Category Archives: MSF Work

Without Frontiers in Border Country

‘Kondewakoro…’. I say it out-loud without meaning to. The young lad responds in Krio. Ahmet translates, although I’m starting to understand Krio. It is what I thought:
‘He says still three hours. 16 kilometers.’
We don’t have time. We have to turn back, but if I’ve got it wrong, there will be nowhere to stay back where we came from either.

Kondewakoro is a border village in the far reaches of the Toli Chiefdom of Kono District, Sierra Leone. AKA ‘Diamond Country’. On OpenStreetMap, the only map of this corner of Africa, the road we are on shows as a decently defined yellow line. In England or Wales, it would be a tarmacced trunk road. We are not on tarmac, though. No, these roads, for all their ancient status, are not even really roads, more determined cuts through the bush.

The Guinea Highway

I am attempting to track down Sulaiman Charles, the teacher, but am wondering if this is a wild goose-chase all these hours down this bush track in ‘Zulu One-Five’, our trusty and iconic MSF Landcruiser. Getting battered about hour after hour, rock after rock, river after river. I have learned to trust Ahmet’s driving through these unlikely passages. I made an arrangement with Sulaiman to meet on the road to Kondewakoro over a broken phone conversation more than six hours ago. Sulaiman is an energetic spokesperson, a brilliant teacher with presence and vigour. He is one of my Field Team Leaders, in charge of six Sierra Leone Red Cross volunteers who are methodically surveying the missing, mis-named, and un-represented villages of the border region for the Post-Ebola Community Rebuild project. Spearheaded by Missing Maps (American Red Cross, MSF, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap), it is a fundamental vulnerability assessment of at-risk areas where epidemics and natural disasters can run and spread for weeks un-checked.

Working the Map (Sulaiman’s Chiefdoms)

We are here to correct the map, or more accurately, to leave the capacity for the inhabitants of Toli to map themselves. We have trained four other team leaders like Sulaiman – the best and brightest that the national border regions have to offer. We have also been training a cohort of supervised volunteers. Trained them in the classroom. But this is the bush. And now it is a question of finding them, as they map what can’t be mapped, and we, hampered by the very resistance factors which have prohibited this mapping for so long, are trying to support.
Volunteers Putting the Health Centres on the Map in Koinadugu District, aka ‘The Land of the Powerful Mixture’

In another chiefdom in the North I came across a border crossing into Guinea made of rickety palm-wood bars. I was reluctant to ‘snap’ the sleepy photogenic border-guard in his vest, standing under the words ‘Immigration’ pencilled on the flaking cement above the’office’ doorway. Things can escalate easily here. There are strict security protocols, and the sensitivity of this ‘porous’ borderland domain dictates that we follow strict MSF radio-contact schedules. We are in two-hourly contact with the radio-room in Freetown. A day away. Now, I would like to meet Sulaiman at the border, but we have a lot of ground to cover, and a six o’clock travel curfew to observe. This is no-man’s land. I am aware of the need for caution.

And here we are with this young biker now, deep in the forest, on the way to Kondewakoro. His chinese-built 125cc road bike has toppled, as he has tried to come up the impossible rocky slope which we, somehow, are attempting to go down. He is laden with six large jerry cans of cow milk, but amazingly there has been no spillage, and we help him re-tie the load. The motorbike is low on its suspension, and the sweating rider is using all his bush-riding skills to snake the bike between the rocks, load and all. But where is Sulaiman? I note that he is young. Young enough to have recently been in school. As we help him get going again, I have a last-minute thought – he might know Sulaiman.

‘Red Cross Motorbike. Sulaiman the teacher. Have you seen him this way?’
How to Load a Motorbike

Imperceptibly he nods, and says something. Ahmet interprets a Krio mutter and throw of the head.
‘He is here. Up ahead.’ A huge grin. Somewhere, down these rocks, through the next river, we will find him. Ahmet is visibly relieved. I knew I could trust Sulaiman, my ‘brother from another mother’, he has called me in the training sessions. But I’m relieved too.
‘…and is there another road?’ No. No other road. This is the only way to Kondewakoro. We get back into the Landcruiser which flops down the track between the boulders. It doesn’t feel possible yet, but we have somewhere to stay tonight. One hour to go until curfew. No turning back, but now it is certain that we will find him.

