Wongonyi and the first map from scratch

Two years ago I embarked on my first freelance mapping adventure in Africa. Prior to my arrival in Kenya in 2009, I connected with Ronald Mdawida, co-director of Kosmos Solutions International, a small NGO operating in both Taita Hills and the slums of Nairobi. Once in Kenya, I had time on my hands. I met with Ronnie, and, armed with little more than a GPS unit and a computer, traveled to his home village of Wongonyi, located near the Kenyan coast in Taita Hills.

Taita Hills, Wongonyi Village

The villages in the area didn’t, and still don’t, have electricity. After talking to the local chief in the area we (or rather he) made a plan to map the entirety of Wongonyi Sublocation, which consists of five villages. I decided to map all the individual houses, public buildings and other amenities in these villages (such as water points, etc.).  I had no idea what to expect, but I was eager to see what the data on the completed map would reveal.  Unfamiliar with the local landscape, I asked my guide Isaiah to draw me a sketch of the area.

Hand drawn by Isaiah vs. GPS tracks

In the beginning the task didn’t seem very large, but I was quickly overwhelmed. The area was vast (something the sketch didn’t reveal) and rough, and the sun was relentless. In the first couple of days, I got blisters on my ears because I didn’t wear a hat and on my feet from walking too much, and I was exhausted because of heat, the hight and the tough terrain. While the terrain slowed our progress immensely, there was another, more unexpected repeating occurrence that threw up a roadblock – the kindness of the Wongonyi people. Every time we stopped to map the location of a house, we had to stop for tea, or lunch or snacks, talk about our work, old times, weather, or life in general. This slowed us down significantly, sometimes for hours. Because of this, Isaiah and I developed a technique to minimize the time spent at each house: we would make sure no one saw us, sneak from the bush, take a GPS point, draw a quick sketch, and sneak back into the jungle. It was all out guerrilla mapping.

After a month, the map started coming together piece by piece. The terrain played an important role in the area, and throughout fieldwork, I considered how to represent it. I knew the map wouldn’t be complete without it.

I uploaded all of my data onto Open Street Map, switched on a layer option called Cycle Map, and took a series of screenshots of the area. Next, I opened the shape files of the same area in ArcGIS and used those shape files as the base layer. I imported the screenshots, glued them together and georeferenced them. Then, I digitized over the pictures; this produced contour lines, which I later used on the finished map (see below).

Digitizing contour lines

Since all the contour lines had height attributed to them, it was just a small step further to create a 3D presentation of the region; this was done by Thomas Chapman, a South African architect friend of mine, who was able to use this 3D map for planing purposes in the area.

3D presentation of Wongonyi area

This trip to Wongonyi was my first encounter with African rural life, and I spent a lot of time learning about the daily hardships residents face. The roads into and out of the area are at times impassable.  Public facilities, when they exist, are underfunded. There are few jobs, and alcoholism is a big problem. It saddened me to see the friends I had made encounter such obstacles on a regular basis.

The Wongonyi experience was also very important for my personal development: I began to develop my own method of participatory mapping, I became inspired to create my first blog, and I learned lessons that would prepare me for the work I was about to embark on in the crowded informal settlements of Nairobi.

Below you can see the finished map and here are some of the pictures of Wongonyi from my Flickr photo stream.

Wongonyi final map
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