Fun with Cartography

Just one of the reasons that studying the Northern Region is going to be fun is that it’s entailed a lot of defining what I am researching. There have been three main challenges in this area.

1. a definition of an internet café. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not one based on having a connection to the internet.

2. what kind of online activities I am interested in looking at. The revelation that people occasionally use the internet to look at pornography (80% of internet data traffic at the last count) is very useful the first time, less so the second, and loses its easy charm when the fifteenth person has the same revelation and wants to talk about it while I’m trying to present my plan. Such people need to get out more.

3. a technology-based business – if I include mobile phones, an obvious candidate, I will be here until I am 80.

So I’ve pinned down the ‘what’. But now the ‘where’ is getting away from me. I had picked the Northern Region, which when you look at most maps of Ghana (which are, to say the least, lacking in detail), it looks like a nice big chunk of savannah, north of the Volta and south of the slightly dodgy tribal regions on the Burkina border where you have to fill out a new risk assessment form for the university.


Hannah found a map of the country’s districts today, which is more detailed than the regional and road maps we have been looking at so far. It disagrees with the other maps about where the Northern Region begins and ends, where the border crossings are with Togo and Cote d’Ivoire, and other fairly important things like the whereabouts of the Volta river, which you’d think even quite a dull cartographer would be able to pin down. Then I started to see that the other maps (3 so far) also disagree with each other, and all the cartographers disagree with the guidebook, which I will be using to actually get from one place to another since it contains the salient information on transport. The guidebook is clearly based on an earlier, more definitive map, possibly the one Borges (see below) wrote of, which has since ceased to exist. Apparently there is a government survey office somewhere in Accra from which one can buy more maps, but I’m starting to think I don’t want any more opinions.

I think the best plan may be, each time I reach a doubtful area, to ask people, ‘do you live in the Northern Region?’ As long as they don’t know any cartographers (and clearly none have been to the region lately) their opinion will be good enough for me. The ‘people’s map of Ghana’ continues.

I heard recently on QI that when the British were making the first detailed maps of Ghana back in the 1800s, one facetious junior draughtsman turned some of the contour lines into an elephant, assuming no one would notice. I think there may be some secret association of Ghanaian cartographers in which the task of toying with honest travellers has been passed on, like the secret of the Grail, from generation to generation.

Anyway, here is the Borges story. It’s short:

On Exactitude in Science . . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers’ Guild struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

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