutionary Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s president from 1983 – 1987”

Central Africa: Rwanda is one of the first African countries to offer cashless payments on buses.  This was a gripping article about the violence of daily life in a refugee camp in the CAR, and how the extreme fragmentation of rebel groups undercuts attempts at disarmament.  Despite the CAR’s challenges, the Boy Scouts continue to support young men in Bangui.  In northern Uganda, citizens are protesting after they were displaced from their homes during the LRA war and their land subsequently gazetted into a wildlife reserve, leaving them without any homes to return to.  Do unions have a future among informal workers in the DRC?  Some good news on the Congolese ebola crisis: experimental treatments have been proving fairly effective at reducing death rates.

Congolese presidential elections: If you read one article about next month’s elections, make it this one on Kabila’s intentional choice of a weak candidate as his replacement.  For a deep dive, read about the politicization of the country’s electoral institutions, its selection of easily hackable voting machines, the new archbishop who promises to hold the government to account (in French), the latest polling results on support for opposition candidates (in French), and the rapid demise of the opposition’s promise to pick a single candidate.

Map of Africa showing the percentage of women in Parliament.  It ranges from nearly zero in Sudan and Nigeria to 50% in Ethiopia and RwandaMap of gender parity in African legislatures via the UN Economic Commission for Africa

East Africa: Kenya is considering privatizing its prisons, a policy which has been roundly criticized as an attempt to profit from prison labor rather than improving conditions for inmates.  The military has been deployed to buy cashew nuts in Tanzania after farmers in an opposition stronghold complained of low prices.  An Ethiopian company is betting on the growth of coffee consumption in China with plans to open dozens of cafés across the country.  Tourism pushed women out of Zanzibar’s public spaces, but one NGO is helping them reclaim their access.  South Sudan wants to build a new capital called Ramciel in an uninhabited area which lacks any infrastructure.  In Somalia, Al Shabaab earns millions of dollars annually by illegally exporting charcoal through Iran.  This is essential reading on the way that the US supported the Siad Barre regime in Somalia in the 1980s even as it killed over 200,000 citizens.  Somalia’s persistent insecurity even affects responses to academic surveys, as people more exposed to violence are less likely to answer questions about their clan identity.

Southern Africa: In South Africa, participating in a peaceful protest for better service delivery could land you in prison without bail. Zambian doctors are warning women to stay away from herbal Chinese contraceptives, which are inexpensive but poorly regulated.  Zambia has also indefinitely suspended all junior and senior secondary school exams after the questions were leaked on social media.  Lesotho’s sheep farmers are up in arms over a decision to ban wool exports and require them to sell all their wool to a single firm.  Zimbabwe is making up for its lack of mental health support by training older women to provide informal therapy to people in their neighborhoods.

Map of eastern Africa showing the proposed route of the standard gauge railway, which would connect inland countries to the coast at Lamu, Mombasa and Dar es SalaamSome context on where the standard gauge railway (SGR) is supposed to extend in east Africa, via Africa Confidential

Industry + infrastructure: Uganda is balking at extending the SGR to Kampala, although Rwanda and Tanzania are pushing on with their portions of the railway.  Several Chinese and American firms have signed deals to assemble mobile phones in Uganda.  The Kenyan government has set up a fund to encourage local mobile production as well.  Kenya’s newest tech jobs focus on creating training data for AIs.  Somalia’s e-commerce scene is tiny but growing.  The Mombasa airport is switching to solar power.  This Kenyan start-up is producing smart meters for natural gas canisters, which should lower the cost of access to canisters and encourage people to switch away from relatively more polluting charcoal.

Arts + literature: Here are five African documentaries you’ll want to see.  Read about the Ottoman heritage of Somaliland’s architecture.  All of the stories by African authors shortlisted for the Brittle Paper Awards are freely available online.  If you read Kiswahili, check out Julius Nyerere’s translations of Shakespeare’s works.  This is the essential reading list on African feminism.  Don’t miss Nanjala Nyabola’s new book on digital democracy in Kenya.

