So Long a Letter

by Mariama Ba

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So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ's first novel, is literally written as a long letter. As the novel begins, Ramatoulaye Fall is beginning a letter to her lifelong friend Aissatou Bâ. The occasion for writing is Ramatoulaye's recent widowhood. As she gives her friend the details of her husband's death, she sets off on a journey of remembering the major events in her and Aissatou's lives.

Ramatoulaye's husband, Moudou Fall, died suddenly of a heart attack. Following the strictures of her Muslim faith, Ramatoulaye must remain in seclusion for a long period of time. This seclusion is broken, however, by the ritualized visits of relatives and friends of the dead man. During the first days, Ramatoulaye must share her home with Binetou, her co-wife. This young woman, who is the same age as Ramatoulaye's oldest daughter, and Ramatoulaye sit in state to welcome the visitors. The visitors bring money to these women out of respect for the dead, but ultimately their family-in-law, Moudou's siblings and parents, take the money away from the widows. In her letter, Ramatoulaye muses about why Moudou forced her into the awkward position of co-wife after 25 years of marriage and 12 children. But before telling the story of Binetou's elevation from shy schoolgirl to wealthy wife, Ramatoulaye recalls her own courtship years before.

Ramatoulaye and Aissatou were well-educated young women, having attended a French-run school in a time when few Senegalese women were given this opportunity. Sought after in marriage by multiple suitors, both women married for love. Ramatoulaye's mother disapproved of her choice—Moudou Fall, the young rising lawyer from a less elite family. Aissatou's in-laws looked down their noses at her. The daughter of a goldsmith, Aissatou was considered an unfit bride for the doctor Mawdo Bâ, the son of a tribal princess. But both women followed their hearts and with their husbands set out to forge new traditions to match their country's new independence.

But after recollecting their happy pasts, Ramatoulaye records in her long letter the problems that destroyed the two couples' tranquillity. Aissatou, now a divorced woman living in the United States, left Mawdo after he took a co-wife. Still in love with Aissatou, Mawdo was pressured by tradition and his mother's demands to take a wife who shared his same noble blood. His mother, Aunty Nabou, had never truly accepted Aissatou or her four sons. Years of planning her "revenge" on Aissatou, however, finally paid off. Aunty Nabou had adopted her niece and namesake, young Nabou, years before. After training this girl to be a perfect wife for her son, Aunty Nabou told Mawdo, "I will never get over it if you don't take her as your wife. Shame kills faster than disease.’’ To save his mother from shame, Mawdo agreed to the wedding. He planned to continue living with Aissatou and only to visit young Nabou as often as is required by the Islamic laws governing polygamy. But Aissatou, refusing to share her husband, defiantly divorced him and took their sons. She refused to be bound by a tradition that she saw as humiliating.

Ramatoulaye took a very different approach after her husband abandoned her for the young and beautiful Binetou. Without Ramatoulaye's knowledge, Moudou had fallen in love with his daughter's friend. Ramatoulaye and her daughter, Daba, were aware that an older ‘‘sugar daddy’’ was courting Binetou, but they didn't realize that the man was Moudou. Binetou didn't hide her disdain for this man, but admitted that she would become his second wife. Her own impoverished family needed the wealth Moudou could provide. Binetou's mother basically sold...

(This entire section contains 1164 words.)

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her daughter for a trip to Mecca, a new house, and increased social standing. While Ramatoulaye and Daba bemoan Binetou's fate, they have no idea that her "promotion'' will cause the breakup of their family. On the day Moudou married Binetou, he gave Ramatoulaye no warning. Instead he sent his brother, his cleric, and his best friend to tell Ramatoulaye what he had done. Ramatoulaye's friends and family are shocked when she decides to accept her position as co-wife and not divorce Moudou. But Moudou really has no intention of honoring his vows to Ramatoulaye. He stops providing for her and their twelve children and instead showers gifts on Binetou.

Ramatoulaye explains to Aissatou how she pulled her life together after this abandonment. She had always worked, and she learned to act as both mother and father to her children. It is after she has adjusted to this life that Moudou dies. Widowhood brings her new opportunities, but she decides to carry on as a working single mother. Moudou's older brother offers to make Ramatoulaye his fourth wife. At this point, though, Ramatoulaye finally discovers her strength and anger. She had never forgiven Tasmir for serving as his brother's ambassador by telling her of Moudou's marriage to Binetou. Now she sees through his proposal of marriage. He does not care about her or her children's well-being; he only wants to get his hands on her money. For very different reasons Ramatoulaye also turns down another offer of marriage. Her old suitor, Daouda Dieng, had never fallen out of love with her. Now a powerful politician, he wants to share his life with Ramatoulaye and her children. However, Ramatoulaye realizes that she does not love him. Esteem, she feels, is not enough to sustain a marriage. Further, Daouda Dieng is married. Ramatoulaye decides that she could never cause pain to another woman by usurping her place. Polygamy destroyed her happiness, and Ramatoulaye would hate to destroy the happiness of Dieng's wife.

Towards the end of the novel, Ramatoulaye describes how her family is being affected by changing traditions. One of her sons rails against the inequities of a racist teacher who refuses to treat a black Senegalese as an equal. Her oldest daughter, Daba, is in a true marriage of equals. Three of her younger daughters defiantly smoke. She reflects on what this means: ‘‘Suddenly I became afraid of the flow of progress. Did they also drink? Who knows, one vice leads to another. Does it mean that one can't have modernism without a lowering of moral standards?’’ As if in answer to her question, Ramatoulaye learns that her daughter Aissatou (named for her friend) is pregnant out of wedlock. In the past, this would have been a tragedy. A strict Muslim family would reject their daughter. But now, Ramatoulaye decides to love her daughter and try to make the most out of a tricky situation. She laments that boys can hide evidence of their "transgressions’’ while girls often have to pay a high price. Luckily the family, along with Aissatou's lover, work out a plan that will allow Aissatou to remain in school and to eventually marry the father of her child. As the novel ends, Ramatoulaye looks forward to a visit from the friend to whom she is writing the letter. She envisions that they both will be able to search for future happiness.