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Chatting with Thoko Kaime


Welcome to the latest interview of the Völkerrechtsblog’s symposium ‘The Person behind the Academic’! With us we have Prof. Thoko Kaime, and through the following questions, we will try to get a glimpse of his interests, sources of inspiration and habits.

Welcome Prof. Kaime and thank you very much for accepting our invitation!

First of all, thank you for the invitation. I am happy to participate in the symposium ‘The Person Behind the Academic’.

May I first ask, what it was that brought you to academia and what made you stay?

Initially, I embarked on my professional journey as a typical commercial lawyer in Malawi. My days were filled with handling contracts, engaging in litigation, and dealing with various aspects of private law. My colleagues and I held aspirations of one day leading a prestigious commercial law firm. However, the demanding workload quickly took its toll, leading me to experience burnout. Recognizing the need for a break, my superiors suggested that I step away from legal practice for a while.

During this time of contemplation, an unexpected opportunity arose to pursue a master’s degree in human rights at the University of Pretoria. Initially, I viewed this as a pleasant escape, unaware that it would become one of the most transformative experiences of my life. Despite returning to legal practice immediately after completing my degree, I found that my academic pursuits continued to captivate me. Consequently, life took an unexpected turn, leading me to pursue a dual path in both academia and legal practice for some time until I ventured to step into academia completely. I have not looked back since.

Numerous reasons have anchored me in the academic space. Primarily, I consider teaching to be my most important responsibility. However, beyond that, I am constantly driven to explore essential questions, particularly regarding the impact of state actions on the international stage on individuals at the grassroots level. These inquiries have become an integral part of my journey, shaping my perspective and guiding my endeavours.

If you were not an academic, what would you be?

I would have been a car mechanic. During my childhood, I would spend time in my dad’s friend’s garage, eagerly absorbing knowledge about car repairs and various mechanical tasks. I was always mechanically minded, tinkering with this and that. I recall a memorable moment when I successfully dismantled our family radio and then failed to put it back. My mum was not too thrilled.

My passion for fixing things, particularly cars, has endured throughout my life. Even today, I find great satisfaction in troubleshooting and restoring mechanical components. Interestingly, this interest has also been passed down to my youngest son, who shares a similar fascination with the inner workings of automobiles.

When it came to my university studies, I initially pursued Mathematics and Economics. However, due to the influence of my lawyer friends, I made the decision to switch my major after some semesters. Nonetheless, my affinity for mechanics remains a cherished aspect of my life, and I often find solace and enjoyment in applying my knowledge and skills to repair various objects, especially cars.

Which are three texts that you would wish all academics working on international law would read?

I think everyone, not just academics working on social justice, be it from the lens of international law or whatever discipline, should read Malcolm X and Steve Biko. For me, they are the essence of living for others and living for justice for all, which I believe should be the purpose of international law.

During my time in secondary school, I stumbled upon Malcolm X’s works by chance in the library. His ideas and perspectives challenged many preconceived notions I held and provided me with a completely different outlook on the world. However, this didn’t sit well with the school authorities, who disapproved of my interest in Malcolm X. Eventually, even my cherished Malcolm X poster was removed from my dorm room. X’s eponymous statement “by any means necessary”, which encapsulates his unyielding determination to fight for equality and justice, accompanies me to this day.

Biko’s selflessness, to the extent that he considered his own life as not his own, is incredibly humbling. His refusal to accept an unjust world shows the power that we have as individuals to make our world better. He was the essence of black pride. Biko teaches us that when faced with injustice, we must never look away no matter the risk. An awesome human being, he was.

Overall, these icons’ contributions serve as powerful sources of inspiration and critical thinking, fostering a deeper appreciation for the complexities and nuances of international law in relation to human rights and equality.

Would you say that your upbringing has had an impact on your research interests?

Yes, of course. Growing up in diverse environments, including Bangwe, Malawi, as well as living in countries like South Africa, England, and Germany, has greatly influenced my research interests. These experiences exposed me to a range of cultural, social, and legal contexts, shaping my perspectives and focus.

A central aspect that has shaped my research is a strong dedication to social justice. Witnessing inequalities and injustices in different societies has fueled my determination to promote fairness and equality. I am driven to explore the intersections of law, human rights, and societal issues, and strive to understand and address systemic disparities while advocating for inclusive practices.

Furthermore, my upbringing has instilled in me a heightened awareness of my Africanness and the challenges faced by marginalised communities. This awareness fuels my desire to examine the dynamics of race, identity, and power within legal frameworks and human rights discourse. I am motivated to critically analyse how the context of law can either perpetuate or challenge systemic racism, and I advocate for transformative approaches that dismantle discriminatory structures. The urgency to address racism and ethnic discrimination, particularly its systemic and institutional manifestations, extends beyond international law for me as a black individual. It affects my sense of belonging in the world, in Bayreuth, and within my University.

What is your favourite place to read and write? What is always near you when you read and write?

My preferred place for reading and writing is my tidy desk at home (which is never actually tidy). It provides a quiet and comfortable environment that allows me to focus and immerse myself in the words on the page.

When I settle down to read or write, a cup of coffee is always within reach, irrespective of the time of the day. But of course, I vehemently deny any suggestions of addiction to any Ethiopian beans or their cousins.