A South African woman dressed in a red gown and black velvet cap, with a South African man in a black academic robe standing behind herCongratulations to Nompumelelo Kapa, who is one of the few South African academics who has received a PhD for a thesis written in isiXhosa (via Sure Kamhunga)

Scholarships: Mawazo has a new page with updated fellowship opportunities for African scholars posted each month.  African citizens who would like to pursue a PhD in anthropology should apply to the Wadsworth fellowship.  Encourage the African scientists in your life to apply for the Next Einstein Foundation fellowship.  The Center for Global Development is recruiting post-docs.  If you’d like to apply to Oxford, check out the Africa Society’s Mentorship Programme for tips on navigating the application process.  The European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership offers funding for health research by early career African scholars.  East African citizens between the ages of 20 – 30 should apply for the LéO Africa Institute’s Young and Emerging Leaders Program.  Check out the Africa Peacebuilding Network’s individual research grants.

Links I liked

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got Mali’s 35-year old foreign minister, the dodgeball association of South Sudan, accountability for Mozambican mayors over gay rights, the future of nuclear power on the continent, and more.

View of the Nile, with green banks on both sides and a blue sky full of puffy clouds above
Here’s the view I’ve been enjoying in Jinja during Nyege Nyege Festival this weekend

West Africa: Ghana’s plan to build a new national cathedral is coming in for heavy criticism.  Also in Ghana, cocoa companies are working with local chiefs to improve property rights for cocoa farmers.  The Nigerian government is allegedly forcing internally displaced people to return to their dangerous home regions so that they can vote in upcoming primary elections.  Félicitations à Kamissa Camara, qui est devenue chef de la diplomatie malienne agée de 35 ans.  In Niger, farmers are using a nitrogen-fixing tree to improve their soil quality and fight climate change.  Here’s a good background article on current politics in Togo.  The latest edition of West Africa Insights is all about urbanization in the region.

Central Africa:  Read all about the DRC’s upcoming election, including its unusual single-round voting that can allow a president to be elected with a tiny minority of votes, and Kabila’s preferred candidate for the presidency.  Désarmement dans le Pool : le pasteur Ntumi fait « un pas dans la bonne direction », selon Brazzaville.  This article situates Uganda’s social media tax in a long history of unfair colonial taxation.  Museveni has threatened to abolish the Ugandan Parliament after protests over the beating of prominent opposition MP Bobi Wine, whose popularity clearly alarms him.  Listen to this piece about poor conditions on Uganda’s prison farms.  Tanzania is cutting off markets in refugee camps in an apparent attempt to force Burundian refugees to return home.  Rwanda is trying to boost tax revenue by simplifying its tax code at the same time it raises tax rates.

Map showing more than 4 million internally displaced people in the DRC, and flows of hundreds of thousands of refugees to neighboring nations
Map of the massive population displacement in the DRC, via Africa Visual Data

East Africa:  Tanzania wants to make it illegal to question government statistics.  If you’d like to approach the government with a non-statistical matter, definitely read these insider tips on how policymaking works in Tanzania.  South Sudan’s newest athletic league is a dodgeball association for teenage girls.  Read this insightful article about how John Garang’s death led to the fracturing of the SPLM.  Don’t miss this recent report from the Kenya Human Rights Commission about the country’s high rates of extrajudicial killings.  This article suggests that the Kenyan security forces routinely ignore tips about planned mass shootings, and that perpetrators are rarely arrested.  More than 90% of Somalia’s new cabinet ministers are said to hold MA or PhD degrees, but only 8% are women.

