Google maps in Uganda: Guide or misguide?

by Lorien E. Menhennett

I’m confident when it comes to the biological sciences. I’ve made it through (almost) three years of medical school, after all.

Geography, though, is another story. It’s not that I don’t care about other people and other places. I have lived and traveled all over the United States. I studied in Chile for a semester in college, and have been abroad twice during medical school, with a third trip on the books for next spring. I even earned a minor in international studies in college.

But distances, maps, and directions … well …

Let’s just say I’m grateful beyond belief that I live in the era of Google maps and Siri-narrated driving directions.

All that is to say, I would not survive as a driver in Uganda.

Because, as you see, Google maps doesn’t work there. Maybe it does in Kampala, the capital city. But not in the rural areas, which is where I was traveling during my month-long stay there.

People in Uganda aren’t troubled by this. They don’t use Google maps. They don’t even use paper maps, according to the person who drove me around. They simply ask for directions.

Now I know why. Because it’s not just that Google maps is, I don’t know, a little off. No. It can lead you completely astray, hours astray, and lie to you.

This is what happened:

We were trying to get to a place called Nakaseke Hospital. I was presenting my palliative care educational materials there. The driver knew how to get partway there, then he stopped to ask for directions. Google maps, called up on an iPhone en route, pointed us in the opposite way as the man on the street pointed us. The two mzungus (foreigners, white people) in the car trusted the map more than the man.

Bad decision. A bad decision that resulted in doubling our trip time and making us two hours late to my presentation.

A little digging yielded the roots of our misdirection.

Searching for “Nakaseke” on Google maps did lead to a place called Nakaseke. But it was not Nakaseke Hospital — it was another (completely different) place also called Nakaseke. Searching for “Nakaseke Hospital” (the correct place we needed to go) brought up a “Permanently Closed” notification. So you can understand why we went the wrong way.

Below are the two “Nakaseke” routes. On the left, the route to plain-old “Nakaseke.” On the right, the route to “Nakaseke Hospital.”

I can attest that Nakaseke Hospital is NOT permanently closed, in spite of Google’s claim, shown below. It is very, very operational, as we discovered, once we finally got there.

As Dr. Howard Eison, the U.S. physician traveling with me for part of my time in Uganda, messaged me later:

Two Nakasekes. One closed. And to think it’s the “closed” one we needed to go to. NOT OK Google.

Lesson learned.