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Streets with no names: navigating the maze of African cities

A painter applies numbers to houses in Yaounde, Cameroon, where getting around a city with few street names and no numbers a firm grasp of local landmarks/AFP

A painter applies numbers to houses in Yaounde, Cameroon, where getting around a city with few street names and no numbers a firm grasp of local landmarks/AFP

YAOUNDé, Cameroon, Aug 19 – Maps, road signs, sat navs, Google maps it all makes travelling so easy. But how do you get around in a city with few street names, where buildings have no numbers?

“Cross ‘Death Junction’ then after about 500 metres on the left, you’ll see a curtain seller. Go up the path until you see a black building that’s where I live,” says Judith Koumis, giving directions to her home in Yaounde, the Cameroon capital.

“It’s easy,” she says, forgetting, like everyone else, that “Death Junction” has an official name Friendship Junction.

In this west African country, like many other places on the continent, getting around town can be something of a puzzle without a firm grasp of the local landmarks and how they’re known by residents.

“Death Junction” in Yaounde, “Crossroads of my misspent life” for a red-light area in the economic hub Douala … such are the often capricious names given to various intersections in Cameroon, even where official names might exist.

It’s the same story in neighbouring Gabon where the taxis in the capital Libreville operate along similar lines, using local landmarks to find their way around.

Giving a cabbie an address is likely to draw a blank look as their navigation system involve directions more like “behind the prison” or near the “Hassan Hejeij building”, named after a well-known Lebanese businessman who lived there.

Finding a business, a doctor or a pharmacy in a hurry is a challenge. Even locating a restaurant, an embassy or a private home requires patience in cities experiencing rampant growth and where informal housing is rife.

Lost, late, confused

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These days, life is a touch less complicated now that most people have mobile phones.

“It’s easy to get here, but if you need anything, just call,” Koumis insists. All of which is fine as long as you don’t run out of battery.

And it’s not much easier when dealing with officialdom.

“To give the bank my address, I made them a sketch with arrows and the position of the nearby petrol station,” says Gautier, a French national in his 30s who is working in Lambarene in central Gabon.

As a result, going around in circles, getting lost and arriving late happens a lot.

In recent weeks, the mayor of Yaounde has begun a project to inject some order across the city, whose population, officials say, is close to two million people.

The goal is to name every street and number every plot of land, and produce an urban plan “in order to improve location information, to help the emergency services get around… help visiting foreigners get around,” says project head Arnauld Phillipe Ndzana.

Local resistance

Under the project, close to 100,000 doors will be given numbers and 5,100 streets named. Currently only 140 streets in Yaounde have names, he said.

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Not everyone likes the idea. Others worry as the municipality has, over the years, destroyed homes and businesses built on public land or in unplanned areas.

“Investigators in the field sometimes encounter hostility from people who think their house will be knocked down or they will have to pay more tax,” says Ndzana.

“We have been attacked three times. One resident even came out with a knife and ordered us to go away,” said Blandine Ngo Kam, head of a team working in Briqueterie, a restive Muslim neighbourhood of the city.

An initial project to assign addresses in the town was carried out in 1994 but no one, including government offices, saw the use so never used them, Ndzana said.

Last September, Libreville launched a similar project in the presence of several mayors of big francophone cities, including Paris’ Anne Hidalgo.

There again, not everyone was pleased. “It is our cultural identity that is going to suffer,” some residents said.

‘Easily find an address’

Private initiatives have also tried to untangle out Africa’s urban labyrinths.

In Doula, in Cameroon’s south, young telecoms engineer Samuel Bamal in February launched a mobile geolocation app called ShoOwer .

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“It’s a tool which helps you get your bearings and easily find an address either with or without an Internet connection,” says Bama, a 28-year-old resident of the city.

With the rapid growth of our cities, “we are trying to resolve the problem of addresses in Africa.”

Currently, some 15,000 locations are listed in the application’s database covering “six or seven towns”, and the app already has

“5,000 users, of whom 1,200 actively use it” everyday, he says.

The application is free to download on Google Play, but the user must cover the cost of the SMS messages if he cannot do his research online.

In short, it might give you what you need to reach Judith’s house on time.

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