Southern Africa: At some South African universities, nearly 80% of black students report that they sometimes don’t have enough to eat.  A South African court has ruled that marriages between Muslim couples in the country must be legally registered and not simply recorded with religious authorities, giving women legal protection in the event of divorce.  Zimbabwe’s harsh laws criminalizing the transmission of HIV are discouraging people from coming for testing and treatment.

mozambique
A hopeful headline from Mozambique, showing a newspaper asking mayoral candidates in Nampula how they plan to combat discrimination against gay people (via Tom Bowker)

Public Health: I’m excited to hear about sensors.AFRICA, which is using low cost monitors to track air quality in several countries across the continent.  A non-profit organization is offering cash transfers to women who bring their children in for vaccinations in Nigeria.  One Nigerian woman has created a mental health hotline after struggling to access treatment for depression.

Economics: This was a really interesting thread about how legal uncertainty is increasing fuel prices in Kenya — an exemption on VAT for fuel expired on August 31 with no legal guidance on whether it was meant to be extended, leading to strikes by fuel importers.  South Sudan is beginning to bring oilfields back online after production was drastically reduced by the civil war.  An economist discusses how the cedi’s depreciation lead to the recent collapse of several banks in Ghana.  This was an interesting piece on the history of Ghana’s failed attempts to create a local rubber processing industry.  A new book argues that political conflict determines when protests take place in Africa, but economics determines who participates in them.  Is there a future for civilian nuclear energy in Africa?

Map showing what rotating savings groups are called throughout Africa
Great map of regional names for rotating savings and credit associations across the continent (via Funmi Oyatogun)

China in Africa:  This article shared some interesting reflections on the shortcomings of standard “China in Africa” narratives.  Chinese handset maker Transsion is capturing the African market with affordable phones that feature built-in radio reception and cameras calibrated for darker skin.

Arts and Literature:  Check out Robtel Neajai Pailey’s interactive website for her anti-corruption children’s books about Liberia, and Lupita Nyong’o’s upcoming children’s book as well!  Apply to work with the British Library on their collection of African-language materials.  Lots of interesting articles to be found in the Johannesburg Review of Books.   Read this dispatch from the Mogadishu Book Fair.  The Goethe Institut is calling for submissions of young adult literature by African authors in English, French and Kiswahili.  Here are all the African film festivals you can attend in 2018.

Black and yellow print showing a woman with her fist upraised, and a slogan at the bottom reading "Now you have touched the woman you have struck a rock; you have dislodged a boulder; you will be crushed.  9 August SA Women's Day"
Art for the day from Medu Art Ensemble, who created this poster for a 1956 women’s march against apartheid (via Women’s Art)

Conferences and Scholarships: Register for the Decolonial Transformationsconference at the University of Sussex — and before you do, read this great curriculum which a group of Cambridge students put together for decolonizing the Human, Social and Political Sciences degree.  Submit a paper to the Africa Social and Behavioral Change conference in English, French, Portuguese or Kiswahili.  The Working Group in African Political Economy is now accepting paper applications.  You can also send your scientific papers or science journalism to the African Science Desk to have them turned into short documentaries and explainers.  Spread the word about this multidisciplinary post-doc for African scholars at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

Links I liked

Lately I’ve been sending out link-roundups via my monthly Africa Update newsletter.  I thought I’d have a go at cross-posting them here as well.  Here’s what I found interesting in July.

West Africa: Aliko Dangote is building an oil refinery of staggering size in southern Nigeria.  Peugot will start assembling cars in northern Nigeria in 2019.  Here are 23 things to know before you to to Freetown.  Read about the Ghanaian paradox of rapid economic growth with continuing inequality and high unemployment.

Central Africa: A new report shows that conflict minerals legislation in the US didn’t reduce conflict in the DRC, but rather increased infant mortality rates as miners were thrown out of work.  Decentralization in the DRC may be changing the way that ethnic coalitions work in politics.  This was a strong piece of analysis about why the Congolese government has incentives to sign contracts for oil but not to allow companies to actually start drilling.

