The Akinkugbe family’s journey from Nigeria to Nova Scotia
Although Olabisi and Esther Akinkugbe are originally from Nigeria, a country that is an ocean and 7,700 kilometres away from Nova Scotia, when the married couple first visited Halifax five years ago, the friendly port city “felt familiar.”
“It felt like some place where we could be really happy,” Esther says from the married couple’s Halifax-area home. “We didn’t know we would end up here.”
At the time, the Akinkugbes were living in Fredericton, where Olabisi worked as an assistant professor at the University of New Brunswick and Esther worked at a local law firm. Both are lawyers by trade, and yes, they met at work back in Lagos.
“Our first visit to Halifax was in 2016,” described Olabisi, who goes by Bisi. “We drove around and stayed downtown, and also drove to the university at that time, and I just expressed hope that I could work there some day.”
By spring 2017, Bisi had applied for an assistant professor position, specific to his particular legal expertise, that happened to pop up at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law and before long, “the call came in; it was a 902 number and I was like, ‘this is a Halifax call!’ ”
It didn’t take them long to settle right in, either. They have a lovely house in a popular suburban neighbourhood, where they’re raising their two children, 10-year-old Pearl and seven-year-old Jasper, along with two-and-a-half-year-old family dog Milo.
Bisi secured a tenure track position, while Esther was also successfully hired on at Dalhousie as a legal advisor in the Research Services office.
“I’m a small-town girl,” Esther says. “This is a place where my kids can grow and where we can feel safe.”
As assistant professor at Dalhousie, Bisi specializes in international economic law; international investment law; international law and development; international human rights law; and more.
Although working from home while juggling two small kids has been no easy feat for any family through the pandemic, Bisi is a recent recipient of a 2021 Belong Research Fellowship Award for his research on illicit financial flows, illicit trading and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Africa.
Bisi is also proud of his work with Afronomics Law, a blog project he co-founded with James T. Gathii of the Loyola University School of Law, in association with the African International Economic Law Network back in fall 2018 to “focus on international economic law and public international law themes as they relate to Africa and the Global South.” Afronomics Law “aims to amplify the voices and issues that are not often part of the conversation in the scholarship and practice in these areas”.
“We spoke a lot about what we could do and we thought, ‘let’s create a space where we can write,’ ” Bisi says of building an online community to help educate the public freely about African international trade and investment law. Before too long, other scholars started sharing their work to the website, which now has hundreds of authors globally. You can check it out at www.afronomicslaw.org.
Although Esther is a little more private about her professional life, she shares the story of first encountering Bisi back in that Lagos law firm. The moment Esther walked through the office doors, Bisi knew they’d end up together.
“The first day I saw her, I told her I wanted to marry her.”
“I thought that was weird,” Esther says. “So he got put in the friend zone.”
“I had to wait a couple of months to get my chance,” Bisi says.
Esther admitts that “after a couple of months, I realized, ‘I kinda like this guy,’ ” so she gave him a window of opportunity to ask her out properly. He almost missed his chance, but Bisi secured that first date back in fall 2006. Three years later, they married, tying the knot with a legal wedding, a traditional Nigerian ceremony and “a white wedding in the church.”
“He’s the more adventurous one of the two of us,” Esther says, “I am more cautious and must weigh all the risks … it’s a nice balance.”
Although she earned her Masters of Law at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Esther didn’t necessarily picture herself settling down outside of Nigeria. However, Bisi was spending his post-graduate North American studies at the University of Toronto, where he received his Masters of Law, and the University of Ottawa, where he completed his PhD.
But it wasn’t until they visited Halifax that first time that they finally felt like they had arrived home.
“Halifax is a city we saw as a place that would keep growing,” Bisi says. “If we are going to live in eastern Canada, in the Maritimes, then Halifax is the ideal city.”
There is a growing Nigerian community within Nova Scotia, the Akinkugbes say, which has been a comfort to them. In return, Esther says, “whenever we are able to give back, we do, like when we come across couples or young families that have just moved.”
“I like to …bring them into my home, give them the tips and share my experiences; sort of help them settle.”
“We found a lot of love in Nova Scotia and that is something we can draw on moving forward,” Bisi says. “To sow a seed of love in everyone within the community so that people are not shy to reach out for help.”