A Geography Lesson

I love maps, all kinds really.  I love knowing that there are places nothing like the place that I live, the often boring, suburban, smallish city where I make my home.  I love to imagine these places, a little church in Ndola, a bridge lined with tuberoses in Angers, an ice cream shop in Frutigen.  Maps are bright, with lovely colors and borders.  They make the world feel smaller to me, an ocean crossed with my palm.  Maps though, they have biases and distortions.  There are problems with taking a spherical world and flattening it out.  The traditional map I know is the Mercator Map (pictured above), originally drawn in the 1500s.  The Mercator has some advantages.  It shows relatively accurate shapes of the land masses and has lines lovely for sailing.  The trouble is, when flattening a sphere, in order to preserve accuracy of shape, we must sacrifice accuracy of size.  On this traditional map, size distortion becomes much greater the farther from the Equator that you go.  Much of the southern hemisphere is also cropped off the the map (removing most of Antarctica and shifting the Equator down the map).  This causes western states (namely North America and Europe) to appear much larger than they actually are, and Africa and much of Asia to appear much smaller.  Many refer to this issue as The Greenland Problem.

I suppose this isn’t a problem for a North American with European heritage like me.  Who doesn’t want to believe that their culture is of dazzling significance, dominating the map?  Obviously my country is quite large, and I must represent the majority, and my culture, my thoughts must be the right ones.  The problem I find though especially now that I have traveled farther and farther from home is that we don’t represent the majority at all, not in land mass, not in population.  There is so much more out there.  This is the Peters Map, a map with certainly distorted shapes which preserves the true size of each land mass.

I adore this illustration, and I hope one day that my children will appreciate it.

My children are African, and I want them to know the rich and profound heritage that they possess.  I want them to know their birth culture for its phenomenal beauty and brilliance and not emphasize its overwhelming poverty or lack of development.  There is so much opportunity there, so much innovation, so much potential.  My experience in Africa has always left me feeling inadequate in so many ways.  There is nothing inferior about that place.

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