And ten minutes later we literally almost run-over Sulaiman on his motorbike. Komba, the isolated volunteer tasked with this spur of the project is interviewing the Village Chief in a clearing. It turns out Komba is a star surveyor, with an amazing grasp of the job in hand. It is difficult to deliver the detailed survey, with its questions about water availability, its carefully crafted cross-referencing of Sanitation and Disease questions, road conditions and Healthcare access. But it has been worth coming to see how it is done properly.

Missing Maps Field Consultation: Wiring Motorbikes to Charge Phones

There has been a ‘Loma’ Market here today. It has been a hive of activity. As I look around this village, seemingly thriving in its own right, I can’t help wondering how on earth some of this actual concrete came to be here, given the impossible nature of the only road in. It will be a long time before these villages have convincing vehicular access, despite the fact that they are located on this footpath they call ‘The Guinea Highway’. This track, for better or worse, protects this village in some way, from invasion, but at the same time makes it vulnerable to a changing world around it.


As we photograph wells and water sources, with different surveys, the bigger picture which emerges is the sparsity of consistent water, and the dangerous propensity of water-contamination at source. Villages look well-ordered sometimes, but once surveys start to show exactly how many people actually use the water-sources, how often they dry-up, and how close to latrines (another resource we survey) they can be, the data starts to tell another story; desperate need and hard-boiled living in this disowned and precarious border area. I later geo-photograph two pumps in Kpetema – an ‘India MkII’ and a ‘Bush’ Pump. Neither of them dries up in dry season, which makes Kpetema regionally important. We have come across several villages where women are washing in the ford we are crossing, and children carry water from the same river up the hill for drinking.


These communities are susceptible to so much disease from so many quarters. When disaster occurs, their location needs to be traced. Whatever way the locals want it, it needs a name – particularly when some desperate community mobilisation team in the capital receive a dying patient and are trying to pinpoint the place they came from. Local names are important. Geo-tags are critical. Terror spreads as fast as the epidemic itself in these communities, and there are many instances of death resulting from panic as well as actual disease. The enemy is the unknown.


It is the end of the day now, and gaving gathered for council on wooden benches, and sat through typically long-winded introductions with Mami-Queen and Chief, solemn nods were closely followed by furious handshakes (post-Ebola protocol thankfully now permits careful physical contact) and gentle curiosity. Part of the meeting ritual involved the explanation of the corrected name of this village. It moved because of forest fires decades ago, so what I have on my OpenStreetMap, ‘Kekeya’, compiled from old military or colonial data, needs adjusting and renaming. The Chief and the Youth Leader peered curiously over my shoulder as I renamed the village on my phone screen. Approving grunts at me spelling-out the proper village name give way to open-faced enthusiasm and laughing recognition of Chiefdoms and Sub-Chiefdoms so carefully researched by our team and now so available on our own ARC-developed OpenMapKit App.

Screenshot with my GPS tracks from OpenStreetMap on Android – The Everyman SatNav.

It has already been established that I am the evangelist in my team, and the people here, perhaps more than a proprietary-thinking western audience, get the publicly owned ethos of our OPEN StreetMap. Our data tools are not concerned with this one-time survey event. Our tools are what you could call ‘culturally scaleable’. They can be used by anyone who understands them, anyone with an android phone, and what we are fundamentally here to do is to spread the word. ‘Communities, map yourselves, on your own terms, [Arguably] before you become mapped by outsiders…’, is our message. This is the OpenSource Global Digital Revolution which can empower the marginalised across cultures.

And now the dim shape of the Landcruiser looms in the gloaming as I look out into the village from the Out-Patient’s waiting bench. Night is falling. Ahmet, my driver, is preparing the Landcruiser for the night. The sound of crickets and other forest insects almost drowns out the quiet african consonants being murmurred over food amongst the houses across the track. The cool crescent of the moon is a welcome sight beckoning the forest woodsmoke to rise and meet it. In another part of africa it has celestial pageantry which I know. I wonder, through the dusk, how they read the stars here. The old navigation envisaged by the new.


