Otago's African chief to meet the Queen

University of Otago professor Tony Binns has had an eventful start to the year.

First he was made chief of an African town.

And now he has been invited to meet the Queen.

Prof Binns, of the geography department, was awarded an honorary chieftainship of a small town in the far northeast of Sierra Leone on January 27.

Prof Binns' links to the town - Kayima - go back to 1974, when he lived there for almost a year, undertaking field research for his PhD on links between diamond mining and the farming sector.

Since that ''life-changing'' experience, Prof Binns, originally from Britain, had stayed in touch with the town and Sierra Leone, visiting about 15 times, buying supplies for the local school and paying for the education of the nephew of a local chief from the age of 4.

The chief's nephew, Bunduka Mondeh, who is now aged 44 and runs a garage, contacted the chiefs of the wider area - called Sandor - before the 40th anniversary of Prof Binns' first visit, and they agreed he should be awarded honorary chieftainship.

Less than a month after being made chief, Prof Binns, in his role as president of the Commonwealth Geographical Bureau, was invited to a reception with the Queen, at Marlborough House, in London, to celebrate Commonwealth Day on March 10.

He accepted the invitation, calling a meeting with the Queen a ''once-in-a-lifetime'' opportunity.

His students were ''quite impressed'' when they heard about him being made chief and his invitation to meet the Queen.

''They don't believe the chief thing. How can someone like me become a chief?''

Receiving the chieftainship, in a ceremony which involved much of the town's population of about 3000, was a ''humbling experience''.

''I felt I was coming home to a place that I loved and the fact these very poor people had out the red carpet for me. It was really quite humbling,'' he said.

The welcome to the town and ceremony involved traditional dancing and music.

Prof Binns was given two titles, Chief Manjawah of Sandor, meaning master farmer, and Sahr Kayima, meaning first son of Kayima.

At one point, Prof Binns was asked to poke his head out through the sunroof of a 4WD vehicle and wave to the town's residents, who had assembled to welcome him.

''It was really quite overwhelming and humbling that so many people turned out,'' he said.

As part of being chief, Prof Binns will stay connected to the town.

To help strengthen ties, a PhD student of his was visiting the town, following up on the research he did 40 years ago.