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“I was shot at in Pakistan”: Meet the academics who venture beyond UoN

For many lecturers at the University, teaching is only a tiny part of their schedule. Impact spoke to four of the University’s most intrepid researchers.

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Sam Okyere – Sociology

“I work with children in Ghana who are involved in informal gold mining”

WHAT IS YOUR MAIN AREA OF RESEARCH?

My research is mainly focused on the area of human rights, specifically the rights of children. I’m interested in children’s participation in the labour market of prohibited industries; contexts which people would define as child labour. I have carried out research with children in Ghana who are involved in informal gold mining. I felt that the voices of the working children themselves were not represented enough, so I thought it would be useful to talk to a group of children who are affected and see what they think about their participation, and how this compares to policy makers, academics and the general public.

HAS DOING THE RESEARCH AFFECTED YOU PERSONALLY?

I am originally from Ghana, but actually carrying out this research opened my eyes to a lot of things within the country which I was very oblivious to, underlying my position of privilege in comparison to those I research. It underlined my own ignorance about the the forms of human rights violations that happen to different communities around the world although no one seems to hear about.

DO YOU HAVE AN ULTIMATE AIM FOR THE PROJECT?

Yes I do. I’ve found so many injustices related to the informal mining and I want to explore them further. For example, gold was discovered under a large farming community so all the people were thrown off of their land to make way for the gold mine to be set up there. This led to abject poverty in that area, and in the process, horrible forms of human rights violations took place: people were beaten and dogs were set on some of the people. This sort of thing is very common. I am really interested in examining how situations like such can be avoided.

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Andrew Poulter – Archeology

“I was the first westerner to get an agreement to work in Eastern Europe as an archaeologist”

WHAT IS YOUR MAIN AREA OF RESEARCH?

My main area of research is investigating the transition between the later Roman Empire and Early Medieval Europe. It all started with a big conference I organised in 1984, and in 1985 I was the first westerner to get an agreement to work in Eastern Europe as an archaeologist.

WHAT HAS YOUR FAVOURITE PROJECT BEEN?

In 1996 I started a new project which was excavating what should have been a late-Roman village. It finally turned out to be a fortress with beautifully preserved upstanding walls and a lot of good environmental evidence with bodies and armour, weapons and cultural goods. That was a fantastic site.

I also started another project, on a site called Dobri Dyal, a Roman hilltop fortress. It turned out to be extremely unusual because it had very well preserved fortifications, with a massive gate tower and a curtain wall and also some amazingly upstanding buildings.

DO YOU HAVE ANY PARTICULARLY MEMORABLE STORIES?

I think one of the most curious things that happened was when I went to Bulgaria. I had a professional team of students, all from eastern Europe because it was during the Communist period. One Hungarian girl complained to the Lieutenant from the Young Communist League assigned to look after us, that the food was really bad. He then used the money meant for a group holiday after the project to buy better food, but no one noticed the improvement.

When the German students met with him to ask for the holiday money, he told them it was all gone. He said “You’ve eaten it. You can nail me to the wall like Jesus Christ and I still can’t give you the money!” The Germans got angry, and cascaded over the table towards him, so the Lieutenant ran out the back and jumped over a barbed wire fence. He got into a car and reversed away at high speed, with the Germans chasing after him. That was quite amusing.

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Michèle Clarke – Geography

“The village leaders came out of their houses and shot at us”

WHAT’S YOUR MAIN AREA OF RESEARCH?

I work on climate impacts on the environment and society including research on how extreme weather and storminess have changed over the years. I also work on rural energy, food security, ecology and development issues.

WHERE IN THE WORLD HAVE YOU LIVED?

Most of my academic career has involved working in Asia. I spend a fair bit of time travelling to field sites and meetings across the world each year. I meet a huge range of people from rural villagers, to researchers and students, university vice-chancellors and government employees. My PhD focused on Tibet and Pakistan, and my current research projects are focused in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma (Myanmar), Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Brazil, Nigeria and Uganda.

IS IT STRESSFUL TRAVELLING SO MUCH?

I have experienced some fairly hectic and dangerous events – I was once shot at in a tribal area in Pakistan. I was mapping the glacial features around Nanga Parbat with a colleague and we climbed along the mountain ridge towards a village. The tribal village leaders clearly didn’t want foreigners anywhere near so they came out of their houses and shot at us. It worked, we left rapidly!

Those sorts of odd occasion are few and far between though. While they might seem a big thing at the time, life moves on quickly and it’s better to dwell on the positives associated with visiting new places. The main issue for me working abroad is cumulative sleep deprivation and continuing to work though tiredness without hopefully showing it to whoever I am talking to!

DO YOU FEEL YOU’VE MADE A POSITIVE IMPACT ON THE PLACES YOU’VE VISITED?

The bioenergy research I am undertaking in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Uganda and hopefully in Burma looks at trying to bring energy services to poor rural communities to make a measurable difference to people’s lives. That means a lot to me and makes the hard work doing the research worthwhile.

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Esther Bott – Sociology

“I trekked to the Everest Base Camp and interviewed Sherpas”

WHAT’S YOUR MAIN AREA OF RESEARCH?

I look at the effect that tourism has on remote and developing areas, the locals, the landscape, environments, local communities and culture.

WHERE HAS YOUR RESEARCH TAKEN YOU?

It’s taken me all over. In 2009 I trekked to the Everest Base Camp and interviewed Sherpas about their experiences, and also their response to mountaineering tourism. That was truly amazing and inspirational. I’ve also explored the impact of tourism in the Wadi Rum district of Jordan and interviewed local people and the tourists to map changes to the area. I did a similar project in Patagonia, Argentina and I’ve just come back from Mexico.

HAS IT AFFECTED YOU PERSONALLY?

In Mexico I found myself getting involved with a church mission, which was personally very enlightening. They were working within a shanty town and looking at the influence and impact of poverty. Gang violence and drug dealing were also rife there. There are definitely darker aspects to my work – it’s not all about climbing mountains and having fun.

WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS?

I’m working on sex tourism at the moment and working on more niche tourism in the developing world. In October I am almost definitely returning to Nepal to explore child sex trafficking. The debates are quite limited at the moment, and it’s rather an upsetting topic.

Will Hazell, Eylül Çekirge, Radhika Chand, Abby Ross

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