Letter from Africa: 'How I helped put Gambians on Google Maps'

USA World
Composite showing a couple looking at a phone in a car overlaid by a map of roads in The Gambia
Composite showing a couple looking at a phone in a car overlaid by a map of roads in The Gambia

In our series of letters from African journalists, Sierra Leonean-Gambian writer Ade Daramy explains how he was instrumental in getting Gambians an address.

Last year I did a piece for the BBC about how easy was to get lost in The Gambia where very few streets are named.

It sparked lively debate here in the small West African nation and I also received lots of messages on social media from people saying: “It’s the same in my country.”

Some viewed it as humour – as I explained how bank forms, for example, had boxes big enough for you to draw where your house was, in relation to the nearest landmarks.

People often have to draw their addresses on forms in The Gambia

People often have to draw their addresses on forms in The Gambia

People often have to draw their addresses on forms in The Gambia

But it has taken Covid-19 to show us that addresses are not a cosmetic add-on but a necessity.

How do you contact trace and monitor suspected coronavirus-infected people, if you do not have a proper address where you can find them?

How do you pick up all the suspected cases to take to a quarantine centre, when you spend hours being directed to a single house and there are hundreds of patients in other places who also need to be picked up?

Coronavirus ‘to the rescue’

Well, imagine my surprise and delight when the non-profit organisation Finding Gambia called the TV channel where I work to see if we could cover a pilot scheme to give people addresses.

"I was quite flattered to be told that my piece had been used in several meetings to convince potential partners... of the necessity for addresses"", Source: Ade Daramy, Source description: Journalist, Image: Ade Daramy

"I was quite flattered to be told that my piece had been used in several meetings to convince potential partners... of the necessity for addresses"", Source: Ade Daramy, Source description: Journalist, Image: Ade Daramy

“I was quite flattered to be told that my piece had been used in several meetings to convince potential partners… of the necessity for addresses””, Source: Ade Daramy, Source description: Journalist, Image: Ade Daramy

My name and telephone number were given as contacts, at which point they said: “Is it the same Ade Daramy who wrote that BBC article?”

I was quite flattered to be told that my piece had been used in several meetings to convince potential partners – central government and municipal councils – of the necessity for addresses.

The people who started Finding Gambia, Bakary Suso and Alieu Sowe, explained that they were using something called “plus codes” to do this.

Gambian houses are without names or numbers on streets without names

Gambian houses are without names or numbers on streets without names

Gambian houses are without names or numbers on streets without names

It is Google technology, useable both online and offline, that creates a short code for any location which can easily direct people using Google Maps.

The codes work just like street addresses – and are made up of a combination of two elements:

  • First is a short code of between six and seven letters and numbers

  • And then a locality – a town or city.

Needless to say, I was intrigued, as our team set off to “address” the issue.

We arrived at the first house where a sign with its code printed on was fixed to the outside wall.

Bakary Suso (L) and Alieu Sowe, (R) are putting up the signs themselves

Bakary Suso (L) and Alieu Sowe, (R) are putting up the signs themselves

Bakary Suso (L) and Alieu Sowe, (R) are putting up the signs themselves

The process was repeated at residences and businesses in one of the largest residential areas of The Gambia, each with its own unique identifier.

I tested it out on my Google Map app – and indeed it worked – pointing me directly to one of the doors.

Despite the unarguable logic of this or any address system, Mr Suso and Mr Sowe told me they had been having a hard time getting the required authorities on board, which is where Covid-19 has probably come to their rescue.

More on The Gambia:

The authorities have been dealing with the nightmare of people absconding from quarantine and not being able to trace them.

There was laughter from journalists when the this first happened, after a minister sought to allay worries at a press conference by saying: “We have their contact details.”

Finding Gambia thinks the signage project could take about three years to complete with government backing

Finding Gambia thinks the signage project could take about three years to complete with government backing

Finding Gambia thinks the signage project could take about three years to complete with government backing

It turned out, all they had were telephone numbers and a vague idea of the area in which they lived.

It’s like trying to find someone who tells you their address is “Peckham, London” or “Kibera, Nairobi” or “Alexandra, Johannesburg”.

‘The fire engine was too late’

As part of the fight against Covid-19, the health ministry has ordered 33 new ambulances and the Red Cross has ordered seven.

However, until the plus codes are rolled out across the country, which with government backing Finding Gambia optimistically thinks will take around three years, those ambulances will still struggle to get to people’s homes.

"I'd still like to have a street name, though, so, I can tell someone, 'I live at such and such a street'"", Source: Abdou Karim Waagan Fye, Source description: Music producer, Image: Abdou Karim Waagan Fye

"I'd still like to have a street name, though, so, I can tell someone, 'I live at such and such a street'"", Source: Abdou Karim Waagan Fye, Source description: Music producer, Image: Abdou Karim Waagan Fye

“I’d still like to have a street name, though, so, I can tell someone, ‘I live at such and such a street'””, Source: Abdou Karim Waagan Fye, Source description: Music producer, Image: Abdou Karim Waagan Fye

My TV channel could broadcast at least one or two stories a week about houses or compounds consumed by fire, with each resident telling the same story: “The fire engine found the place too late.”

The beneficiaries of the new plaques were happy that this was unlikely now to be their fate.

Though the owner of one house, well-known music producer Abdou Karim Waagan Fye, having sung the praises of this address system, did say: “I’d still like to have a street name, though, so, I can tell someone, ‘I live at such and such a street.'”

Music to my ears – as while the plus codes system is good, it lacks the community spirit that street names bring.

And how do you form a street football team if you don’t have street name?

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A composite image showing the BBC Africa logo and a man reading on his smartphone.
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