I shall sleep in the mud-built health outpost tonight. The nurse cooks under the palm kitchen roof, and I am sitting, fresh-washed and waiting for what will turn out to be a huge bowl of sweet rice and yoghurt. The pot is simmering on the fire already, gently steaming. I have done ‘Community Entry’. There are rules with village contact here, and society dictates that strangers initially approach the Chief. The performance of this tradition goes back in time, reflecting how outsiders have always been received into these isolated communities.


Later-on I lie under the mosquito net thinking. So: the terrain was too tough for even Zulu One-Five to make it to the border by curfew. Kondewakoro will wait for another time. But it is good to be here, and to have made contact with surveyors on their home territory. Despite the magic of mobile phone network when it is available, Sulaiman has made sure messages are sent through the traditional channels of communication (although drums here, it seems, are a thing of the past). Much as I trust the message of the digital innovation we have come to live by in the west, I know that tomorrow I will meet with Alice and Daniel for motorbike charging instruction and mapping survey technique and evaluation. Without fail.

The comforting village noises have given way to evocative night bush noises, and I drift off to sleep wondering who it was that first surveyed this village all those decades ago…

Post Ebola Mapping in Sierra Leone. The Battle may be over, but…

It’s lunch time, and we are about to go out from our classroom into the corridor to eat what has been brought up by the catering lady. Jollof Rice and Chicken. But then somebody mentions the Magpie.
It is a warm but cloudy day in the capital. We have been training for two days on the Data collection App Open Data Kit (ODK). Sierra Leone was mapped by motorbike using this downloadable software during the Ebola outbreak, in a (successful) contribution to getting a handle on stopping the disease. Already I have guarded myself against shaking too many hands or having other tactile contact with the people here – those magical cameradic handshakes so memorable from the West Africa of years ago that I remember when, in 1989, I was building a school in the Liberian bush. To ban a handshake here is to ban a native language.

I have already heard from Victor of the way in which people would avoid the ‘Safe and Dignified Burial’ technique desperately encouraged by disaster relief organisations. Distraught and grieving people just wanted to be left alone to tend to the traditional intimate washing of bodies by all the family, but it is this very intimacy which had to be prevented by desperate humanitarian actors. Tales of how families would use their back door to take a body for burial over the porous borderline and into the neighbouring unregulated country are fascinating and initially amusing.
Somebody describes to me the Magpie app., the only way, but a de-personalised way – to keep abreast of the unfolding disaster at the time. Some of the details of what the ‘Enumerator’ was asked to log – safe geo-tagging, photographic data, all flies in the face of talks of ancient intimacy, reducing this kind of anonymous horrific evidence to a DATA BASE entry. It has been so very impersonal, but so critical for the survival of this ravaged but peace-loving communities, and it puts a lump firmly in my throat even now as I try to relay it.


But when you bear in mind that drivers in the capital, as my driver points out, don’t know how to react to the new traffic lights because more than two generations of drivers have passed since the last traffic lights were vandalised in the civil war, another terror which was only just abating properly when Ebola struck, it makes you wonder how any nation could possibly deserve not only these natural disasters, but this assault on their national identity. Sierra Leone has seen brothers slaughter brothers, but until very very recently one was prohibited from even consoling oneself with social traditions of peace, love and intimacy, honoured since before the time of borders, white men, and territory.
One thing as ever remains though, and of course will always remain, which is that people are loving, human, and dignified, throughout and regardless of what has been heaped upon them.

An Idiot’s Guide to Mapping


Open Platform. Open Society.

It was in 2003 that I was first introduced to the Open-Source philosophy by my cousin, a political information activist, ex-politician and now peer in the House of Lords. He countered my worry for the corporate dominance of the information world by spurious enemies like ‘terror’ with a revolution in global culture, which stopped me in my tracks.

Zimbabwe Missing Maps (13)

In 2015, Google Maps exist everywhere. Much has been made of their use, much of their invasiveness. Academics have long written of the politics and imperiallism of this type of cultural property. Corporate, government and military players increasingly use mapping for different types of aggression – commercial, military (including remote, e.g. drones), and culturally suppressive aggression are but a few of the pitfalls to weigh against the obvious benefits of the entire world being extensively mapped. On a philosophical level, Foucault talks of Power mechanisms which allow rich information-gathering overlords to contain their subjects through control and delineation of their geographical environs – a Geographical Dictatorship, if you like.

