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

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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

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Celebrating the work of James Barnor, one of the first photographers to work with color film in Ghana

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sleeping-sickness-and-political-trends-in-uganda

  • Now that I’m back in Accra I’ve been re-listening to some of the songs I had on repeat during my first long stay in Ghana in 2010.  Two of my favorites: The Very Best‘s “Kada Manja,” and Anbuley‘s bizarre, hypnotic video for “Kemo’ Yoo Keke.”

Decolonizing African studies

7d6b2c5811e643cbfabcaedbda3372bf(Source)

The team at Democracy in Africa has done a major public service by putting together a very long reading list of articles on African issues by African scholars.  I’m reproducing it here.  If you need access to a gated article, just let me know and I’ll see if I can get it through Berkeley.  Other useful resources include the Oxford Bibliographies list for African studies and African Journals Online.

The politics of urban renewal in Kampala

tro tro rank

Main taxi park, Kampala.  (All photos in this post by me)

Tom Goodfellow recently shared a link to one of the best pieces I’ve seen in a long time about the politics of urban change in Africa.   It appears that the entire article might not be available to readers who aren’t on Twitter, so I’ve excerpted some key parts here.  Do read the whole thing if you can.

The article begins with a deep dive into the workings of the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), a recently created governing body which has raised tax revenues by 89% over five years and begun cleaning up the city — but at the cost of increased tax burdens for small businesses and ordinary citizens.

“It’s a significant achievement,” says Roland White, global lead for city management, governance and financing at the World Bank. “I’m just not aware of any other big African city which has done what Kampala has done in proportional terms.”

… Last year Global Credit Ratings, a South African agency, gave Kampala an “A” rating for its long-term debt, which could pave the way for a municipal bond issue. There is some way to go yet, but if a bond materializes it would be a first for Uganda, and a rare sight in Africa more generally: a symbol that Kampala has got its finances in order and is open for investment.

But for all the plaudits, much of that extra revenue has been squeezed from … taxi drivers and small businesses, who are struggling to get by. Many Kampalans feel disempowered by reform. The KCCA’s powerful executive director is appointed directly by the president, and overseen by a Minister for Kampala in cabinet. While the authority’s technocratic vim excites international experts, it alienates the locals. “The KCCA doesn’t listen,” says Naswif Kiggundu, a trader. “They do each and every thing from the top.”

tropical bank

Old meets new at Tropical Bank on Kampala Road

The local politics of tax reform are connected to national debates as well.  The current mayor has become known not just for his opposition to KCCA’s new taxes but for his broader stance against Yoweri Museveni’s 30-year rule as well.

The avatar of this bubbling discontent is Erias Lukwago, a populist lawyer who was elected as Lord Mayor in 2011. He demanded a tax refund for traders, refused to approve the taxi fee and was arrested while protesting the eviction of vendors from one of the taxi parks. His posturing predictably irked the KCCA’s executive director, Jennifer Musisi, a hard-nosed technocrat dubbed the “iron lady’” by local press. …

“He’s our mayor, not their mayor,” says one driver, who didn’t want to be named. In part, Lukwago owes his popularity to national politics: He has promised to “dismantle the dictatorship” of Uganda’s long-time president, Yoweri Museveni, who is widely loathed in Kampala. But he also articulates a radical notion of accountability, which directly challenges the KCCA’s appointed officials. …
Opposition protests are quenched with tear gas. Plans to redevelop markets, ban street vendors and register boda bodas (motorbike taxis) have all met resistance. When it comes to revenue collection, the KCCA’s approach to enforcement is seen as arbitrary and unforgiving — a “witch hunt,” in the words of Kennedy Okello, a newly elected councilor.

KCCA officials deny any unfairness. “I don’t see why someone who is upright fears the regulations,” says Sam Sserunkuuma, director of revenue collection. The traders and taxi drivers do not own the city, he adds, listing the services from street cleaning to hospitals that their fees help to fund.

downtown

Downtown viewed from Kifumbira

A more straightforward revenue solution would be to tax property or land, but existing regulations and infrequent property valuations make this difficult.

For Kampala, an effective property tax is the Holy Grail. “It should be the main revenue source,” says Sam Sserunkuuma, KCCA director of revenue collection: He reckons the city could triple the amount it currently collects.

But tax officials are groping in the dark. The last property valuation was done in 2005, and revised in 2009. Though rental values have tripled in a decade, none of the gains have reached city coffers. New buildings like Acacia Mall do not officially exist.

World Bank support is helping the KCCA to compile a database of buildings, using geographic information system (GIS) technology. When the mapping is complete, tax officials plan to apply a rough valuation of each property based on its location — a cheaper alternative to individual assessments.

There is one snag. Owner-occupied houses are exempt from property tax, following a cynical promise by the President during the 2006 elections. They make up 53 percent of all eligible properties, so the resulting losses are huge. Sserunkuuma describes the law as a “headache”: His officials have to traipse around town, verifying how buildings are being used. It also creates loopholes for tax evaders to exploit.

But only central government has the power to scrap the exemption. The KCCA’s best efforts have so far failed to coax a law change from Uganda’s self-interested politicians, who recently passed a bill to exempt themselves from income tax.

kampala hillsPosh green yards sit next to informal housing near Kololo

The steps that Kampala has taken towards urban renewal are part of a broader trend across the continent.  But across the board, political challenges remain.

All over Africa, cities puzzle over the same conundrums. Rwanda has a new electronic land register, which could help with taxation. Several Tanzanian cities have plumped up their revenues through canny administrative reforms. Lagos, in Nigeria, has patiently cultivated a tax-paying culture, with impressive results.

The lingering question, in Kampala and elsewhere, is who will bear the biggest burden. So far, at least, the wealthy properties on the city’s breezy hilltops have been relatively untouched by reform. “It’s much easier to go after the small guy,” says Nansozi Muwanga of Makerere University. “It’s much easier to after the taxi driver, the lady who brings her green peppers on the sidewalk, the person who’s selling Chinese clogs.”