Tracing My Path to Cartography

Cartographer’s Story #17, by Moses Kamau Thiong’o

Each profession has its own spark of inspiration, known only to the initiated and transmitted from teacher to learner. Mine is no different, from a father to son, but in a different dimension. One vivid and moving evocation of my childhood is hard to forget, especially when it defines who I am today, in terms of my career.

Some occurrences in our lives are fortuitous but mine always seem well orchestrated. I can recount most things, good and bad, done to me or those that I did as if they happened yesterday. Now, when I was a junior primary school boy (class two, as we normally call it in Kenya), I had grown to be both ambitious and naughty as most boys are at that age, as they want to explore everything in their surroundings. One normal day after going back home from school, I found no one at home. My father was, and is still, a successful chicken farmer. With my urge to touch, know or maybe even taste everything, I explored and discovered that he had a dozen of eggs that he was planning to incubate the following day. With my young boy’s mind, I thought of having an egg feasting moment. I sprinted to the kitchen and lit the fire to fry two of the eggs. Two were never enough, I went for three eggs this time and fried them to eat. Little had I known the deeper meaning of a Swahili East African proverb, chovya chovya humaliza buyu la asali, translated to “dipping a finger to taste repeatedly finishes the honey calabash.” I realized the meaning of that proverb when there were only four eggs remaining. How could this be traced to my very defining moments of ever ending into the cartography world?

You can now guess how I was feeling after having that glorious egg feast. Not jubilant but very nervous of how my dad would trample me that evening. I had, and still have, a glorified and well-sealed relationship with my parents being my buttress. Shortly, daddy arrived home, and checked that his egg stock to be incubated the following day was intact. He was shocked. I can’t recount what happened, but I recall being disciplined to the right scale. Well, at least in my African setting, kids should be disciplined by loving parents when they bend.

After being ‘attended’ to by my father, I dashed out of our house and laid down in the fresh soils. With a stick in my hand, I started drawing on the soil. This was a subtle approach to test if I could cool down my displeasure of the discipline, as well as to make my dad ‘forget’ what I had done. My approach returned in triumph. I was drawing a ‘Kenyan map’, though I had no idea how it looked like at my age. I called dad to see it; he applauded me and I smiled. He went back to the house and on a piece of paper he drew me a new Kenyan map. He encouraged me and said that one day I will be drawing maps of the world. As a young boy, this was just a statement like any other and I did not apply any weight to it. After all, my dad seemed to have forgotten about the eggs. Sweet, right?

Figure 1: Moses and his Dad, Thiong’o in 1997

It was not until 2015 when I joined the Kenyatta University campus that I came to know of something of GIS from Professor Simon Onywere. I played in the cartographically scented environment of maps. The course was Environmental Planning and Management. It’s in this course that I was able to interact with this fascinating field of cartography. I have been winning many awards, and in 2018 I won the Esri Young Scholar award to represent East Africa in San Diego during the Esri user conference. I had the privilege to present my project on mapping the spreading pattern of a pest which had caused chaos to farmers by destroying their crops.

Figure 2: Moses with Jack Dangermond during the 2018 Esri UC in San Diego.

Anyway, this is a long story that leads to another. It has been a process even to become a part of this field. On 11th December 2019, I graduated with a Master in Geographic Information Science from the University of Redlands and felt even more free to do what that higher learning degree allows me to do.

I keep learning each day.

Figure 3: Moses’ latest carto-work of Greenland.

Thank you,
Moses Kamau Thiong’o

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