Can you draw me a map?

Encouraging small farmers in rural communities to make maps helps us understand their cultural landscapes and natural resource management

Author: Mary Harman Parks. Source: Compass

My friends and family, and especially my husband, always poke fun of me for my lack of direction. “You’re a geographer!” they say, alluding to the assumption I am supposed to know where I’m going, where I’m at, and which direction I’m facing at all times. I try to justify myself with, “But I grew up in the mountains!” or “I was trained to make maps, not read them.” Though, this usually doesn’t help my case when I then ask people to draw me a map so I can get from point A to point B.

Farmers in Uganda draw a map of their farm

Farmers in Uganda draw a map of their farm

That question alone, “Can you draw me a map?” can produce a rainbow of reactions. In fact, I’ve probably seen most of them. From all the fieldwork I’ve done, I’ve asked around 100 hundred farmers to draw me maps, many of whom had never even held a marker before. In international development, map-making can be a great way to learn about local people, their environment, and their way of doing things. Some people refer to these maps as mental maps or community maps, but most people in this field refer to them as participatory maps. In our research, we usually ask farmers to draw maps that depict their everyday life. This usually includes crops, animals, homes and buildings, machinery, water, and/or people.

Having farmers make these maps helps us understand their cultural landscapes and natural resource management. This information helps development specialists design projects that take into account both men and women farmers, including what resources they have access to and what types of activities they participate in. These maps have gained the attention of governmental and institutional authorities, and have led to policy-makers including farmers in agriculture-related decision-making processes. Because participatory mapping involves significant interaction and engagement with farmers, it makes the process just as valuable as the product.

I am always amazed at what people draw and how they go about doing it. Many farmers are hesitant at first, but almost all of them were willing to put something down on paper.

A woman farmer’s map shows her work environment

A woman farmer’s map shows her work environment

Many take the activity seriously and can draw for an hour, making sure they’ve represented everything relevant to them. Many show little cultural details such as the steps that lead up to their house, or the distilling drum they use to make beer. Some people walk around their land while drawing, noticing the spaces and things that are so ingrained in their lives that it took drawing these surroundings for the farmers to realize their importance. Others become so overwhelmed at the idea of drawing their life onto paper that it takes some facilitation to make them comfortable.

Sometimes I have to put myself in their shoes. What would I draw if someone asked me to draw the spaces and things that contribute to my everyday life? When I went to Uganda, one of the farmers asked me to draw my map.

Mine was very different from the maps I’ve seen farmers draw. Not surprisingly, we live in completely different places and do completely different things. But it was simpler than I expected it to be. The overwhelming and complicated parts of my life were nowhere to be found.

The map that I drew

The map that I drew

This is something I need to keep in mind when I look at the maps farmers draw. I am aware that we can’t put all the important aspects of our lives on paper. I realized the farmers probably understood this better than I did when they asked me to do what I had asked of them. Many farmers also told me, “Come back next year and I’ll draw the same thing, only different.”

I may not be able to find my way around a place or know which direction I am going all the time. But I do understand that there is much more to maps than direction and routes. They are a snapshot of a story, a conversation, and a mood that we live out every day.

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