UCL Department of Geography


60 Seconds With…Professor Ben Page

15 November 2023

As Professor Ben Page prepares for his Inaugural Lecture on 10 January 2024, he reflects on his extensive research journey so far, centred on the dynamics of human migration and economic development in Cameroon.

Professor Ben Page

Professor Page's Inaugural Lecture

Tell us a little about your research...

Over the years I’ve been finding different ways to explore how changes connected to human migration and economic development have shaped society and space in Cameroon, the place where I do my research. Some of this work has been historical, looking for example at histories of community development in the era of decolonization. Some have been environmental, looking at how conservation goals and politics intersected with the global demand for herbal medicine in The Structural Adjustment period. Some have been urban, looking at how water infrastructure was used to create self-governing citizens who were used to the idea of paying for services. 

Some have been more concerned with emotions: exploring the dreams young Cameroonians have of going in search of adventures overseas, or the dreams older Cameroonians have of returning to their roots. I have been interested in exploring migration: looking at how Cameroonians in the diaspora are playing a role in changing their ‘home’. Sometimes this is through formal, conscious ‘Development’ activities working as groups – but more often it is through everyday individual activities: building a house, decorating a room, sending a remittance, sharing a meal, investing in a business, buying a car. 

Most recently I’ve been working with my colleagues Manu Lekunze and Emile Sunjo on more explicitly political topics related to the current security situation. It’s a fairly eclectic list of topics and I’ve enjoyed drawing on similarly eclectic theoretical sources. Like the anthropologist David Zeitlyn (who also works in Cameroon), I’m increasingly confident that mixing topics and theories up is productive, whereas taking a punt on a particular approach and sticking with it in the hope that it has some privileged access to enlightenment is not. 

As David says “all overviews are misleading and inadequate… do not try to develop one.” So, ‘montage’ or ‘collage’ would be better metaphors for gathering it all together: no efforts are made to hide the discontinuities and contrasts between topics – indeed those differences are, I hope, revealing. I think this is what my kids might refer to as ‘jump-cuts’, but they would wince in embarrassment to hear me describe my work as a geography of jump-cuts.  

Why is your research important?

‘Important’ isn’t necessarily a word I would choose to describe my work, but I definitely hope it’s ‘interesting’ or ‘distinctive’ and maybe that is enough to make it important in a way. I haven’t troubled the research funders too much over the years, so I feel fairly free to follow the topics that my Cameroonian collaborators and I are curious about rather than the ones that are primarily useful or policy-relevant. 

I’ve always admired colleagues and disciplines that set out to change the world, but I find it hard enough to understand it. I do try to hone in on topics and frameworks that are different from what others are doing, which often steers me away from the obviously important topics in Cameroon like the impacts of climate change or pathways to poverty-reduction or sustainable development. 

I do think it is crucially important to increase the global understanding of social change and everyday life in Africa though. The existing knowledge base is full of myths and generalizations (often the legacies of colonialism) that are worth de-bunking, and the field of African Studies is cautiously working out who should do that and how.

What inspires you in your work?

The unexpected and the unfamiliar. I love the enthusiasm of students when they get their first taste of discovery when doing their own research – that is a constantly refreshing experience and prevents me from becoming too jaded! Then there is what you read – more or less anything Francis Nyamnjoh or Basile Ndjio write about Cameroon will get my ideas flowing.

What has been your most memorable career moment so far?

Memory is a bit troublesome – it’s often the disasters that come to mind first! Like unwittingly getting caught up in a personal spat between feuding historians when journal editing, or embarrassing an entire lecture theatre by contesting a much-admired German professor’s interpretation of a well-known theorist when I was a post-doc. 

But I’ve some happier memories too – I do really treasure the messages students have written when they have got something out of my teaching. And I’m also always thrilled when Cameroonians (whether academics or not) find something they like in my work.  

What passions/hobbies do you have outside of work?

My son Alex is really into film at the moment and I love going with him to the BFI – he’s introduced me to loads of new films and filmmakers. His younger brother Owen is getting into cooking, which has always been one of my passions too – we make cheese and marmite twists together. I love gardening and I’m enjoying helping a neighbour on his allotment. 

It's great getting out on my road bike or into the countryside to hike up a hill. I’ve always enjoyed being a Londoner and there’s a great show on contemporary African photography at the Tate Modern right now, which I highly recommend. 

And then there’s music… I’d love to say I keep up-to-date (and I can honestly claim to have been listening to Burna Boy long before most people) but in the end the playlist is likely to alternate between David Byrne and Leonard Cohen – and I’ve ceased to be embarrassed about it!

What book is currently on your bedside table?

I’m really enjoying The School of Life’s A Therapeutic Atlas: Destinations to inspire and enchant, which gave me the idea for the structure of the inaugural lecture. It’s got lots of pictures and very short chapters, which is ideal at the end of the day… 

Professor Pages' Inaugural Lecture, An extimate atlas of Cameroon, is taking place on Wednesday 10 January, 6:15pm at the Sir Ambrose Fleming Lecture Theatre. 

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