Remembering Lalage

“I was left [after spending several years in Africa] 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.”

Lalage Bown, in an interview with Mary de Sousa in 2009 for the UNESCO Education Sector Newsletter


The death of Professor Lalage Bown after a fall at home on 17th December 2021 was a great blow for everyone in the world of Adult Education and beyond. She was a passionate and hugely effective proponent of empowerment through education, and especially the education of women. And within that vision, she always saw literacy as an essential, fundamental component of development.

Two of Lalage’s endearing characteristics were her generosity to one and all, and her supremely effective communication. Her writing and her oral delivery were clarion clear. She never minced words. She said it as it was, however difficult the message. 

Lalage was an ardent and faithful supporter of BALID throughout its existence, contributing to many events over the years.  BALID benefited enormously from an Informal Literacy Discussion that she led at Redcliffe College, Gloucester in 2015, entitled Adult literacy: Policies and structures. This focused on the need for us to educate ourselves in political literacy and not think of literacy only in the traditional sense. She turned the tables on us! Here is a significant truth extracted from a summary of her presentation:

Convincing those in power, whether in central or local government, in some NGOs or in important companies, is just one step. There have to be structures to enable those learners to gain access to useful literacy tools. In the 20th century, there were mobilisation societies, where the whole population was involved, in the USSR, Cuba, Guinea Bissau (the President Amilcar Cabral phrased it: “All those who know should teach those who don’t know”) and Tanzania. But in the 21st century, globalisation has (paradoxically) fragmented societies.

The challenges we face are: why are we relatively unsuccessful in conveying to governments our conviction of the significance of adult literacy and adult learning more broadly? Why are we relatively unsuccessful in persuading politicians and civil servants to translate policies into action? And do we have practical prescriptions for structures to ensure action? These apply to any country’s internal situation and to the work of aid-giving nations.

. . .

We have to find more ways in which participants in literacy programmes can bear witness to their experience and express their views. Academics and practitioners often publish case-studies, but they are read by the converted. Our predicament is how to get access to the media, particularly new media. The story of Malala [Yousafzai] gave a powerful witness to the problems of school-girls in Pakistan; can we find an adult woman’s story and disseminate it? And how else can we get the message out?

There have been obituaries and many tributes to Lalage in the national press and in the academic world. But perhaps it is appropriate for us in BALID to share personal and professional memories of this amazing woman.

Mary Anderson, former Secretary of BALID, recalls: I first met Lalage through her brother and sister-in-law. She invited me for a sumptuous lunch in her beautiful home in Shrewsbury (near the border between England and Wales), where I felt enveloped in the riches of her wisdom and experience. Every part of her life and being were represented in art, textiles, papers, books, and journals. On a subsequent visit, I helped her to sift through family memorabilia – what an honour! Then, every Christmas, I received the most wonderful letter regaling me with stories of her endeavours, her achievements, visits with family and friends, and much more.  As one friend put it, ‘what a lovely, powerful and kind woman – and what a life to have lived!’ What a woman indeed. 

It might sound trite to say that she embodied the best of colonial existence: much of her life’s work was, after all, spent in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia. But she was emotionally as well as professionally involved, and this is most poignantly obvious through her adoption and devotion to her Nigerian twins, Kehinde and Taiyo, whose lives she transformed, and who regularly came to visit her in Shrewsbury. As others have said elsewhere, she was also deeply involved in the life of the town and will be sorely missed not just on the international stage.

Ian Cheffy, Treasurer of BALID, writes: I first met Lalage over twenty years ago when she was a very valuable member of the advisory committee supporting SIL in making connections with the wider field of literacy outside of our own organisation. Her commitment to literacy and education as a key element in development for marginalised people and places was abundantly clear both then and in the years that followed. Her insights were always much appreciated, expressed as they were in her unique style of passion combined with sensitivity and gentleness.

Katy Newell-Jones, former Chair of BALID, recalls three recurring themes from conversations with Lalage over the years, often over tea and cake.  Consistently, raising awareness of literacy as both an individual practice and also a community asset, intimately linked with voice, identity, status, aspirations and power.  Challenging literacy practitioners and researchers demanding a higher profile for adult literacy, to change our message, not just shout louder whilst complaining about not being listened to or understood. And finally, reminding us that it’s ok, in fact it’s imperative, to keep raising gender again and again and again.  

Despite the downbeat tone of her essential message to the literacy community, Lalage never lost hope. Her belief and her passion were so strong and deep, based on a lifetime of shrewd observation and service, she would never let go. 

During her life, Lalage made the world a better place. May her vision and her legacy live on.

Some references about Lalage and her life

2 Replies to “Remembering Lalage”

  1. Lalage was a marvellous person for whom I had the greatest admiration. And I knew her for many years

    I remember staying with her after a meeting in south London while she waited for a taxi to take her to the station to catch her train back to Shrewsbury. The taxi took ages to arrive and we were both worried she would miss her train. It did however arrive just in time so she was able to get her train.

    0n one occasion: she asked me to her birthday celebration. I was delighted and really wanted to go but it was the same day as my daughters wedding so…..

    She had great knowledge and great experiences in different countries including Nigeria.
    She was a great inspiration to all of us who worked with her and will be sadly missed.

    It was a privilege to have known Lalage.

    May her work be long remembered

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