The Anti-Atlas

This project started with a map, a 1930 colonial map of Dar es Salaam created during the British administration. I couldn’t help but be enticed by the beautifully drawn, meticulous historical maps I found in the library of Ardhi University during our field trip to Dar es Salaam. Fuelled by my interest in stories, I questioned the stories being told by those maps. The maps misrepresented the reality of the site Mnazi Mmoja Open Space. The story being told was completely opposite to the reality I found on site.  The site was a result of a colonial town planning technique known as Cordon Sanitaire (Sanitary Barrier) but the maps show the site as a lovely green space.

I worked on this project as part of a research studio called Unit 15X. A research studio that I was a part of during my master’s year that helped me synthesis this project. It is a studio at the Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) at the University of Johannesburg that aims to provide graduate students with a transformative learning experience through a critical understanding of the broader African continental contexts. Unit 15X’s agenda is to re-imagine and re-define public spaces in the African context. Although my project did not propose a physical design resolution on Mnazi Mmoja Open Space, I was able to question the legacy of colonisation and its influence on the creation of public space.

Figure 1: The Catastrophe of cartography. A colonial map of the site burned to reveal the catastrophe that occurred on-site that was hidden by the map (Masango, B: 2019).

Cartography, one might say, is the original tool of political domination and control. Some of the first colonial Maps were commissioned by imperialist powers to outline the lands and territories they conquered. The Atlas appears to be objective, and it is never questioned which gives it power. The ANTI-ATLAS is a project I did for my master’s thesis in 2019 that challenges colonial mapping using ingenious map making. The site for my project was an open public space, known as Mnazi Mmoja Open Space, in the post-colonial African city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 

Figure 2:Deconstructing Colonial Cartography. (Masango, B: 2019).
Figure 3:Deconstructing Indigenous Cartography. (Masango, B: 2019).
Figure 4: The History of Dar es Salaam. (Masango, B: 2019).

I used knowledge gained from my investigation of indigenous map-making techniques to challenge the colonial maps. For indigenous maps, the meaning lies more in the making of the map than the product itself. For some time now, people have begun to subvert the use of maps as a form of art, activism, and social movements. This new way of using maps has been referred to as Critical or Counter Cartography. This project used the critical cartography of indigenous maps to challenge the power of maps and the power of the atlas. 

Figure 5: The Taxonomy of colonial cartography. (Masango, B: 2019).
Figure 6: The Taxonomy of indigenous cartography. (Masango, B: 2019).
Figure 7: Indigenous Mapping Practices. (Masango, B: 2019).

This project does not proclaim that all traditional maps are bad and should be erased from history. I acknowledged that there is value in traditional mapping practices, in what they reveal about a place. Yes indeed, maps are very precise in what they reveal about the landscape but as Halder and Michel (2018) put it, “they might be right, but they are right about so unbelievably little”. There are so many more layers missing from conventional cartography.

Figure 8: Corners Measures. (Masango, B: 2019)

Therefore, there is a need to add more maps to the World Atlas that show these other layers. Layers that are not necessarily quantifiable or can be measured or scaled, but that reveal the sense of the place. The ambitions of this project were to integrate multiple tales, senses of place, memories, and meanings (past and present) in making the kinds of maps to tell a different story of the site – Mnazi Mmoja Open Space – and the people that use it.

Figure 9: The living Map. (Masango, B: 2019).

During this project, I was plagued with the question of how can I possibly represent the multi-cultured elements of the landscape and bring to the forefront the ideas and aspirations of the minorities who do not have a say in their society through mapping, in a world that is constantly changing? People and traditions change, political borders are renegotiated, social and political issues change. The map becomes outdated as soon as it is made. This is true for all maps; colonial, digital, and even new counter cartographies that are presented in this work.

My experience working through this project allowed me to confront my own bias as an African woman who intends to work in this context. My history made this work extremely subjective, but during this project, I learned that I should not be afraid to be subjective because the world does not need more “objectivity” or “political correctness”. It is because of this delusion of objectivity that the world is in this mess. What the world needs is for us to put a little bit of ourselves into the work that we do. The world needs more subjective stories to be told.

If we can bring this subjectivity into Just Spatial Design, then I feel such approaches to addressing spatial inequality will be much more effective and inclusive


Masango, B. (2019). The Anti-Atlas New Cartographies of Mnazi Mmoja Open Space. Unpublished master’s dissertation. Graduate School of Architecture, The University of Johannesburg

Halder, S & Michel, B. (2018). This is not an Atlas: A Global Collection of Counter – Cartographies. Germany: Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld

2 responses to “The Anti-Atlas”

  1. savagedoddarchitects Avatar

    good piece showing that mapping is never neutral.

  2. Very well written piece of work on a fascinating topic.