Multi-lingual woman of faith who spent much of life in Africa

Sally Liya
Sally Liya
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Dr Sally Liya’s life marked by some remarkable and truly unusual accomplishments.

She studied at Oxford, spoke four foreign languages and re-located to Africa where she married the son of a village chief, before returning to spend the last portion of her life in her native Ulster.

Minister Alex Attwood presents Sustrans Volunteer, Sally Liya with a gift for her work as a member of the charity

Minister Alex Attwood presents Sustrans Volunteer, Sally Liya with a gift for her work as a member of the charity

She was born in Belfast on March 16, 1945, the daughter of Michael Villiers-Stuart – a businessman from aristocratic stock, who produced insecticides.

Her given name was Susan, but she opted to call herself Sally.

Her mother Jane (nee Fowler) was among Northern Ireland’s first followers of the Baha’i religion – a monotheistic faith founded in Asia during the 19th century, which stresses unity among the world’s various religions.

Sally began ascribing to the religion when she was 15 (her father, meanwhile, was chairman of the Belfast Humanist Society).

Sally Liya pictured presenting a �635 cheque to Dawn Patterson from the NI Children's Hospice Newtownabbey Support Group.  Also included is Kamal Ma'ani from the Community. Members of the Newtownabbey Baha'i Community recently gathered to organise a special Coffee Morning, to raise money for NI Children's Hospice. INNT 10-100-CON

Sally Liya pictured presenting a �635 cheque to Dawn Patterson from the NI Children's Hospice Newtownabbey Support Group. Also included is Kamal Ma'ani from the Community. Members of the Newtownabbey Baha'i Community recently gathered to organise a special Coffee Morning, to raise money for NI Children's Hospice. INNT 10-100-CON

Her brother Garry said that her teenage conversion “steered her away from the arts towards the sciences, and its greater opportunities for contributing to society‘s enrichment.”

She was educated at private schools ranging from Whiteabbey to England, before going to Somerville College – part of the University of Oxford.

There she studied agriculture, before going on to complete a Master’s Degree in soil science in Dublin.

She moved to Germany to help spread the Baha’i message, giving talks while working in care homes to support herself financially.

She almost lost her life after being struck by a vehicle while crossing a German street in 1974.

Comatose for three days, she eventually recovered, but suffered some permanent memory loss following the accident.

She then embarked on a similar mission in Zaire; a vast central African nation which is today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

She ended up staying and working as a lecturer in agriculture at a college near Kissingani, a town in north-east of the country.

Whilst there, she met Liya Lokumo – an electrician at the college, the son of a village chief, and a fellow Baha’i.

They wed in 1981.

As was custom, she adopted his first name.

“She was very keen to break the colonial mould, and live with Africans,” said her brother Garry.

“She didn’t live with ex-pats and stuff.

She was a great idealist. She wanted to show solidarity with the people.”

Although the Baha’i faith is comparatively small in global terms, the Assosication of Religious Data Archives has estimated there are over 250,000 followers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Sally would sometimes visit remote villages where fellow members of the Baha’i community lived, travelling along rivers by canoe.

She was fluent in German, French (the lingua franca of Zaire) and Swahili, and also spoke some Lingala – a regional African tongue.

She and her husband then later moved to Nigeria, where she undertook a PhD in plant science – attaining her certificate in 1995.

She returned to Northern Ireland the following year to recover from chronic malaria and anaemia.

She settled in Merville Garden Village – a well-kempt estate in north Belfast.

Meanwhile her husband remained in Africa.

Her intention was to return and join him, but while her health recovered, political instability made it difficult for her to go back.

Before she could return to Africa to be with her husband, he died of cancer in 1999.

Following his death, she remained in Merville.

There she became well-known for her environmental activities, including tree planting, beach cleaning and gardening projects, as well as working with transport group Sustrans.

Former mayor of Newtownabbey Frazer Agnew described her as a “warm-hearted lady who did a lot to preserve the unique character of Merville.”

She was also a member of the African Studies Association of Ireland, based at Queen’s University Belfast.

“In her quiet and unassuming way she was a warrior for her faith, for the environment and for the unity of humanity,” said brother Garry.

Friend and neighbour James Robinson Lynn said she possessed “a heart of gold, intelligence, and steely determination. Indeed, her gentle disposition and levity concealed a huge brain power.”

She died at home unexpectedly on February 15, of a heart-related anuerysm. She was 69.

A Baha’i service was held at a funeral home close to the town’s castle on February 21.

She is buried at Ballycarry cemetery, east Antrim.

She is survived by brother Garry, and sister Virginia Barnes. She never had children.