Sunday, August 21, 2016

Charting the Uncharted

In the summer of 2000, I made my second visit to Brazil, and the first visit with my family. We had spent the night in a small hotel in the center of Porto Velho, and my friend Miguel was driving us to his house on the edge of the city, where I had spent three months in 1996. I will never forget his words to Pam as we made our way through the sometimes bumpy roads of the city: "Excuse me, I live on the periphery of the periphery of the periphery."

Miguel is a literary scholar, but he has a keen grasp of geography as well. His first periphery refers to Brazil's position as a zone of extraction in Wallerstein's world-system model. His second periphery is Rondônia's position on the edge of that country -- both in terms of its physical location and in terms of the domination of extractive industries there. Later in the visit, in fact, the president of the Brazilian Studies Association -- meeting for the first time in Brazil itself -- was amazed that I had been to Rondônia, and breathlessly told me, "It's very frontier!" Miguel's third periphery was simply his gradually-improving neighborhood at the edge of the capital city. (One night many years later, I would be scrolling through the neighborhood in Google Earth and noticed that the street in front of Miguel's house -- my old street -- seemed to have been paved. I was able to confirm this with him right away on Facebook.)
The edge of Cidade Lobo, as seen during my 1996 visit.
I spent much of that 2000 visit surveying residents of yet another periphery -- Cidade Novo (New City), which I had found at the very edge of the city four years earlier. I had gone to Cidade Lobo (Wolf City, after a man named Lobo who had owned the land), trying to understand the growth of the capital city. As I stood with Cidade Lobo behind me, I took this photo -- the first house in what was being called Cidade Lobo II. 

Four years later, it was a bustling neighborhood, and I took two of Miguel's students with me to survey the new residents -- where had they come from and why, I wanted to know. I almost stopped asking the first question, "Why did you come here?" because I got the same answer every time: Para melhorar a vida. To improve my life. And indeed this nascent favela was a refuge for several different kinds of settlers: people who had abandoned rural settlements (who were the main subject of my dissertation), people who were seeking refuge from the noise and crime of downtown Porto Velho (this surprised me), and people migrating directly from favelas in São Paulo (2,000 miles away, half of it along the infamous BR-364, which was more of an extended series of potholes than an actual road). This last group welcomed the chance to buy (informally) a plot measuring 10x30 meters (33x100 feet), as São Paulo offered only 10x5-meter plots, at best.

This all came to mind this morning as I read about an unmapped neighborhood on the western edges of Nairobi, Kenya. A small thing I had noticed about Cidade Novo is that the houses were numbered, but not in any particular order. People simply posted numbers that they liked, until such time as the municipality and post office would assign formal addresses. In Porto Velho -- as in much of Latin America -- the process of in-situ accretion would lead almost inevitably to such gradual improvements, so that this neighborhood would eventually resemble that in which Miguel and my other academic and professional friends were living.

Author (and mariner and amateur geographer) Olivier Le Carrer describes the Nairobi exurb of Kibera in his captivating Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations. He describes its growth from a reasonably-populated settlement of a few thousand people spread over two square miles a few decades ago, to an uncharted settlement of half a million people in the same space, making it one of the most crowded and least governed places on earth.

Le Carrer offers a glimmer of hope, however, in the form of a cadre of geographers. Yes, geographic skills are what Kibera needs most desperately, and the Map Kibera project is bringing them to Kibera and a few other communities, putting -- as its website exclaims -- marginalized communities on the map!  The importance of empowering people through open-source mapping technologies was recognized, in fact, during a recent White House Mapathon, in which Map Kibera participated.
Mapping of, by, and for the people of Kibera.

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