Maame Mensa-Bonsu

DPhil Law

Picture of Maame Mensa-Bonsu

I am a Ghanaian lawyer, lecturer, home-schooling mother, wife and DPhil student. In my first degree, I studied theatre arts with Spanish and briefly considered becoming a writer. I explored several career options before going to law school. I worked short stints as a radio journalist, a real estate agent, and a housewife.

I have always had three goals for my adult life: for my work to have a lasting impact on my society; to be proud of my output as a parent and as a professional; and, to not live my whole working life in mind-numbing predictability. The law provided the first and third remarkably well and the judiciary promised the second. So, I went to law school, and, notwithstanding the challenges of studying law as a young mother, I loved it. I love (nearly) everything about the law. I love how much every word of it matters; it justifies the care and effort I put into my work. I love how it can resolve what look like individual problems with invisible-hand institutional incentives. I love how it can be used to strengthen the weak to stand up to the strong. I’m mindful how all these things also make the law a dangerous tool. I jokingly tell my husband I came to the law because it was the only way my non-adventurous, non-athletic self could get a taste of adrenaline. The knowledge that well-intentioned, ill-thought out law can do as much damage as malicious law acts as a restraining influence on my exuberance and makes me examine every philosophic legal position I am inclined to take for unapparent implications.

When I came to Oxford for my BCL, I intended to be a WTO lawyer because my undergraduate studies in trade law had shown me how directly Ghana’s lack of human capital in trade law had translated into unbeneficial or sub-optimal treaties. But although I thoroughly enjoyed studying international economic law, I found, when I returned home, that outside of a classroom, I can’t get animated over trade law. Academia has offered me my second goal as well as the judiciary would have. But more than that, I discovered that my true passion is teaching, writing, researching constitutional law and theory. Coming from a country with such a young Constitution and constitutionalist culture, there’s so much that we have yet to process collectively about what our democracy means and what our state is for and it is a true joy and honour to be part of my country’s intellectual, constitutional journey.

One of the most fulfilling moments in my career so far was crafting the content of the constitutional law module. I am of only the first or second generation of academics in my country who teach the Constitution they studied. There is a marked difference in our attitude toward and belief in the power of Constitutions from our own teachers. Being able to both inject that optimism and bring contemporary constitutional law debates into the Ghanaian context and get young minds to reflect on, form their own, and learn to evaluate state action in light of their constitutional philosophies was humbling and deeply satisfying. I credit my constitutional theory class on the BCL with both the competence and the confidence to create a more philosophically rigorous con law module than is common in Ghana.

My doctoral research focuses on how to optimise the constitutionally pluralist nature of Ghanaian society so that the tension between state and tribal legal order neither explodes nor disappears. I am convinced that it is in that precarious balance that the welfare of the average citizen-especially the rural, poor- is best secured. I think this is a challenge most, if not all, postcolonial African states face. So I’m hoping my work will be helpful to all the similarly situated young nations of Africa.

There are two candidates for my biggest career challenge to date. The first was founding a law journal as an early career academic, at a young institution, and getting the legal establishment to take it seriously. You cannot begin to imagine how thrilled I was the first year that the journal appeared on the list of journals to publish in for promotion applications by the public universities in Ghana. The second candidate is the DPhil. It is exciting and scary and tiring and enriching and confidence-stripping and confidence-boosting all at once. But my supervisor’s support and the evidence I myself can see of my growth as a scholar, writer and thinker make it worth all it’s costing emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually. I have no regrets about choosing either the DPhil or Oxford. Sometimes when you get several wonderful doors opening for you at the same time, it can feel like whichever you choose, you lose; because you realise you are closing all the others when you walk through one. That’s how I felt when I got my DPhil offer. But I have no regrets at all about Oxford. I’m glad I came home.

If I could change one thing at Oxford, it would definitely be the size and invisibility of the population of BAME students (as a demographic) and the support networks offered by colleges for us. While most BAME people I know cannot tell horror stories of racist experiences; few can tell positive stories of active institutional support. Oxford is a fantastic experience. But it is built on centuries of whiteness and class. It would be good for the racial assumptions on which easy assimilation are built to be consciously addressed. I find it particularly tokenistic when issues of race, sexuality and gender are bundled into the same initiative.

On this page