How the Earth got blown to the Heavens in Mathare

Graffiti in Mathare

The Map Kibera crew was just about to leave Mathere after the meeting with the representatives of Rebel Film Board, and while waiting for a Matatu to take us back to town a freakish tornado appeared out of nowhere. The wind first started blowing as a gentle breeze coming up from Mathare slum. The breeze started picking up speed and with it dust and sand. And then all of a sudden, from behind the building on our right, a massive burst of wind came from the opposite direction of Eastleigh. It was a head on collision of winds which got entangled in a crazy dance for prevalence, creating an opportunity to take some cool photos and all the dust of the slum (and God knows what else) to settle on our lungs.

From Mathare


From Eastleigh


More Dancing


The End
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Mapping Flood Damage in Kibera


Heavy Rains

A couple of months ago, a series of storms caused havoc in Kibera. Our team was taking a much needed vacation at the Kenyan coast, and while we were sipping gin and tonic and absorbing the sun and endless blue sky, the people of Kibera were battling against rather less favorable weather up on the high plain of Nairobi. As our team returned to Nairobi, we received a call from the United Nations OCHA Kenya: “We heard there was some flooding in Kibera and Mathare, and since you have a presence there, we’d like you to go and check it out.” We had no idea. So I called one of our mappers, Hasan, and he confirmed the whole thing.

The area where Kibera is located is very hilly. It’s made up of a group of drainage areas intersected by 5 streams, which eventually end up in Nairobi dam. During heavy rains the runoff water travels over the surface of the slum and ends up in the streams. These become overflowing, raging currents, grinding everything in their way, washing away houses, paths, garbage and people.

Hasan and I went to check out the damage and collect information. I was overwhelmed. This was a major incident which should trigger massive coverage, but went almost unnoticed, even by us. There were more than 50 houses severely damaged, displacing the inhabitants. One school was completely swept away. Walking calmly, I didn’t even notice anything in particular, until Hasan suddenly pointed out that I was standing where only days ago a school had been. Not even the foundations were visible anymore.

Damaged objects down the stream

We started collecting data points of all the damaged objects, which were mostly located on the banks of the slum’s streams. In a testimony to Kibera’s obstinate spirit, many of the damaged objects were already being repaired and rebuilt. The paths inside the slum, too, were being fixed by groups of young volunteers. People organized themselves without waiting for any kind of help or intervention from the outside. Had it not been for Hasan pointing out the repair activity among the usual busy scene of Kibera, I may not even have noticed this almost organic reaction of the slum to its wounds.

We decided that we’re not going to take the position of every damaged and rebuilt object across the slum, because it would take too much time, and we had a tight deadline. We focused on the primary damage along the streams, since we could still upgrade the information if needed, depending on the feedback. In order to collect the information as fast as possible, Hasan organized his friends around Kibera to go and look around their communities and try to figure out the extent of the damage inflicted by nature’s fury. Within two days we had an in-depth map of the extent of the damage for OCHA.

This project showed me couple of things:

-The importance of having local people on the ground, trained in data collection, which can be activated at any time. Because of this, the time in which information was available to OCHA was shortened to only a couple of days.

-The information on repaired objects could be used to make a case for compensations.

-Visibility matters: Even major events with many deaths and widespread destruction can go mostly unnoticed by the outside world when they affect marginalized places like Kibera. Recording information on damage, be it on a map or through local newscasts and papers, is the crucial first step to mobilize help in support of the local community.

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Steps into mapping the unmapped (rural focus) – Mapping on Mount Elgon


Figuring out where to go.

Mapping hardly accessible, rural areas, is always a challenge. Each area differs so you have to tackle it in its own special way. Yet some basic steps are always the same. I have written some of them down.

In July, Mildred and I went mapping on Mount Elgon as contractors for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on behalf of Map Kibera. They needed information regarding polling stations in the area for their work on election monitoring. The information included geographic location, accessibility – both physical accessibility and the availability of cell phone service, information related to infrastructure of these stations, and speed of travel to each individual station.

Here is how we tackled the problems step by step:

1. Season planning.

The first and most important step in planning the mapping project is season planning. Obviously you want your work to run smoothly, without too many interruptions which is most of the time not the case. Season planning saves time, energy, money and nerves, takes the nature out of the equation, and lets you focus on other – project related problems.

While mapping on Mount Elgon we overlooked this very crucial step because the results were urgently needed. In an ignorant human and naïve researchers manner we  thought we could conquer nature or at least go over every obstacle it put on our way. We should have known better. June and July being the peak of winter, it was cold and raining all the time. We only had a window of six hours per day when we could work, and the other eight hours we tried to save ourselves from the mountain. Because of the rain, roads became impassable and everything came to a standstill. I can comfortably say we lost at least two to three days of mapping because of the rain and as a result we lost money.


Pushing the motorbike up the rain soaked hill.

2. Try to acquire existing maps or make people create them from memory.

Acquiring maps of the project area is the next important step. It helps you plan your routes, which areas you want to conquer and in what way, and it also gives a rough estimate of time you will spend conducting your work, etc. Many times while mapping remote, marginalized areas you don’t have pre-existing maps because you will probably be the first one crazy enough who will try to create them. If you can’t find any maps of the area, there is one very usefull trick you can do: make people draw the map from memory. This produces amazingly accurate and helpful rezults. Amazing in a way that people who rarely see maps or who have never seen a map create very detailed and precise drawings – maps – of their sorroundings from memory.

