So Long a Letter

by Mariama Ba

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In So Long a Letter, what is the relationship between Ramatoulaye and Aissatou?

Ramatoulaye and Aissatou are two Senegalese women who have been lifelong friends. They were both married to men who took second wives, an experience that prompted them both to reflect on the social status of women. Aissatou responded immediately by divorcing her husband and leaving the country. Ramatoulaye stayed with her husband until he died, but eventually embraced independence during her mourning period. The women’s shared experiences bonded them, and Aissatou’s independent ways inspired Ramatoulaye’s choices.

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In So Long a Letter, Ramatoulaye and Aissatou are both Senegalese women who have been friends since they were young. The book is written as a letter to Aissatou from the perspective of Ramatoulaye as she navigates the aftermath of her husband’s death. Ramatoulaye explains many realizations she has about the social status of Senegalese women and connects a great deal of her identity development in this period to Aissatou’s life experiences.

Both Aissatou and Ramatoulaye’s husbands took a second wife at a point in the marriage. Polygamy was socially acceptable in their culture, but it still frustrated both women. Ramatoulaye explains that she felt abandoned when her husband married a second wife, and Aissatou evidently felt similarly and divorced her husband. Even though the women did not take the same actions in response to their predicaments, their mutual feelings about how their patriarchal society objectifies women show they are connected by social awareness and a feminist drive.

As Ramatoulaye goes through her period of mourning, she begins to exhibit defiant female behavior similar to that of Aissatou. She struggles to procure and protect her inheritance, and stands her ground against her husband’s second wife’s family in keeping her estate. One of her most groundbreaking moments takes place when she rejects her brother-in-law Tamsir’s statement that he will marry her after her mourning. She describes how she felt in that moment to Aissatou, saying:

This time I shall speak out. My voice had known thirty years of silence, thirty years of can’t stop once you’ve let your anger loose. (Bâ 58).

Both Tamsir and the nearby Imam are shocked when they hear Ramatoulaye reject and critique Tamsir. Such an expression of anger and judgement from a woman, especially a widow, was not socially acceptable. Ramatoulaye goes on to speak about her point of view on the status of women throughout the book, contradicting men with statements like women are “not incendiaries; rather, we are stimulants!” (60). Ramatoualaye demonstrates feminine defiance similar to that of Aissatou years earlier, and there is little doubt that Aissatou was an inspiration to her.

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Ramatoulaye and Aissatou were childhood schoolmates and have been lifelong friends.

One thing that bonds the two women is education. They met as children and were both given the rare opportunity to go to school. Most women didn't recieve that. That experience helps them relate to each other even as they grow up and into adulthood. It may explain why they have more liberal attitudes than many of those around them.

Another connection is their willingness to flout the demands of their family in the pursuit of love; Ramatoulaye married against her family's wishes while Aissatou married someone whose family believed she wasn't good enough. Ramatoulaye stood up to her own family to marry Moudou. Aissatou had to stand up to Mawdo Bâ's family because of his royal heritage.

Both women were forced to accept a co-wife in their marriage. Aissatou divorced Mawdo...

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Bâ because of his marriage even though he did it due to pressure from his mother. Ramatoulaye is emotionally conflicted about the woman Moudou chose to marry after years of a marriage without a co-wife but stays until he dies.

The women do not see each other during the book. Instead, it is Ramatoulaye writing to Aissatou.

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Mariama Bâ’s novella So Long a Letter is a landmark in Senegalese fiction in part because it details the struggles women face in the Western African country. The story is framed as a letter from Ramatoulaye Fall to her dear friend Aissatou Bâ concerning Ramatoulaye’s recent experiences as a widow. Readers understand the close friendship and sense of sisterhood between the two women because they experience many of the same struggles throughout their married lives, and Ramatoulaye is frank in the way that she addresses her best friend. More specifically, Ramatoulaye and Aissatou share the pain of their husbands taking other wives. In the Senegalese culture that Bâ presents, it is common for men to take multiple wives. However, Bâ examines how this norm actually affects women through her characterization of Ramatoulaye and Aissatou. Indeed, this is a link that ties the friends together, and Ramatoulaye is very direct in talking about this pain:

“I had heard of too many misfortunes not to understand my own. There was your own case, Aissatou, the cases of many other women, despised, relegated or exchanged, who were abandoned like a worn-out or out-dated boubou” (41).

Thus, the two women are bonded through their common experiences, and their relationship is a tightly-knit friendship.

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So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba is a novel written in the form of a long letter addressed by Ramatoulaye Fall to Aissatou Bâ. The occasion of the letter is the death of Ramatoulaye Fall's husband, Moudou Fall, who has died of a heart attack. 

Ramatoulaye Fall and Aissatou Bâ  became close friends, as young Senegalese girls who were educated in French schools in Senegal at a time when it was rare for young women to be educated at all in Senegal. They share a great deal in common. They both married for love rather than taking husbands from their own classes. Both of their marriages were disrupted in certain ways when their husbands took second wives. 

Both Ramatoulaye and Aissatou continue to asset their independence as they grow older and become mothers themselves, remain close friends, and look forward to visiting each other.

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