Maps are political. They reflect their makers and the eras they are made in. They can lie, they can mislead, and they can promote a certain ideology or worldview (quite literally). This point is very well made in a piece by James Wan in ThinkAfricaPress today. Wan focuses on how Google Maps – today’s go-to map for billions of people each day – has little interest in Africa, and how that can have a fundamental impact on how the continent is seen and interpreted.
“We can imagine that if all of Google’s data and programming ability was suddenly in the hands of a Namibian agriculturalist, a Sahelian nomad or a Senegalese fisherwoman, the maps they would conjure up would be completely different,” Wan writes. “They might well prioritise soil types over Starbucks, wells over Walmarts and the state of land degradation over panoramic streetviews of American towns. But we can only imagine. As was the case a century ago, it is still just a small group of Western individuals with specific ideas of the world that have the resources to map the world.”
Wan’s piece made me think of a curious map of Africa that I bought from a street vendor in Arusha, Tanzania last year. Entitled A New Political Map of Africa, it’s published by Tourist Maps Kenya. The map gives no indication of when it was printed, but the fact that the USSR, Yugoslavia, and a divided Yemen are featured, suggests it was made sometime before the 1990s.
And this is where it gets interesting: the map features – as an independent state – South Sudan (spelled Southren Sudan), a country that only gained independence in 2011. Western Sahara is also indicated as independent, although it’s been under Moroccan occupation since the 1970s. Finally there is Cabinda, formerly Portuguese Congo and now formally a part of Angola despite being cut off from the country by the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cabinda has been fighting for independence pretty much since de-colonisation in 1970s, to date to no avail (probably because some of the largest off-shore oil fields in the world are adjacent to its coast). Put plainly: none of the three states were independent ‘sometime before the 1990s’.
Which leaves us with questions; When was this map made? By who? And why? My best guess is that it was made in the 70s or 80s by someone supporting and believing in African struggles for independence and de-colonisation. (Interestingly though it seems it’s still being sold – I reckon an e-mail to Tourism Maps Kenya is in order…)
So while Wan is right – most maps are still made by a small group of Westerners – there are also beautiful maps out there made by people who believe in alternative futures. And there is a way to combat the seeming omnipotence of Google Maps: start contributing to OpenStreetMap, an openly licensed map of the world being created by volunteers using local knowledge.