When Professor Lalage Bown, 82, takes to the stage to talk about literacy and empowerment as part of International Literacy Day celebrations, she brings with her a lifetime’s field experience and groundbreaking research in adult education.
Much of her career has been spent in Africa where she was instrumental in establishing and expanding adult education programmes at universities in Ghana, Uganda, and Nigeria. Her research into adult female literacy led to her groundbreaking report Preparing the future - women, literacy and development: the impact of female literacy on human development and the participation of literate women in change.
She explains why she owes the particular path her life took to her remarkable mother.
“My mother was allowed to continue her schooling until the age of 17 which was considered very forward-looking at the time. When my father proposed to her she said she would only marry him on the condition that any girl children they had would be brought up with exactly the same opportunities as the boys. They went on to have two girls so my father really had to put his money where his mouth was,” she says.
“I was privileged enough to go to Oxford to study history where I was one of 600 girls in a male population of 6,000. I left with a sense of responsibility. I had many offers to work in management but I wanted to be useful to others. When I saw the many empire countries regaining independence I decided to go and help.”
She headed for Africa where she became involved in programmes for teaching African literature and arts and, among other things, organized the first-ever conference on African culture to be held on African soil. Her book Two Centuries of African English (Heinemann, 1973) arose directly from efforts to Africanize the curriculum, both in formal education and in the wider community. Her Africa sojourn also led to her becoming a foster mother to twin Nigerian girls she brought up from the age of five.
It was in Africa she saw firsthand the effects of illiteracy and began her studies on the impact of learning to read and write on the lives of adult women.
“I never forget what a Mozambique woman told me. She said: ‘when you can’t read and write you are always afraid’ and it is true. How can you find your way to the clinic? How can you read about your medication?
“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 is not completely in favour of the most common development approach.
“Women’s literacy is now always tied to how it improves the lives of their families and children and health indicators which is hugely important but literacy is also important for a woman’s personal development and involvement with society regardless of family,” she said.
In the 1990s she began to draw together her experiences on the effects of literacy on adult women into a report.
“I was amazed to discover it had never been researched before. I think this is because it is still the way of the world that when we think of literacy we think of schools and children. Of course everyone male and female has a right to literacy but it is still a fact that in most societies, even where the males don’t have access to reading and writing, they have access to what I call the levers of power such as village committees where decisions are taken. The problem is that women don’t.”
She feels also that when it comes to teaching, quality adult literacy is often a poor relation.
“It is never questioned that when you send a child to school the teacher will be trained but often when it comes to adult teaching any volunteer will do,” she said. “I am convinced that when people truly want to read they will learn even if the teacher is hopeless but how much more beneficial to provide well-trained teachers.”
She believes the key to eradicating illiteracy is political will.
“It doesn’t matter whether it is within a region or a province but it needs strong political will to bring about changes in literacy levels. In fact it’s probably highly visionary but what is needed is a movement at international level committed to literacy. Countries which have been successful in improving literacy like Cuba, Bangladesh and Ethiopia demonstrate what can be done when there is political interest. I saw firsthand how someone like Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere could bring about real change in education for his people. It wasn’t for nothing he was called Mwalimu which means 'teacher' rather than ‘Your Highness.’”
Apart from governments other smaller scale community-based institutions can be extremely effective.
“In Africa the Baptist Church has made significant contributions to literacy and in Pakistan I was fascinated to see some of the best literacy work being done by the Girl Guide movement which is run mainly by well-educated Pakistani women who feel a strong sense of responsibility towards other less educated women.”
And despite the internet, she believes the written word is still crucial as a cheap and lasting way of keeping and sharing knowledge although there are still issues over literacy material.
“In Pakistan all the voices of all the actors in learning materials are male,” she said.
When it comes to large organisations like UNESCO she believes there must be serious financial commitment to funding literacy programmes. “When I see ‘soft’ money being used it shows me that literacy isn’t really regarded as a core purpose,” she says. “There is also a risk that what I call ‘World Bank’ thinking can mean that costs and management become more important than the people who need help.”
Professor Lalage J. Bown was born in Surrey, U.K. in 1927. She attended Cheltenham Ladies' College and the University of Oxford, where she took Second Class Honours in Modern History (1949) and then continued on to an M.A. (1952). She then relocated to Africa where she taught at the University College of the Gold Coast, Ghana; Makerere University College, Uganda; University of Ibadan, Nigeria; University of Zambia; Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria; and the University of Lagos.
She became a Commonwealth Visiting Professor at Edinburgh University in 1974. In 1975 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Open University "for services to the education of the underprivileged," and the William Pearson Tolley Award from Syracuse University, the first woman to receive this award. In 1981 she returned to the U.K., accepting a position with the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Glasgow. In 2002, that institution awarded her an Honorary Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.).
Mary de Sousa
The Literacy Day Prize Winners 2009