We didn’t really have any pre-existing maps of the area to work with before going to the mountain. There are no maps of the area and even though the NDI had a map of polling stations in the area, there was no road network on the map. This time around I didn’t ask people to draw me a map as I did on the other occasions (example below: Wongonyi) because the area was too big – roughly 400 square kilometers.


Drawn vs. Mapped
Map of Wongonyi drawn by Isaiah from memory vs. GPS tracks

3. Get contacts in the area prior to your arrival.

If possible make contacts in the area prior to your arrival, that way you recruit people for the cause even before you arrive. This step is called: “smooth landing”.

I contacted a friend of mine, Stephen, whose family lives in the area. He gave me his brothers’ telephone number. He also called his brother and made him aware of my arrival.  His brother than informed community leaders and at the time of my arrival the wheels were already turning.

4. Meet community leaders.

Make community leaders aware of your presence in the area and the tasks you are trying to achieve. Tell them about your needs. Make a plan on the sequence of mapping – which areas to tackle first and so on. They will serve as a connecting line to the community; provide guides, accommodation, transportation, and information. Keep them up to date with the problems you encounter.

Aaron from NDI and I met community leaders on the first day. Aaron did some explaining around the project, while I talked about the technical issues. They set us up with two drivers who also served as guides, planned the first reconnaissance of the area, and set me up in a guest house. Next day I was able to start working.

5. Find a guide who knows the area and the people.

This is probably the most crucial step. You need a really reliable person while moving through uncharted waters – which by the way are his playground since he was a child. The guide needs to know the project in depth as he will serve as an interpreter, guide, and guard. Pay all his costs and give him a daily salary – pay him a little extra to make him happy and motivated – it pays off!


The community leaders set us up with two really classy guys. Obviously they know the people there and know who is reliable and basically who is right for the job. I couldn’t be happier with the guys I was to spend the next week mapping the mountain with. Their names were Philip and Joseph. Philip was an ex policeman who knew the mountain, the history and the people inside and out. Joseph was his side kick also familiar with the surroundings. We went through some really tough times – always with a smile on our faces (I was smiling only after crying).

6. Go to a local bar and have a beer.

Next step is a bit unconventional but is the way I do things. Go to a local bar, meet people, have a beer or two or three (three is better), buy a beer or two or three (three is again better), relax, show people what an awesome person you are (of course you are!), relate to them, talk to them about the project, hear them out what they have to say about it. If the chiefs haven’t informed the people about your presence yet, this way everybody knows you by the next morning and you’ve gained the support of the community – guaranteed.

This was easy because Philip wasn’t just an awesome guy who knew everybody and had the upmost respect of the fellow Elgon dwellers, he also owned the only bar which served alcohol in the area. We were ready to set sail.

7. Go for it. Map!

Map like crazy! Take notes, pictures and videos of road conditions, infrastructure you are mapping, and events you encounter on the way. Talk to representatives of these institutions, talk to people, get additional information, and write everything down!


And so we did just that. We mapped until there was nothing left to map. No seriously, there is always more to map, so let me correct myself: we were mapping until we finished our part of the deal. Mapping itself was by no means smooth, it was interrupted on a daily basis by rain and too much sun and then rain again, and occasional mob justice (this story is on my other post – the horror stories and nightmare tales), and dancing or singing coming from the bush, and punctured tires and falling from the motorcycle, and … But we moved on despite all the obstacles and we mapped, and we looked at what we created, and it was good. And on the eighth day we rested.

8. Write a working diary.

Each day after work write your observations into a working diary. Save all the data and prepare for the next day.

That is something I never do, and I really should. It makes a difference between a good and a mediocre mapper/cartographer. Ha, whatever, no it doesn’t. I think it’s very time consuming and that it’s very nerdy. Taking notes while you’re on the go is one thing but a diary – you must be crazy. But if you’re working on a long term project and you think you will not be able to remember every small detail, than by all means do it!

Notes/Working Diary

9. Present the results to the community.

In the end present the drafted results to the community and talk about it. Collect all the feedback; listen to what people have to say.

I met with community leaders and all interested parties couple of times. I showed them the drafted maps, again explained the importance of the project, and thanked them for all their help, time and patience. And afterwards we drank beers again. I looked at the work we did and the people I met, and the friendships which were born and again I realized how rewarding this kind of work is.


Presenting the results to the community
Presenting the results to the community

10.  Finish your work.

Make a map or whatever the hell you’re doing in a reasonable time period. Talk to Mikel why uploading everything into OpenStreetMap doesn’t hurt. Here is my example of Mount Elgon.

11.  Stay in touch.

Staying in touch reassures the people that your work will benefit them somehow. You will also be doing a favor to all the people that will be focusing their work later in that same area. Nobody ever expects you to return or to stay in touch. It’s rude not too. People get the feeling that they were used and forgotten. Make occasional phone calls, links to your work, etc. It doesn’t hurt.

To wrap it up. In a nutshell: Good preparations makes a difference! Community envolvement makes a BIG diference! And the most important thing: You are a visitor to this places – let them lead you. Embrace the knowledge the people have about the place – geographically and culturally – and grow.

Good luck and have fun mapping. I’m out!

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