Senegal had been a French colony since the seventeenth century. In 1960, Senegal gained its independence and became a separate nation. Mariama Bâ, then, who was born in 1929, lived through the tumultuous years leading to independence and in the time of civic unrest that followed independence. These years also offered a few elite African women access to education. In So Long a Letter, Ramatoulaye records how she and Aissatou were able to go to school under the guidelines that divided French West Africa into autonomous (though not yet independent) countries. This division of the vast French Imperial possessions occurred after World War II. Ramatoulaye's white teacher recognizes the importance of these few African girls' education, and tells them that they have an ‘‘'uncommon' destiny.’’ Considering that today, twenty years after Bâ's death, the literacy rates for Senegalese women are far lower than those for Senegalese men, their fate was uncommon indeed. Bâ's French education and her exposure to Africans from many countries caused her, in the words of her heroine, to be "lift[ed]...out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom, to...appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own, to raise our vision of the world, cultivate our personalities, strengthen our qualities, to make up for our inadequacies, to develop universal moral values in us.’’ This wider perspective, however, of the educated French African woman came into conflict with the social mores and traditions of Senegal. This is evident in So Long a Letter by Ramatoulaye's decision to choose Moudou as a husband over Daouda...
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One of the earliest forms of the novel was the epistolary novel. This means that the entire action of the narrative is conveyed through letters. In the case of So Long a Letter, the narrative is told through just one very long letter from Ramatoulaye to her friend Aissatou. Here the letter works almost as a diary. Ramatoulaye records both her feelings and the events that take place around her. She reflects on the past and looks forward to the future. She also transcribes letters within her one long letter. The reader hears her dead husband Moudou's voice through snippets of the letters he wrote to Ramatoulaye before they were married. The reader learns of Aissatou's indignation at her husband's betrayal through the letter she wrote to him. But for the most part, all information is filtered through Ramatoulaye's perspective. A first-person narrator, she is not necessarily a reliable guide to the feelings of her extended family. She cannot get inside the head of her young co-wife, Binetou, or know for certain the motives of the Lady Mother-in-Law (Binetou's mother) or of Aunty Nabou (Aissatou's mother-in-law). Instead she shows the reader how she views the world. This means that questions are often left unanswered. Why did Moudou abandon Ramatoulaye? How was Aissatou able to bear the gossip when her husband took another wife? The reader does not know because Ramatoulaye can only accurately represent her own feelings. In writing down the story of her life, however, Ramatoulaye is also able to control it, to decide what events were important to her own development.
In Medias Res
In medias res means in the middle of things. In So Long a Letter, the novel really does begin in the middle of things. Ramatoulaye begins her story by describing her husband's death and funeral. She then takes a mental journey back in time to recall her education and courtship. Next she writes of how her husband abandoned her five years before his death. She writes to her friend of how she endured the abandonment. This takes her back to the present time. At this point, the narrative moves forward as she describes what happens in the months following her husband's death. As the novel ends, she is about to end the...
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate how African feminists are addressing the cultural and religious traditions, such as polygamy, that hinder their efforts at greater equality.
Research Senegal's independence movement and look at how So Long a Letter depicts the change from French colony to independent nationhood.
Explore the relationships of Senegalese women to their extended family members and compare those relationships to those Bâ describes in So Long a Letter.
What challenges are the Senegalese facing today? How much has changed since Bâ wrote So Long a Letter in 1980?
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What Do I Read Next?
In her second novel, Scarlet Song (1981), Mariama Bâ describes the difficulties faced by an interracial couple in Senegal.
Ken Bugul, a Senegalese woman who studied in Belgium, wrote her autobiography, The Mad Bâobab Tree in 1982. In it she describes how she violated the traditions of her upbringing.
In her 1975 autobiography, A Dakar Childhood, Nafissatou Diallo describes growing up in Senegal. A Dakar Childhood was one of the earliest works of literature by a Senegalese woman.
In 1979, Aminata Sow Fall, a Senegalese teacher, wrote her second novel, The Beggars' Strike. The novel explores class conflicts in Dakar.
In The Wretched of the Earth (1963), radical African nationalist Frantz Fanon describes the effect of European colonialism in Africa and proposes how to shake off the imperial cloak.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Ahmed, Leila, Women and Gender in Islam, Yale University Press, 1992.
Assiba d'Almeida, Irene, ‘‘The Concept of Choice in Mariama Bâ's Fiction,’’ in Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davis and Anne Adams Graves, Africa World Press, 1986, pp. 161-71.
Brown, Ella, ‘‘Reactions to Western Values as Reflected in African Novels,'' in Phylon, Vol. 48, No. 3, 1987, pp. 216-28.
Champagne, John, '‘‘A Feminist Just Like Us?': Teaching Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter,’’ in College English, Vol. 58, No. 1, January, 1996, pp. 22-42.
Grimes, Dorothy, "Mariama Bâ' s So Long a Letter and Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: A Senegalese and an African American Perspective on 'Womanism,'’’ in Global Perspectives on Teaching Literature, edited by Sandra Ward Lott, Maureen S. G. Hawkins, and Norman McMillan, National Council of Teachers of English, 1993, pp. 65-76.
Makward, Edris,"Marriage, Tradition and Women's Pursuit of Happiness in the Novels of Mariama Bâ,’’ in Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davis and Anne Adams Graves, Africa World Press, 1986, pp. 271-81.
Giwa, Audee Tanumu, "So Long a Letter: A Feminism That Is Not,’’ in Kuka, 1985-86, pp. 57-61.
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