Parallels
11:59 pm
Tue July 16, 2013

In Kenya, Using Tech To Put An 'Invisible' Slum On The Map

Originally published on Wed July 17, 2013 5:56 pm

If you were to do a search for the Nairobi city slum of Mathare on Google Maps, you'd find little more than gray spaces between unmarked roads.

Slums by nature are unplanned, primordial cities, the opposite of well-ordered city grids. Squatters rights rule, and woe to the visitor who ventures in without permission. But last year, a group of activist cartographers called the Spatial Collective started walking around Mathare typing landmarks into hand-held GPS devices.

In a slum with no addresses and no street names, they are creating a map of what it's like to live here.

Their map includes things like informal schools, storefront churches and day care centers, but also dark corners with no streetlights, illegal dumping grounds and broken manholes. They bring the most urgent problems to the attention of the authorities.

Slum mapper Isaac Mutisya, whom everyone calls Kaka, says they have actually been able to get a few streetlights built. And it's always the map that makes the difference.

"Because it's technology, it can shame some of the people," he says. "Like, 'Why didn't you put up a light there when we told you that this area is dangerous?' "

We think of GPS maps as guides. They are the sometimes annoying, always calm, recorded voice in our car that steers us through unfamiliar places. But maps are also public records that can help slum dwellers negotiate with city authorities.

A Global Movement

The slum-mapping movement started in India about a decade ago and more recently migrated to Africa. The idea is to make slums a reality for people who would never set foot in one.

A map can be entered as evidence in court to stop evictions. It can be reprinted by international advocacy groups to raise awareness. It can be presented to city planners, as a puzzle to be solved.

Emily Wangari is a member of Slum Dwellers International. She invites me into her one-room house. Pigeons dance on her roof — an entrepreneurial side project of her neighbor's son — and send tremors through Wangari's only light bulb.

To picture the astonishing map she unfolds on her lap, imagine a satellite photo of your hometown and trace lines around all the houses and buildings: What you'd get on the tracing paper would be squares and rectangles surrounded by space — the space being the lawns and parks and roads.

But Wangari's map looks more like a mad game of Tetris. Blocks of every shape are jammed in together with no space between, except narrow pathways following the trails of open sewers. And every year these narrow streets get narrower still, as people expand their houses farther into the walkway.

"People take that as an advantage of just widening their house," she says. If there's any extra public space, people take it for their own.

If Kaka's map, the Spatial Collective map, is a map of city neglect, Wangari's map describes life in a slum where the idea of public space has no enforceable authority. You'll find no parks, no playgrounds, no breathing room.

Helping Slum Dwellers Negotiate

This year Wangari did use her map to briefly claim some communal space. The story is this: After years of grass-roots activism, the city of Nairobi finally agreed to pipe in municipal water and sell it at public collection points for a half a penny on the gallon. But when the city workers went to lay the pipes, the place was so crowded they couldn't actually find enough space for their shovels.

So Wangari had to go around telling people to move parts of their houses. But then she pulled out her map, showed people where their houses were and assured them they could get their space back.

"We had to tell people, 'Move your structure a bit so the [water] line can pass. But you are assured, of building back. Yeah, when the line passes you'll build back,' " she says.

It's the kind of guarantee that never gets granted in this slum. Amazingly, people accepted. The water line was laid. It was as if in a place where no one has a legal right to anything and everything is claimed by force, the map provided some assurance — if not of actual ownership, then at least of a shared record of the past that allowed people to plan together for the future.

Knowing Your 'Spot'

In the storage room of an Internet cafe that the Spatial Collective uses for its office, I watch Kaka and the other slum mappers play idly with their GPS devices. In nine clicks, they zoom out the view broader and broader to encompass Nairobi city, then Kenya, then Africa, then the globe. Kaka laughs when I point out his habit.

"It's good to know where your spot — where your spot is in the world," he says, shrugging.

And the more time he spends looking at his home through the lens of the GPS, the more he can't shake the sense that the outside world is finally looking back.

"With the GPS if you mark a point, you know that there's someone out there who will get the information that there's a something happening here — or that there's me here," he says, with a sheepish chuckle.

While basic inadequacies and deep uncertainty still define the life here, he says, the days when some unscrupulous developer could send arsonists in at night and erase all traces of a community seem to be fading into the past. Among residents, there's a growing sense that in seeing their slum from the satellite level, from 10,000 miles up, they are starting to take their city out of the shadows.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We've been bringing you stories about cities and technology, as part of the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: If other cities can do it, we can do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is an old city, but we are on the latest technologies.

GREENE: A billion people around the world live in slums and today, we're exploring how satellite-mapping technology is changing some of their lives. Squatters rights rule in these place. People and their living conditions are largely invisible to city services and governments. But a global movement is putting mapping technology in the hands of slum dwellers. It's helping to persuade local governments, and even the residents themselves, to see these shadow cities in a new light. NPR's Gregory Warner takes us on a tour of a slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: If you were to do a search for the Nairobi city slum of Mathare on Google Maps, you'd find little more there than gray spaces between unmarked roads. Up close, when you're actually in Mathare, it's just as difficult to fathom.

Tell me where we're standing right now.

ISAAC MUTISYA: Yeah, we are on a balcony on a building. Actually, it's a second-floor building.