East Africa:  Read all about East Africa’s heroin coast.  Eritreans has been told that there will be time limits for national service, which currently involves a forcible recruitment process of unlimited duration.  Hostages are more likely to be released from Somali pirates when negotiators pay the pirates’ expenses, but not necessarily the whole ransom.  Peace deals in South Sudan keep failing because the SPLM still thinks it might win a military victory.  The latest edition of the Otherwise podcast addresses extrajudicial killings in poor Nairobi neighborhoods.  30,000 Kenyans are now homeless after the government demolished their houses in Kibera to make room for a new road.

Tweet from Shailja Patel reading "We don't need more roads. We need safe, efficient, zero-emissions, mass transit. We need good, humane, green, high-density public housing. We need universal access to renewable power, clean water, sanitation, free healthcare, free education."
Shailja Patel on the recent forced evictions in Nairobi

Southern Africa: Zimbabwe is re-opening its Literature Bureau to promote works in indigenous languages.  Lisez la légende retrouvée de Yasuke, un originaire de Moçambique qui est devenu le premier samouraï noir du Japon.  Angola has given legal recognition to a gay rights group.

A large suspension bridge with yellow, red and green lights projected on it
Africa’s longest suspension bridge is now open in Mozambique (via James Hall)

Politics and economics: You can now read the 2018 African Economic Outlook report in Kiswahili, Hausa and Arabic.  This was a refreshing take on Chinese investment in Africa, including the observations that many Chinese firms are risk averse and demand multiple types of insurance before they’ll take on new projects.  Don’t miss these engaging summaries of African researchers’ perspectives on peacebuilding, and this alternative economics reading list featuring work by women and people of color.

A map of Africa showing various legal limits on presidents' terms in office
Infographic on term limits via Facts About Africa

Taxes: Rwanda is using satellite data to increase collection of property taxes.  Read this in-depth post about how the Lagos state government launched a “wicked, satanic” attempt to change its land valuation practices in order to increase tax revenue.  Al-Shabaab is surprisingly good at collecting taxes.  This was a gripping read about the politicized dismantling of South Africa’s tax agency.

Women’s rights:  The mother of a Kenyan teenager who died after having a backstreet abortion is suing the government for not making the procedure accessible, as the Constitution requires.  Rwandan men are offering more support and autonomy for their wives after participating in workshops led by other men about the importance of women’s rights.  In the DRC, pharmacists often deny birth control to women who aren’t married.  Nigeria has its first tech accelerator exclusively focused on women’s start-ups.

Impact evaluation:  IDS is running a workshop on engaging evidence and policy for social change in January.  Submit your studies to the new African Education Research Database.  This was a good interview with Evidence Action about the political processes of scaling up pilot projects.  JPAL has published a new set of guidelines for measuring women’s empowerment.

Tweet from Dina Pomeranz reading "Amid lots of heading debates among development economists about many methodological issues, one debate seems glaringly absent: why is our discipline still so dominated by researchers without roots in developing countries, and what are we doing to change that?"
Important questions from Dina Pomeranz

Research:  “The uncomfortable truth is that some Western scholars too readily dismiss the intellectual labor of Global South partners to research assistance and facilitation.”  If you’re an African scientist, you can submit preprints of your work in local languages to the new open-source archive AfricArXiv.  Read this passionate critique of the idea that “there is no data in Africa,” then go check out the freely available data from the Sauti za Wananchi survey in Tanzania.  If you’re looking for survey research support in Kenya, one of my partner’s colleagues just founded Kenya Research Aid Services.  I’ve donated to send Rebeccah Wambui to present her work on reducing road deaths in Kenya at the International Youth Science Fair — please consider supporting her as well!

