Inspiring Woman: Professor Lalage Bown - Runneth London

Women’s literacy advocate, Lalage Bown was born in Surrey in 1927.  The eldest of four children, she was destined for a strong start in life.  Before she was born her mother had agreed to marry her father – on the condition that if they had any daughters, they would be entitled to education opportunities equal to any sons.  Quite remarkable for the 1920s!

When she was growing up, Lalage and her two brothers and sister lived in England but their parents lived abroad because their father’s work was based in Burma.  The children lived in childrens’ holiday homes and boarding schools.  As the eldest, Lalage was responsible for keeping an eye on her younger brothers and sister, effectively bringing them up.  Their mother would travel home by boat every summer but their father only had leave every third year.  They would speak to their parents for five minutes on the telephone each Christmas.

Lalage attended Cheltenham Ladies College and University of Oxford, gaining an Honours Degree in Modern History (1949) followed by a Master of Arts (1952).  At that time, she was one of 600 female students at Oxford, among 6000 males.  She left with a sense of responsibility to make good use of her privilege.

When asked if she might have a “fit of hysterics”  she simply replied “Well sir, if you don’t give me the job, you’ll never find out, will you?”

She attended post-graduate courses in adult education and economic development and had developed an interest in Africa, consolidated when she met African students at Oxford.  After her studies, she applied for a job based at the University College of the Goldcoast, Ghana. During her interview, she was asked “Now Miss Bown, supposing you were to get the job and you were in the jungle in a car and your car broke down, how do we know you wouldn’t have a fit of hysterics?  She simply replied “Well sir, if you don’t give me the job, you’ll never find out, will you?”

She was given the job and at just 22, travelled via Senegal to Ghana where she became involved in teaching African literature and arts. She saw first-hand the effects of illiteracy and dedicated much of her career to establishing and expanding adult education programmes in Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria with a particular focus on helping adult women learn to read and write.

“Even the simplest acquisition of literacy can have a profoundly empowering effect.  When it comes to women there is a huge change in their self-worth and confidence.”

Interviewed by Mary de Sousa in 2009 for the UNESCO Education Sector Newsletter she said “I was left with the huge conviction that even the simplest acquisition of literacy can have a profoundly empowering effect personally, socially and politically. When it comes to women there is a huge change in their self-worth and confidence.”

She was also instrumental in effecting the ‘Africanization’ of the curriculum. Speaking on BBC Radio4 Woman’s Hour, she describes how when she arrived in Africa, the students were required to study standard English texts such as ‘The Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth. She thought this was absurd and that they should be studying more relevant African texts.  She suggested to her (mostly male) colleagues that more relevant material, by African authors about African life, would be more appropriate, but they said there was no material available in English. She bet them a bottle of beer that she could produce texts written in English by Africans over a period of 200 years. They laughed at her but within two weeks, she had found relevant letters, diaries and texts and won her bottle of beer.

This eventually led to the publishing of her book in 1973 ‘Two Centuries of African English’  which became a much relied-upon resource by the African universities at the time.

When in Nigeria, she looked after five-year-old Nigerian twin girls who came from a broken home and were severely malnourished. After six-months, she had bonded so strongly with the girls, she asked if she could keep them on. There were no formal adoption arrangements so she fostered them long-term and now the twins are 60 years old!  One is retired and the other is still working.

In 1974, Bown became a Commonwealth Visiting Professor at Edinburgh University and in 1975, was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Open University for services to the education of the underprivileged.  In 1981, she left Africa after 30 years and returned to the UK, where she joined the University of Glasgow as Head of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education.

In 2002, the University awarded her an Honorary Doctor of Letters.

In the 1990s, Bown pulled together her experiences on the effects of literacy on adult women into a ground-breaking report ‘Preparing for the future women, literacy and development: the impact of female literacy on human development and the participation of literate women in change.’

Bown is most recognised for succeeding in giving Adult and Continuing Education recognised profile as a major field of education policy in Europe and Africa. She is known for being warm-hearted, full of passion and empathy. Now in her 90th year, she is enjoying her retirement but still speaks publicly when invited.

What an inspiring woman!

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