SOAS University of London

OBITUARY - PROFESSOR EFFA OKUPA

15 May 2018

Effa Okupa

We in the law department were so sorry to learn of the death of our dearest friend and colleague Professor Effa Okupa, who died of a brain tumour in the early hours of Wednesday morning, 2 May, just three days short of her 83rd birthday. Effa, who was from Edo State in Nigeria, came to Britain in 1954. She married and had a son, Kwesi, who we are happy to note became a barrister. In middle age, his mother decided to follow his lead and to study law. She graduated with an LLB from UCL in 1989, which she followed up with an LLM in 1990, before moving to SOAS to undertake a PhD under the supervision of Werner Menski. Their joint interest in comparative laws of the family and customary laws led to a thesis titled: “Ethno-jurisprudence of children’s rights: A study of the Himba of Namibia” The examiners commended her on the excellence of her ethnographic research and passed the thesis without amendments in May 1996. She went on to publish two books, one on Namibia and the impact of German colonialism, the other a bibliography of customary law.

Her love of the Himba people took her back to Namibia numerous times, where she established links with the University of Namibia (UNAM), for whom she continued to teach about customary law until she was taken ill in Namibia in February this year.  It was her initiative, and the active support of Werner Menski, that led to UNAM and SOAS establishing a Special Programme that brought Namibian law students to SOAS for a month to study alongside our own students. The programme, which lasted from 2004-2008, threw up a lot of logistical challenges: where would they live, how would they be funded? Mama Doc, as she came to be known, took care of all that, housing some students in her own home.  Our students benefitted enormously from their interactions and our core first year course, Legal Systems of Asia and Africa, was enriched immeasurably by their input. Responding to her death, Professor Mashood Baderin reminisced about the gratitude of the UNAM students for her generosity. It is worth noting that three of those students have gone on to do Masters programmes at Oxford and two have proceeded to do doctorates.  She never stopped trying to help African students and left her PhD gown with the instruction: "No African woman should fail to graduate because she cannot afford a gown." 

Always a faithful friend, Effa’s capacious heart meant that she never forgot us at SOAS. She was a professorial associate of the law department for a number of years.  She regularly liaised with Christine Djumpah, with whom she had a warm relationship. She dropped in on us and attended events, giving warm congratulations to "little sister" Professor Lynn Welchman at her inaugural lecture. She had friendships across the school, a particular favourite being Jahan Latif, whose kindness and professional skills she appreciated. She was thrilled to meet the “new” Director with whom she had her photograph taken, showing it off regularly and with enormous pride.

Effa never lost her sense of adventure. Her most recent research foray was to China’s Yunnan Province, since she was curious to study the customs and practices there with a view to comparing them to her beloved Himba. In preparing for her trips to Yunnan, she found good advice and information from our colleague Dr Sanzhu. She went twice and was full of excitement and enthusiasm about all that she had learned.  She was grateful to the staff at Yunnan Law School for their warmth and collegiality and was determined that staff there should visit SOAS. At her suggestion, and with Dr Zhu writing the letter in Chinese, the Law School invited the Dean of Yunnan Law School and his colleagues to visit SOAS.

Since her death, we have discovered that she had a pet name for all of us. We called her 'Aunty Effa’, sister or Mama Doc.  There will be three funeral services held to honour her, to celebrate her life and to smooth her passage to the land of the ancestors: one in Namibia on 17 May, another in Nigeria and one in London; we await the date.

Go well, big sister, aunty, Mama Doc, Professor Okupa!

Fareda Banda and Werner Menski, London, 11 May 2018.