Arts and literature: This looks like a lovely documentary about the West African poets Syl Cheney-Coker and Niyi Osundare.  Here are five Sudanese books you should read.  Stream the forgotten films of Sudan online.  This piece considers the ethics and logistics of returning stolen Ethiopian artwork to its country of origin.  Don’t miss these African Instagrammers documenting the continent’s hidden hotspots.  Congratulations to Makena Onjerika for winning the 2018 Caine Prize for her short story “Fanta Blackcurrant”!

alvin
Stunning photos from Kenyan artist Kabutha Kago, via Alvin Abdullah

Twitter: Interesting people I followed recently include Yvonne Oduor (Kenya), Caroline Njuki (Kenya), Halimatou Hima (Niger), Zaahida Nabagereka (Uganda), Namata Serumaga-Musisi (Ghana), and Akosua Adomako Ampofo(Ghana).

Making x-centric less eccentric

Lant Pritchett’s latest post about the limits of randomized controlled trials in development economics has been making the rounds of the small universe of people who care deeply about randomized controlled trials for a few weeks.  His critique, of course, is that there’s a fad for examining whether “intervention X affects outcome Y” (or “x-centric” research), but researchers often give too little attention to whether the proposed intervention is feasible and cost-effective outside the context of an academic study.

This line of criticism isn’t new, and most people I know who do development RCTs would probably agree with it.  There’s a lot of work already underway to remedy some of these shortcomings.  To take several of Lant’s points in order:

“X-centric can become eccentric by being driven by statistical power.”  Lant’s point here is that many questions we might care about, such as why China grew so rapidly after the 1970s, or why some countries have better educational outcomes than others, aren’t amenable to randomization.  This is very obviously true, and I don’t know a single person who argues that RCTs are the only valid research method for every question in economics. As the graph below shows, RCTs are still a minority of all published research in the discipline. There’s also a lot of interesting case-based research that addresses these issues, although you sometimes have to go next door to political science to find it.  Two examples that come to mind are Douglass North, Jim Wallis, and Barry Weingast’s work on the institutional prerequisites for economic growth, or Stephen Kosack on the politics of education in Taiwan, Ghana and Brazil.

The image shows a graph demonstrating that RCTs are still a fraction of all published papers in most economics journalsGraph via David McKenzie

“X-centric can become eccentric by never asking how big.”  The idea here is that many published development RCTs have results which are statistically significant, but substantively small.  For example, a study might report the headline result that tutoring improves students’ test scores — but the substantive impact might only be a difference of one percentage point.  This is definitely a challenge, and I think it’s exacerbated by economists’ tendency to present their results to non-specialists using statistical terms of art (like standard deviations) rather than more straightforward measures (like percentage point changes in test scores).  One organization that is taking some good steps towards comparing impact size across interventions is AidGrade, which has built an online tool for anyone to carry out their own meta-analysis of aid effectiveness.

“X-centric can become eccentric by ignoring external validity.”  This is the issue addressed by Evidence in Governance and Politics’ Metaketa Initiative, which offers funding for clusters of studies which examine similar interventions in different countries.  Current projects focus on questions of information and accountability, taxation, natural resource governance, and community policing.  There are also one-off initiatives like IPA’s series of Ultra Poor Graduation pilots, which replicated the same social protection intervention in seven different countries.

“X-centric can become eccentric by ignoring implementation feasibility.”  I find this critique a bit curious because it assumes we know ex ante which types of interventions will or won’t work in a given context.  One could easily assume that it wouldn’t be possible to provide biometric identification for 99% of Indian citizens, or get 94% of children in Burundi into primary school — twenty percentage points higher than the regional average, in one of the poorest countries in Africa.  But there is a valid point here that simply knowing that an intervention is effective doesn’t automatically translate into the political will to implement it on a large scale.  Organizations like Evidence Action and Evidence Aid are tackling this challenge by working with governments and NGOs to share information about successful interventions and scale them up.  Rachel Glennerster and Mary Anne Bates of JPAL have also created a new framework for assessing when an intervention can be successfully scaled or used in different country contexts.

Cartographic literacy and the rise of Uber in Africa

uber

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.