I find that the late evenings are the most conducive time for my reading and writing endeavours. The stillness of the night creates an atmosphere of tranquillity, allowing me to delve deeper into my thoughts and explore ideas without interruption.

What is an energy and inspiration booster, at times when you have none?

When my energy and inspiration are at a low point, there are three activities that never fail to boost my spirits: playing with my kids, riding my motorbike and listening to Afrobeats music. I also tend to walk around the house when fishing for ideas. Can someone remove the fridge, please!

Have you ever drawn influence from any form of art in your work? Is there anything artistic about writing academic texts?

Yes, the process of elaborating a painting and writing an academic text is quite similar. The way you go over the work back and forth and move certain pieces. It is like an artwork. Also, when I write an academic text, it takes a lot of time, patience, and energy, which I imagine is similar to when you do a painting. And like art, writing is never finished but must somehow be let go.

Another comparison I would like to draw is connected to music. Songwriters will always draw listeners to the chorus, to the hook: if done right, that hook will keep replaying in one’s head all day. So does someone who is writing an academic text. In this case, the chorus is like the result or outcome of an academic text which makes the reader imagine worlds beyond the text.

If you could, which advice would you give to yourself at the early stages of your career?

Often, the first thing you think about is the message you should convey. So run with that message. Second: be fearless. If it feels like someone or some processes are trying to hold you back, they probably are. Speak your truth, always. Finally, identify a cause and write for that cause because if you don’t, then what’s the point?

If you could, which unspoken rule of academia would you instantly erase?

Rule 1: Send many many emails. (roll eye). Imagine opening your mailbox on a Monday morning and you see 103 unread mails. The mail traffic in academia is ridiculous. I would delete this rule or alternatively (or more realistically) delete unread emails.

Rule 2: Another unspoken rule of academia, especially amongst lawyers, is the suit-wearing business. Let me be honest: I did not quit the City of London so I can wear suits in Upper Franconia.

Have you experienced or witnessed discrimination in academic circles? How have you reacted to these instances?

Yes, I have personally experienced discrimination in academia at different institutions and in varying forms. These instances of discrimination have influenced my responses to address such injustices.

For example, one significant incident involved taking legal action against a former University due to unequal remuneration. I filed a lawsuit against the institution when I discovered that I was being paid less than a white colleague doing exactly the same work. This action was taken to assert my rights and challenge the discriminatory treatment I faced based on my race.

Additionally, I have faced obstacles when it has come to promotions at all institutions where I have worked before Bayreuth. Despite fulfilling all the objective requirements for promotion, I have been denied promotions on spurious grounds not included in the published criteria. These denials were all based on factors unrelated to my qualifications or accomplishments and, in my view, highlight the presence of bias and discrimination within the academic system. In all cases where I was denied promotion, I was offered promotions at other institutions within months of such rejections. My message to black academics is that you must not wait for your institutions to see you: Get out of there fast. Many other places will see your talent for what it is. After all, as they say: Game recognises game.

In response to these instances, I have taken an assertive approach to advocate for equal treatment and opportunities. By pursuing legal action and speaking out against discrimination, I aim to not only seek justice for myself but also challenge the systemic barriers that perpetuate such inequalities.

Ideally, whom would you want to find waiting for a meeting with you outside your office next Monday?

It’s between Rob Glicksman and Luke Mason. Rob because he reminds me what a privilege it is to be a teacher and that it is nothing I should ever take for granted; that I must try and give back as much as possible at all times. Luke because he is one of the most profound thinkers that I know. He is one of my favourite philosophers, and of course, we can talk for days about Liverpool Football Club.

I think it’s a problem that my answer lacks any sort of diversity at all. Fareda Banda will not be impressed.

What are you working on currently? What may we anticipate in the near future?

Currently, I am dedicated to further developing and expanding my Chair of African Legal Studies at the Faculty of Law, Business, and Economics at the University of Bayreuth. This Chair is the only hub for teaching and research in Germany and Europe that focuses exclusively on Law in Africa. I aim to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of African legal systems and their significance in the global context.

In line with my commitment to social justice, I am actively engaged in exploring anti-racism within the realm of international law. This involves examining how legal frameworks can address and combat systemic racism, promoting inclusivity, and advocating for equality on a global scale.

Furthermore, I am working on outreach initiatives in the field of African legal studies research. This includes collaborating with scholars, organisations, and communities in Africa to foster knowledge exchange and collaboration. By strengthening these connections, we can enhance the understanding and relevance of African legal systems within academia and society at large.

I will soon start my sabbatical and want to spend part of this time in Africa, reconnecting with the continent that holds significant importance to my research and personal experiences. Being home in Africa allows me to immerse myself in the context, engage with local communities, and further deepen my understanding of the diverse legal landscapes and their implications. And of course, I will be enjoying Ndombolo and Nsima.

Thank you very much, Prof. Kaime, for participating in our symposium and for having taken the time to respond to our questions!

Thoko Kaime

Prof. Dr Thoko Kaime holds the Chair of African Legal Studies at the University of Bayreuth where he prioritises International Human Rights Law and International Environmental Law. He pursued his Bachelor of Laws at the University of Malawi, his Master of Laws at the University of Pretoria and his PhD at the SOAS University of London.

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Spyridoula (Sissy) Katsoni

Spyridoula Katsoni is Research Associate and PhD Candidate at Ruhr University Bochum’s Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV).

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