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Having My Eyes Opened, My Heart Broken And Finding The True Meaning Of Maps In Tandale

In a really perverse way, first impressions were not unlike the opening lines from Will Crowther's Colossal Cave Adventure game on the PDP-11. But rather than those impressions being this ...

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.

.. my first impressions were this ...

You are standing in a gap between concrete buildings south of the equator. The sun beats down. Around you is a mass of similar buildings with corrugated iron roofs. A small stream flows in a gully between the buildings. The stream is made up of water and human waste. A river tries to flow nearby, but it's blocked by tons of rubbish and what water there is is black and bubbles noxiously. The smell is overpowering and overwhelming. People live here.

But this isn't a game and this place really exists. It's called Tandale and the polite way of referring to it is an unplanned development. Tandale is almost a city in its own right. It occupies a small area to the North West of Tanzania's largest city, Dar es Salaam. Tandale is an enclave, surrounded by the growing suburbs of Dar es Salaam. In 2002, a census showed there was a population of just over 45,000 people living here. Now, towards the end of 2012, the number must be much much higher.

There really is a river running through the centre of Tandale and it really is full of rubbish and waste, both industrial and human in origin. There's also a thriving market and a massive open rubbish tip where children play and chickens and goats wander. That a market exists in the midst of Tandale is impressive enough but makes sense, after all, people have to eat. But when you then consider that Tandale market supplies food to a significant amount of the city that surrounds and encloses it. Tandale and Dar es Salaam as a whole have a uniquely symbiotic relationship. There is much irony here.


Surrounded by parts of Dar es Salaam which show no sign of moving out of the way, Tandale has very fixed borders and is growing by the day. It has nowhere to grow but inwards. So the buildings edge ever closer to the river and the rubbish tip. Look closely and you can see plastic bags and other pieces of trash poking out from underneath the buildings and you soon realise that the rubbish tip used to be much much bigger and Tandale is cannibalising itself, building on the only open land there is. The rubbish tip itself.

Tandale Market, Dar es Salaam

Tandale really exists and my descriptions over the last few paragraphs aren't in the abstract, formed from impressions gleaned from second hand conversations and research on the interwebs. Those descriptions are real, first hand experience, because at the end of November 2012 I stood in the heart of Tandale, letting all of these impressions wash over me.

There's an old cliche about a life changing experience, but cliches end up as such because they're often based in fact. I can say hand on heart that visiting Tandale was one of those very life changing experiences and not, as you might first think, in a bad way at all.


I stood in the middle of Tandale because I'd been asked by Mark Iliffe and The World Bank to be a judge at the Sanitation Hackathon in Dar es Salaam, or #BongoSafi as the event's Twitter hashtag described it. Bongo Safi is Swahili for Clean Tanzania, but more about that in a later post. The Hackathon had a strong community theme and a strong mapping theme and was aimed at tackling several problems that places like Tandale suffer from, one of which is what is politely termed open defecation. As a judge, Mark thought it would be a good idea if I actually saw with my own eyes the problems that the Hackathon would be trying to solve. A good idea. That is possibly the understatement of the decade.

You see, most houses in Tandale don't have toilets, let alone a sewerage system to connect the toilet to. In fact, most houses don't have a water supply. Fresh water arrives inside the sort of tanker you'd be more used to seeing used to carry petrol in British or in the US and from the tanker, the water ends up in massive black plastic tanks where people can buy fresh, clean and safe water.

There are some public latrines, but like most things in Tandale, they've come to be in an ad-hoc, organic, unplanned fashion. But there's not enough of them by a long long way.


There are also some wells, but they too have come to be in an ad-hoc fashion. They're either too close to the latrines but even if they weren't, the ground water is so polluted and contaminated that the stuff that comes out of the wells may have a composition that's high in water, but you can't drink it. It's an opaque liquid that, if you're lucky, doesn't smell too bad. But as drinking water costs, this grey water, as it's locally called, is what you wash in; your clothes, your eating and cooking utensils and yourself.

And that open defecation? That's what happens when there's not enough clean and private places to perform that most basic of human function and that's why there's rivers and streams of very human origin running in the open air between the buildings.


Tandale opened my eyes and broke my heart in so many places. There were so many examples of things which were just so damn foreign, but the one that I think will live within me forever, is seeing two of the most beautiful children I've seen, who were roughly the age of my children, sitting together playing. Squeals of delight echoed off of the walls that surrounded them and as I approached, they both looked up and smiled big, warm, welcoming smiles. Their toys? The remains of what looked like a broken bottle.

I mentioned earlier that there's an immense amount of people living in Tandale. It's these people that not only broke my heart but also made me fall deeply in love with the place. The warmth and welcome that I received from everyone I met was at once an amazing and humbling experience. Whilst I'm sure that my guided tour around Tandale meant that I didn't meet the less desirable members that any society has, but from early in the morning to late at night, not once did I feel unsafe or insecure. I was certainly regarded with curiosity but never once felt that that curiosity was backed up by anything that could be construed as a threat.


As an unplanned settlement, Tandale has now been mapped. It needed to be. You don't need to be familiar with the tale of John Snow tracking down the source of a cholera outbreak in London's Soho in the 1850's to realise that the combination of contaminated groundwater, building on a rubbish tip and unplanned latrines and wells in close conjunction to each other is a recipe for human suffering on a scale we simply don't see where I live in London or even in the United Kingdom as a whole.

But as Tandale is unplanned, it keeps growing, keep changing and keeps morphing. This means that the map of Tandale is a never ending, growing living thing and with help, Mark and the Tandale Mapping community keep doing just that.

Tandale, Dar es Salaam

This isn't so called crisis mapping in the strictest sense of the term. Tandale doesn't have the high profile media coverage that Kibera in Nairobi and Haiti have been the beneficiaries of.

Maybe chronic mapping, community mapping or just humanitarian mapping is closer to the spirit of what is trying to be achieved in Tandale.

Tanzania and Dar es Salaam in general opened my eyes. Tandale changed my life, thanks to Mark and Msilikale Msilanga. I want to go back and do what I can to help the humanitarian effort in that corner of the Tanzanian capital. I hope it won't be too long before I can do just that.

This post has been over two weeks in the writing and it's still not right. But I don't think it ever will be. I beg your indulgence for the slightly rambling discourse that you've just waded through; I'm still trying to process what Tandale is and what it's done to me and probably still will be, right up until the moment I set foot there again.

Photo Credits: Myself and Mark Iliffe on Flickr.

Gary Gale

I'm Gary ... a Husband, Father, CTO at Kamma, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user