Earlier this month, a small group of Somerville students met members of the Senior Common room over lunch to talk about the special charity that the Junior Common Room has been running continuously since 2003: the Ghana Library project. Based in Cape Coast in Ghana, the Library was the brainchild of a Somervillian, Hattie Begg, who got fellow students involved. Each summer a group of five or so current students travel out to Ghana partly at their own expense and partly supported by College travel grants, to work as volunteers with the local organizer, Molly Yankey and with the librarians, who are paid through donations from Somerville students. Part of what makes this project so impressive is the continuity: each year of students passing on to the next a connection with a good cause that has become a College tradition. In the process they are giving the people of one underprivileged community in Ghana a reliable resource of books and education.
The Ghana Library is one of almost innumerable good works that Somervillians take on, in far-flung places from Vietnam to Thailand to Malawi, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa, to the local community here in Oxford. Some of their experiences form part of their studies, in anthropology or clinical medicine for example, while for many others voluntary work is simply an important and instinctive part of their lives.
As Somerville’s international links proliferate, so the world-wide reach of Somervillians and their good works will only increase. It is embedded in the College’s history, as I have been reminded in several ways recently. There is a campaign afoot to place a commemorative plaque on the Oxford home of one of Somerville’s founders, Mary Ward. Known in literary circles as Mrs Humphry Ward, this redoubtable woman flung her energies into establishing the college as a place where women could at last receive an Oxford education. She helped keep the books and looked after innumerable administrative details, opening the hall to its first students in 1879 just a few days before giving birth. In her spare time she was already establishing herself as one of late Victorian England’s most popular novelists. (Two of her best known novels were East Lynn and Robert Elsmere). Moving to London with her family in 1881, she established what became the Mary Ward Settlement, providing educational resources predominantly for women and girls in the poorer neighbourhoods of London, and setting up Play Centres for poor children. If the author Susanna Hoe succeeds in her campaign, Mary Ward will be fittingly commemorated not just in London but in Oxford too, where her good works began.
One of Mary Ward’s near contemporaries was Cornelia Sorabji a student at Somerville in the 1880s. who went on to become the first woman to qualify as a lawyer in India. Her most important life’s work was spent defending women who had no other access to legal defence in often appalling cases of family injustice, and establishing a League for Infant Welfare, Maternity and District Nursing. She too has been the subject of a recent biography (by her nephew Professor Richard Sorabji) and an edition of her writings has been produced by Dr Kusoom Vadgama. Among the many heirs of that tradition was the human rights activist Lucy Banda Sichone (1954-98), Zambia’s first woman Rhodes Scholar, who returned to her country to establish the Zambia Civic Education Foundation, having studied Philosophy Politics and Economics at Somerville in 1978-81. Sunethra Bandaranaike, (Somerville 1964-67) who founded and now runs the Sunera Foundation working for people with disabilities through theatre projects, and now medical camps, in Sri Lanka is another among so many who could be named. Our Ghana Library students volunteers are both pioneers of their own project and the heirs to a great Somerville tradition.