WARNER: Looking down from this angle, my guide, Isaac Mutisya, who everyone here calls Kaka, directs my attention to one spot in a flat sea of corrugated tin roofs.

MUTISYA: I used to live down there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CROWING)

WARNER: The place where he was born is somewhere near that communal toilet.

MUTISYA: You can see a small door.

WARNER: OK, yeah. OK. A little bit of a concrete structure there. All right.

MUTISYA: Down there, there's a - I live - one of the houses down there.

WARNER: Slums by nature are unplanned, primordial cities - the opposite of well-ordered city grids. But last year, Kaka joined a local group of activist cartographers called the Spatial Collective; walking around these unchartered streets, punching into GPS devices. Back down at street level, we meet another member of this slum-mapping collective. His name is Francis Wambua.

So if we were walking down this street and you were doing the mapping right now, what would you be typing into your GPS?

FRANCIS WAMBUA: OK. What we'd be typing in our GPS, it's like the security light.

WARNER: Security light right here.

WAMBUA: And in the GPS, write the security light; and we get the waypoint.

WARNER: In a slum with no addresses and no street names, they're creating a map of what it's like to live here. So it includes schools and churches and day care centers; but also dark corners with no streetlights, illegal dumping grounds, broken manholes. And then they bring those problems to the attention of the authorities.

MUTISYA: Because it's technology, it can shame some of the people. Like, why didn't you put up a light there, and they told you that this area is dangerous?

WARNER: We tend to think of maps as guides. But maps are also public records that in this case, help slum dwellers negotiate with city authorities. And they can even help those residents negotiate with each other.

EMILY WANGARI: My name is Emily Wangari. Welcome to Mathare, Village 1, Kiamutisya settlement.

(SOUNDBITE OF WINGS FLAPPING)

WARNER: Emily invites me into her one-room house. The sound you hear is the dance of pigeons on her roof. Her neighbor's son is raising the birds; they send tremors through her only light bulb. Emily is part of a separate mapping project in Mathare, set up by Slum Dwellers International. Instead of GPS, they're using satellite photos.

WANGARI: These are now the images that are taken by the satellite. You see? Now, my walk is to identify this house.

WARNER: To picture the astonishing map she unfolds on her lap, imagine a satellite photo of your own hometown, and then trace lines around all the houses and buildings. What you'd get on the tracing paper would be squares and rectangles surrounded by space - the space being the lawns and the parks and the roads. But Emily's map looks more like a mad game of Tetris. Blocks of all shapes are jammed in together, with no space between except for narrow pathways following the trails of open sewers.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND STREET NOISES)

WARNER: OK, so we're turning off the main road, as we call it, into a - sort of a side alley.

And every year, these narrow streets get even narrower still, as people expand their houses further into the walkway.

WANGARI: People are taking that as an advantage, of just widening your house.

WARNER: Meaning if there's any extra public space, people will take it for their own.

WANGARI: Yeah.

WARNER: And everybody's trying to do that.

WANGARI: Yeah.

WARNER: If Kaka's map - the first map we saw - is a map of city neglect, then Emily's map describes life in a slum where the idea of public space has no enforceable authority. And so you'll find no parks, no playgrounds, no breathing room. But this year, Emily used her map to briefly claim some communal space. The story goes like this; that after years of grassroots activism, the city of Nairobi finally agreed to pipe in municipal water and sell it at public collection points for a half a penny on the gallon. But when the city workers went to lay the pipes, the place was so crowded that they couldn't actually find enough space for their shovels.

WANGARI: This structure, you see, it is - the line was here. That structure had to move so that the line can pass.

WARNER: So Emily had to go around telling people to move part of their house. But then, she pulled out her map. She showed people where their house was, and then she assured them they could get their space back.

WANGARI: We had to tell people to move your structure a bit so that water can pass. But you are assured of building back. Yeah, when the line passes, you'll build back.

WARNER: That's the kind of guarantee that never gets granted in a slum. Amazingly, people accepted. The water line was laid, as if in a place where no one has a legal right to anything and everything's claimed by force, the map provided some assurance; if not of actual ownership, then at least of a shared record of the past that allowed people to plan together for the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

WARNER: OK. So we're now going back to your office. So hopefully, the power's on.

We're back with Kaka and Francis in the storage room off an Internet cafe that the Spatial Collective uses for their office. Kaka says the more time he spends with this project looking at his home through the lens of the GPS, the more he can't shake the sense that the outside world is finally looking back.

MUTISYA: With the GPS, if you mark a point, you know that there's someone out there who will get the information that there's something happening - you know, there's me, here. (Laughing)

WARNER: Someone out there will know that he's here. That's not just a poetic idea. It's a political strategy; for maps to make slums a reality for those people who would never set foot in one. So a map can be entered as evidence in court, to stop evictions. It can be reprinted by international advocacy groups, to raise awareness. It can be presented to city planners, as a puzzle to be solved.

All this is happening now, with maps in Nairobi. And while basic inadequacies and deep uncertainties still define the life here, the days when some unscrupulous developer could send arsonists in at night and erase all traces of the community, seem to be fading into the past. Among residents, there's a growing sense that in seeing their slum from the satellite - from 10,000 miles up - they're starting to take their city out of the shadows.

In Nairobi, this is Gregory Warner for the NPR Cities Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And you can find all our stories on urban innovation at NPR.org/NPRCities. You can also follow the project on Twitter @NPRCities. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.