Being made an African chief ‘humbling’

University of Otago geography professor Tony Binns takes a break from clearing his office space...
University of Otago geography professor Tony Binns takes a break from clearing his office space of 17 years. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
One of the perks of being named an honorary African chief is they kill a cow for you, there is a three-day celebration, they give you some land and your name is revered across the community.

"It’s quite humbling, and one of the highlights of my career," University of Otago geography professor Tony Binns said yesterday, following a public lecture about his 50 years researching and teaching African geography.

Prof Binns is retiring at the end of this year.

The 73-year-old said it was his father who sparked his passion for geography.

He had been in the British Royal Navy for 13 years and had travelled all over the world.

"I can remember, on wet Sunday afternoons in Manchester, we would sit down and look at all these photos of all the places he’d been to.

"That was a key factor in stimulating me initially."

He studied geography at secondary school and went on to do a bachelor of arts degree and a diploma in education at Sheffield University.

After school teaching for a couple of years, he did a master of arts degree and then a PhD in geography at Birmingham University.

It was his PhD research that first took him to Africa in 1974, where he studied the relationships between rural development and diamond mining in Sierra Leone.

Since graduating, he has taught at the Universities of Doncaster and Sussex while travelling extensively throughout Africa, researching resource development and poverty alleviation, with particular reference to the dynamics of indigenous farming, pastoral and fishing food production systems.

His recent work has focused on community-based development initiatives in South Africa; postwar community reconstruction in Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka; and urban agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa and Vietnam.

During his research in the far northeast of Sierra Leone, he made great connections with the people of Kayima and kept in touch, Prof Binns said.

The country was the sixth poorest in the world, so he helped various families financially, paid for a child to go to school and helped with community development projects.

"In 2014, the chiefs decided to make me a chief, 40 years after my first visit," he said.

He had since raised money to build a nursery school for 200 children, and was now funding the refurbishment of the local medical clinic, with help from Dunedin community organisations and his students, who had held many fundraising events.

"It’s my way of giving back to the community."

During the past 17 years, Prof Binns has also had a major impact on students and research at the University of Otago, and he will be made an emeritus professor upon his retirement.

"I’ll miss working with young people — that’s the No 1 thing," he said.

"They definitely keep me young. I get a lot of my brainwaves from working with students."

Like any good geographer, he has mapped his retirement out already.

He plans to continue writing and, Covid permitting, hopes to visit Africa and the United Kingdom again.

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