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Human Geography

Kees van der Geest: 'All thanks goes to Saint Nickolas'

Alumnus testimonial

Kees van der Geest, graduated in Human Geography, specialisation Environment and Development in 2002.

Kees van der Geest Photo by: Primus Nurudong

When I was around eight years old, I received a globe with a lamp inside as a Saint Nickolas present. Every night before going to sleep, I'd switch off the big light in my bedroom and took a trip around the globe.
Ten years later, and a few months after my final school exams, I did a gap year in Spain. Before leaving, I had already decided to study Human Geography. The University of Amsterdam offered a specialisation that combined Environmental Geography and Development Geography, which was exactly what I wanted. I've never regretted that choice. The first two years of the programme were still general, but as the level got higher in the last two years I grew more enthusiastic and ambitious. Suddenly, I really had to work hard.

In the mud castle

Almost the whole of the programmes fourth year was dedicated to a final project. For the field work, I went to northern Ghana to study how farming households adapt to changing rainfall patterns. I was in the field for a year, during which I lived with an old man and his family in a small village in the savanna. I dubbed his house the 'mud castle', and when it didn't rain I'd sleep on the flat roof under the stars. After a day in the field, I would sluice the dust from my body with a bucket of water and sit down to the daily meal of tuo zaafi (a ball of millet in a sauce). After dinner, we'd sit around talking and drinking locally brewed beer from a calabash. When the rest of the family went to sleep around eight in the evening, I'd light my oil lamp and start working out the notes I'd taken that day. 

That first year in Africa was the experience of a lifetime: doing research on my own, discovering new things, puzzling over how to make all the small chunks of information fit nicely, running into stumbling blocks and coming up with creative solutions.

While writing my thesis back in the Netherlands, the only thing I really wanted was to return to Ghana as quickly as possible. I soon got the chance, when a position opened up to do PhD research into the environmental impacts of the migration of farmers in Ghana.

PhD and beyond

I was mostly free to set my own schedule and that sometimes led me to get too distracted with things that didn't directly contribute to my PhD research. I travelled to Ghana overland through the Sahara, built a house in the savanna and produced two short documentaries. Making documentaries is certainly an easier way to reach a wide audience than scientific research.

For the past two years, I've been working at the United Nations University in Bonn, where I'm responsible for coordinating a large study on the impacts of climate change in nine vulnerable countries. I developed the methods being used in the project and am working to bolster the academic level of the researchers who are all from developing countries.

Human geographers are the experts par excellence when it comes to studying the human and societal consequences of climate change.