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It doesn’t really exist, but I am one: a tropical lawyer!

Alumna Janine Ubink is a Professor of Law, Governance and Development at Leiden University. She researches legal pluralism in various areas of Africa and calls herself a ‘tropical lawyer’. She says, ‘It doesn't really exist, but I am one.’

Why did you decide to study law?

‘I wanted to become a tropical medicine doctor, but my applications kept getting rejected. After I switched to Biomedical Sciences, I decided to take a gap year. I went to Sri Lanka and studied law for a trimester. I enjoyed it so much that I eventually decided to study law. But I was constantly drawn to Africa... At the Van Vollenhoven Institute (VVI), I took courses on law in Africa and Asia. I also worked at the VVI as a Student Assistant and volunteered at the Dutch Council for Refugees. Everything culminated in my PhD research, which focused on land conflicts in Ghana. So I’m not a tropical medicine doctor, but I am tropical lawyer.’

Meme Johanna: one of the first female traditional leaders in northern Namibia
Meme Johanna: one of the first female traditional leaders in northern Namibia

What does a tropical lawyer do?

I study legal systems in Africa, and specifically the relationship between state law and the customary law of various traditional communities. For example, Ive researched the first female traditional leaders in northern Namibia – very confident women. I sat with them under a tree talking about their experiences for two or three hours. I asked about gender roles within their community, how those roles were changing and how that affected the leadership structure. It was extremely fascinating.’

How do those conversations work?

‘It very much depends on the area and who you’re talking to, of course. I talk to farmers, villagers, chiefs as well as councillors, mayors, judges and ministers. You need to approach these groups very differently – Ghanaian villagers and farmers are very happy to talk about their situation, while I often had to convince judges and ministers of my expertise first. I would sit down and start by giving a short, very general talk while they’d be looking at their watches. At that point, I would quickly try to intervene and take the conversation up a few notches by showing what I already knew. And that was a lightbulb moment – it was interesting. From then on, I could talk to them for hours.

‘I have the freedom to research what I enjoy, and I get to travel in order to do that.’

What did you learn during your fieldwork?

‘I discovered that you have to use your sixth sense when you’re doing field research. For instance, I once got out of the car and immediately felt tension. I later found out that it was the village where most of the trouble occurred. In Ghana, discussions are usually held in the courtyard, and if you speak to a chief, a number of elders will stand around and listen in. If the chief took me inside with only one other elder present, I knew he wasn't going to tell me the truth. I learned this later on, during conversations with other villagers. In that moment, you simply nod and listen and learn to trust your instincts. As a woman – and initially as still quite a young woman – travelling to these places means you have to rely on your instincts more anyway: is it safe, and do I trust this person? It helped me grow so much as a person.’

Janine Ubink in conversation with officials from Somalia's Ministry of Justice
Janine Ubink in conversation with officials from Somalia's Ministry of Justice

How do you like travelling and living in Africa?

It’s special to be able to have long conversations with people in vastly different communities and to learn to understand their way of life. When you arrive in a new place, you can't really imagine how the people live there. As a Dutch person, you initially mainly see how different and poor life in that community is. It’s only after you’ve spent a few months there that your perspective changes. It’s wonderful to have those kinds of experiences.

What’s the best thing about your work?

‘It’s my freedom to research the things I find interesting. During my PhD research, I bumped into a former fellow student while I was on my way to my Twi language class. He asked me, ‘Are you allowed to do your language classes during working hours?’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s part of my research.’ ‘And is your employer giving you a year of unpaid leave to travel to Ghana?’ ‘No, it’s my job.’ He just couldn’t understand it. He had a well-paid job at a large law firm, but I have the freedom to explore the things I find interesting. And it takes me to all sorts of interesting places.’

What added value do you bring to the work that you do?

‘Many African researchers conduct good research in their own countries but do not have the opportunity to work across the border as well so that they can compare their results. My strength is that I have comparative knowledge. That means I’m aware of the similarities and differences between countries and legal systems and which lessons learned in one country could be helpful to another.’

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