The road not taken

Using navigation apps on the streets of Kigali

My driver asks me which route he should take to Kicukiro. It’s my first time using Move, the Volkswagen version of Uber that’s used in Rwanda.

Kigali street

I see that my driver has a map on his app with the directions, and point at it. “Just follow that”. He glances back at me with a confused look. “Okay,” he mumbles.

You tend to remember the first time you take a taxi in sub-Saharan Africa. Not only is the traffic etiquette somewhat more liberal, local drivers tend to know routes across the city that most Western car owners would look at with blind panic. Stray rocks, waterlogged areas, potholes the size of a three-seat sofa, they are navigated with a solemn determination that never ceases to be impressive.

Google Maps thinks this is a road you can drive 60km per hour on

Halfway through the trip, my driver takes a right turn onto an unnamed dirt track. He doesn’t seem to mind. About twenty minutes later, we find ourselves in a mudbank. His Polo is struggling to move at all. I try to pass a smile to him, but he does not seem intent on returning it.

What went wrong here? My first assumption, of course, was that people have a need for the digital mapping literacy that I was familiar with myself. The vast majority of the taxi drivers I met in Africa knew their city like the back of their hand — and the mapping apps required by ride sharing apps were only a very recent reality.

Many of the drivers I met did not know how to use these maps to begin with. “Left here?”, they’d ask, when the map showed they should. Their confusion made sense: they might have picked a different route themselves, based on years of experience with the condition and safety of these roads.

Simply mentioning a street name on entry, however, isn’t always the best idea either. The streets of Kigali, for instance, have all been assigned a utilitarian and ahistorical combination of numbers and letters, such as KG7 for a main artery or KG760 for a small alley in Kisozi. Mentioning the lesser-known names to a taxi driver will get you a confused stare. “North of the genocide memorial”, however, works fine.

Kacyiru, Kigali

Due to these alternate ways of navigating the city, the drivers I met had little need for the digital mapping apps that are part of the deal when working for Uber and co. Despite the current explosion of ride-hailing platforms across the continent — Uber, for instance, runs in 15 major African cities, with some 60,000 drivers in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda — there seems very little understanding among these companies about the ways in which local drivers actually navigate their cities.

Thire was another reason that my driver was hesitant to follow the map: Google seems to assume every road is made of comfortable tarmac, or at least not the kind of moon landscape we were navigating here. I looked at my driver’s phone: his map showed a neat color-coded estimation of the remaining time, the calculated route, and so on. But none of it made sense, as Google has very little information on these parts of the world, if they are indexed by its driverless cars at all. Digital mapping is great, as long as it works on the data it expects.

Some minutes later, as I was pushing my driver’s Volkwagen from a mudbank, I realized I should have just done what I always did: mention a landmark close to my destination and eyeball the rest. I realized just how often I still assume digital technology is a neutral, optimized arbiter of daily life — and how often I am wrong for doing so.

There was a wider lesson in it, too. Decolonizing Africa also means to be mindful of the technological grids that are being cast over its cities under the banner of objectivity. My driver surely wasn’t happy he had followed the algorithm, and I doubted he’d ask the next mzungu how he should get to his destination. As he drove off, the maximum tip that the app allowed me to give him still felt inadequate.

Tom is a scholar in data-based culture and media studies. He holds a PhD in culture studies and writes on the relation between tourism and technology.

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