But what happens when the maps are intrinsically unreliable, and collaboratively drawn-up, arguably on the terms of the local inhabitants themselves? All this politic changes, and suddenly the process becomes revolutionary, anti-corporate, emancipating those on the ground, and cross-culturally connecting them with counterparts across the world. The collaborative mapping of the world is potentially the most unifying boundary-breaking socialisation project EVER performed by our race. Owned by the community, it resists domination, like the whole of the Open-Source/Platform community, by virtue of its co-operative nature and de-centralised peer-to-peer embodiment.

How it works:

Surf the web to a satellite image of an area anywhere on the planet, but in the Open Street Map browser. You have to sign into this, which involves creating an account. (I chose a conflict-zone which I was familiar with). The planet has been photographed, and the images used are commonly Bing images. ‘OSM users have been given permission to trace aerial imagery from a number of sources. The most widely used imagery comes from Bing, but other imagery is available in some parts of the world; you can choose a source from the ‘Background’ or ‘Imagery’ menu of your editor.’

This image can be used in Open-Source applications as long as it is acknowledged. This is the beauty of the whole system. Components do not have to be publicly-owned, as nobody can own the net result. Brilliant. Use a free software package to overlay outlines of buildings and roads better, for them to be numbered and annotated by field-surveyors later. Save it back onto the online- resource.

Once the image has your digital tags on (‘nodes’), it is easy to download or print-out the grid-square in the field, and add information to it on a computer, on a smartphone, or on paper (to be inputted later).

Conclusion that ungovernable spaces are by definition un-corruptible. The last domain of morality. And the radical potential of those who choose to inhabit them. Is there such a thing as economics-free politics. That’s what I  love; the purity. Local and remote people perform all of these actions in collaboration, and partnership with ‘armchair humanitarians’ making a real and tenable difference. Mappings, Projections and Meanings in the sea, the arctic, and the desert. Landscape, are a ‘socially constructed form of knowledge’1  If we concur with the idea of a landscape as  text, and that bourgeois ecriture is one of the ‘various efforts towards a “zero degree” of style, a “style-less”, blank, transparent way of writing’2, then the fact that the Ocean is a ‘blank’ landscape should expose the writing/reading techniques at play in all its varied cultural and artistic representations. Its parallels with the dark continent are obvious.

Zimbabwe Missing Maps (23)

Open Water – Mapping Precarious Communities For Survival

I recently returned from a mission to Epworth slum, Harare, as a Field Mapping Co-ordinator with the Manson Unit’s Missing Maps project. Here’s a bit of my blog:

No wonder Rhodesia used to be known as ‘The Garden of Africa’. Epworth, a suburb of what is now called Harare (‘Salisbury’ in Rhodesian times), is a visually stunning landscape, but the beauty cloaks a menace. Boulders are piled deep into the geological ground, making boreholes difficult and drainage unthinkable. There is evidence of massive engineering attempts to install drainage abandoned by the roadside. And in the WatSan survey, we are managing to record all the water sources for the whole of Epworth, but to my knowledge, not a single drain. For half a million people. It’s an accident waiting to happen. But at least we now hope to have a significant resilience tool to bring to the crisis when it happens.

Missing Maps Project relies on the idea of The Open Platform, and is a collaborative inter-agency venture. ‘Armchair Humanitarians’ sit at home with an aerial satellite image, tracing lines of houses and compounds in oppressed, ‘at-risk’, disaster zones, making brand new powerful maps which are then filled-in, annotated, by their local counterparts in the field.

We have arrived in Zimbabwe on a wave of well-wishing and a map tool evolved by the ‘developed world’. It feels a bit like a victorian exploration, Speke or Burton, but Open Street Map is not development. Like early explorers, we think, we are bringing a secret from the northern hemisphere, but actually, rather than colonialism, it will actually resist commercial governance or colonisation.   It is the creation of a map, yes, but not one that can be used or abused for financial gain. It is a community map. A bored London commuter and an african tribesman working hand-in-hand to produce a public resource which will save the world. ‘The geek shall inherit the earth’, a well-renowned webmaster friend of mine commented when she heard I was getting involved.

