This is the latest in a series of articles and illustrations from our new special edition publication New Cartography.  The magazine offers readers a fresh and alternative take on mapping the urban environment through a collection of articles and illustrations from a wide array of contributors. The complete magazine can be viewed here.

“Maps are pictures

Maps are self-portraits

Maps are manifestations of perceptions

Maps are portraits of the world in the manner

in which those preparing them would like the world to be understood

Maps are subjective Mapping is…an act of power”

(Jai Sen)

kiberailloresize

Dystopian tales of slums and informal settlements dominate predictions of Africa’s urban future, a future that will witness the final shift of human populations out of rural, agricultural life and into cities. In Mike Davis’ influential book ‘Planet of Slums’ he paints a cataclysmic future for urban Africa – he depicts “stinking mountains of shit”- with the majority of the population living in destitution, condemned to a life of misery. Whilst one may conceive urban space and its future to be rigid and intransigent, in reality it is quite the opposite, for cities are places of constant movement and change, not only of goods, services and population, but of power relations too. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the Map Kibera project, wherein community activists have begun to transform their much maligned urban environment into a space where they can tell their own stories and begin to write their futures on their own terms, rather than those told by the government and Kenyan media.

The etymology of the word ‘media’ suggests that it derives from the Latin word medius, meaning middle, which suggests two or more poles of engagement involved in the presentation and consumption of information.  Storytelling is the creation and interpretation of this middle space, and the commercialisation of media has moulded this middle space into the site of a capitalist transaction. Yet the sharing of information cannot be commodified and limited to something of commercial value, and communities like Kibera in Nairobi – a much demonised slum (and the second largest in Africa), are transforming the relationship between the media and themselves. In the process they are challenging the relations of power that are entangled in the exclusionary networks that control access to information today.

In October 2009, Map Kibera was set up by Erica Hagen and Mikel Maron who, with funding from Jumpstart International, employed 30 young Kiberan residents to begin a project in response to a lack of available map data for the slum, with the aim of breaking down the preconceptions about the area whilst providing a service to their community – a community that has remained invisible in mainstream maps of Nairobi. Ironically perhaps, in government maps Kibera is designated as a forest, and Kibera translates as ‘forest’ in the Kinubi language, the language of the Nubian people who populate Kibera. Whilst the Nubians were the original inhabitants of Kibera and retain various ‘village’ forms of community – the Council of Elders dominates many social spaces – a new generation of young technologically proficient young Kiberans, have begun to reconfigure the famous Situationist apophthegm of ‘the beach beneath the street‘ into the more locally appropriate ‘the forest beneath the street’ through the Map Kibera project.

Map Kibera was founded on the premise that “the advent of the digital age means that gatekeepers to information and data can often be bypassed or ignored completely, allowing for a new and sometimes parallel information system to be created and used by marginalized citizens” (Map Kibera wiki). The initial mapping phase (Phase 1) begun in October 2009, when they recruited 13 young people from Kibera, one from each of the component Kiberan villages. After just two days of training in the use of the GPS devices – Garmin eTrex handheld receivers – the volunteers spent the next three weeks mapping their home villages. To ensure a dynamic, community-relevant map, the data did not become a stand-alone map but an open-source crowd-sourced map hosted by OpenStreetMap. Those involved soon realised that to reach their broader vision for the project – to catalyse an engaged community centered around open and shared information, stories and knowledge – they needed to integrate the map with local media. Phase 1 concluded that: “Geo-located citizen journalism could provide a comprehensive picture of the local reality and support the achievement of community goals “. This became the focus of Phase 2, which ran from February to August 2010.

Phase 2 began to engage in “issue-based mapping and PPGIS community forums”, meaning that this open source map now mapped water sources, toilets, health centres, barbers, schools and community centres rather than just the boundaries of the territory and the component villages – extending the project from just mapping topography to ‘mapping real life’. A team of Kiberan youths were also trained in the use of Flip cameras and editing software, so they are now able to cover news events of their own, choosing and broadcast them on the Kibera News Network. Map Kibera has also collaborated with the Voice of Kibera (http://voiceofkibera.org), to create a community reporting program, to report things like musical events and yoga training but also rapes and deaths. Kiberan residents are able to report news via SMS; texts with the keyword “Kibera” appear on the Voice of Kibera website, creating a dynamic and constantly evolving news station.

By removing maps from “a set of privileged positions or from accustomed framework of use…there is greater latitude to get whatever exists in the market [i.e. maps] into more expansive circulation” (Mapkibera.org), and the young population sees the project as breaking down the exclusionary networks of globalised information, allowing residents to engage and participate in the geographical information.

Kibera is repeatedly castigated in the mainstream Kenyan media – particularly in the two biggest selling Kenyan newspapers – Daily Nation and Standard – resulting in a “distorted spotlight” (Mapkibera.org) being cast on the slum. Their coverage of Kibera depicts ‘lawlessness’, ‘chaos’ and ‘anarchy’. Whilst Kibera was indeed unplanned, it in fact is a “rational response to a dysfunctional scenario” (Mapkibera.org) – an unplanned, often sporadic settlement but one with its own laws and logics. As Edward Said noted, we “acquire emotional and even rational sense by a kind of poetic process”. Map Kibera is indeed this ‘poetic process’, a live dialogue with the city, a process not abstract and deconstructed, but human and dynamic – as encapsulated in the Map Kibera mission statement:

“Without basic knowledge of the geography and resources of Kibera it is impossible to have an informed discussion on how to improve the lives of residents”
(Mapkibera.org)

Such a localised attempt to bring geographical information into common ownership is challenging the orthodox approach to Africa’s so-called dystopian urban nightmare and what it will mean to be a ‘wholly urban species’. What the Map Kibera project shows us is that the urban future of Africa does not have to be one of poverty and misery. Through the creation of a crowd-sourced map and the spread and sharing of news the Kiberan community has acquired an ownership of information, meaning that there are no barriers to the access of information.

The growth of the project will be key as it will embolden community activists from the poorest communities across the world to challenge the power relations surrounding access to information in the digital age and begin to tell their own stories. This means that Mike Davis’s ‘Planet of Slums’ does not have to be a profound negative, a ‘Planet of Slums’ could in fact be a global network of community activists, participating in the affairs of their communities through participatory media and politics. Indeed, mapping is and continues to be an act of power, one that can give voice to the most marginalised communities across the world.

Illustration by Mina Milk

The article was commissioned by The New Wolf for New Cartography – an IdeasTap-sponsored magazine. A further article on the topic of the urban environment and the possible ways to solve the unease we experience within it can be found here