MSF has been active in Epworth for many years, and has seen the head count of those testing positive come down and, to some extent, under control. One of the main challenges with ongoing healthcare emergencies for MSF Zimbabwe is locating patients for ongoing treatment. There are a lot of unknowns. The official head-count is 145,000, but estimates or the real figure however, arrive at potentially 500-700,000. Epworth is a cultural hotch-potch, with a diverse immigrant population, living in a visually stunning but ‘excluded’ suburb. It’s a political timebomb, something of an embarrasment, and as such, this huge ‘missing’ population is subject to huge risks.

Zimbabwe Missing Maps (15)

A map is certainly needed. Google Street Map cars have not visited perpetual war zones or areas of perennial pestilence and famine. Google can’t make money out of these places. So when disaster strikes, floods wash houses away, a cholera outbreak or epidemic happens or even houses get ‘tidied-up’ by politics or warfare, nobody has ever had a means of monitoring or assisting displacement or disease. Until now, that is. Enter; The Missing Maps project. It is easy to see the need for some kind of new way of registering Epworth’s existence to the world. So this is only the beginning of whether residents themselves want to be identified. A comprehensive centralised address system would clearly denote which houses were ‘unofficial’. Pejorative terms like this make all the difference in mapping, but this way, they own this identity. They can change it. We all own the map, as a community.

MSF are the envy of other NGOs for our contact on the ground, but our information, being in essence ‘Associative’, is locked within the memory of our people. On the plane to Zimbabwe, I watched ‘The Immitation Game’. Mulling over the trip, it got me thinking about codes.  Missing Maps is there to create a new code, to put some of our institutional information into data, I reflected. In Epworth, as everywhere in the world, our strength lies in our National Staff. ‘Postcodes’ here are to do with, and protected by, folk memory. The MSF Community Health Workers carry this ‘code’ and enable patients to be traced and treated for multi-drug resistant conditions.

The impact of representational implied value has far-reaching implications. Mapping is an environment where words suddenly become political very very quickly. We have stumbled headlong into these kinds of politics in Harare and it has stopped us dead, but I am convinced that this particular community encryption can work in conjunction with de-centralised online social networks. It is wholly unreliable, legally and commercially, but absolutely life-saving for community resilience. From the core,it only works as in a co-operative way. Whilst there needs to be no consecutive geographical system to addressing, people can be in control of their own address, and, guess what: it can be cascade searched in the software of OSM!

It is really believed that Open Platform challenges the idea of those with the most financial clout having the loudest shout.  For supporters of humanitarian efforts, it is a totally transparent and practical way of donating.

Here’s an observation I made half-way through our time in Harare: I am looking down a well next to the MSF Land Cruiser on the playing field of Maulana Primary School. There are 1631 pupils at this school, I am assured by the Principal, Mrs Maulana hereself. I look up from the well to her face in the sun, and wonder how such a young-looking woman can have founded this well-established school. Everything in the Epworth landscape seems well-established. Huge standing stones surround the ‘playing-field’. It is like a mega version of Stone Henge. A lunar landscape. You can buy twenty trillion Zim Dollar notes on the market for a fiver as souvenirs, which are decorated with these famous stones; the national monument. Ostensibly, this designated ‘slum’ should also be an UNESCU world heritage site. Maybe it is, but because of its uselessness for serious development because of its ‘rock-pile geology’, it has, ironically become over-settled by transients.

Certainly, what I had presumed to be a project ‘taking technology to the Africans’ is working out in a very different way indeed. In Epworth, people clearly accept the ‘ in development’ process so much more readily than the panicking idiot in front of them. As I instruct on Open Street Map, I look around me and see calmness in my companions as my computer crashes once again, or some piece of software proves ‘in development’. It has become very clear that I am not here to teach, but to learn. Whilst I tear my hair out wanting everything set in stone, these guys who are so used to unknowns are quietly busy fluidly learning yet another aspect of their future world, and rapidly turning into technicians who will soon outskill their overlords. The geek shall indeed inherit the earth. The African Geek, probably…