The Differences Among the Polygamous Marriages in So Long a Letter
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2070
Two of the plot lines in Mariama Bâ' s So Long a Letter center around the effect of polygamy. In a letter written to her friend Aissatou Bâ, Ramatoulaye Fall describes how her husband, Moudou Fall, fell in love with a young woman. Moudou eventually takes this woman, Binetou, as his second wife. In the course of this very long letter, Ramatoulaye also remembers the circumstances surrounding Aissatou's divorce of her husband, Mawdo Bâ. Mawdo, obeying the commands of his mother, had married Young Nabou, a woman who shared his noble heritage. Refusing to be relegated to the status of "co-wife,'' Aissatou chose to leave Mawdo. Ramatoulaye pointedly chooses not to follow her friend's example and decides to stay married to Moudou.
Not surprisingly, much of the criticism of So Long a Letter focuses on the problem of polygamy. In his article '"A Feminist Just Like Us?': Teaching Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter,'' John Champagne, summarizing the critical response, notes that many feminist critics "equate Islam and polygamy'' and believe that Bâ is writing about the problems of both. Some Muslim critics, meanwhile, according to Champagne, feel that Bâ misreads "both Islam and the Koran.'' These critics find Bâ's perspective too dependent on Western values, and they think that she stereotypically portrays polygamy in So Long a Letter.
Perhaps the problem with these readings, however, is that they equate Moudou's polygamy with Mawdo's. Critics such as Irene Assiba d'Almeida, in her article "The Concept of Choice in Mariama Bâ's Fiction,’’ focus on how Ramatoulaye and Aissatou ‘‘have made different choices in similar situations.'' But are the situations really so similar? Indeed the novel describes three separate (and one potential) polygamous marriages. The motives behind each are widely different. The experiences of the ‘‘co-wives’’ in each are also different. Certainly Mariama Bâ eloquently speaks against polygamy in her novel. But I would argue that the differences among the novel's polygamous marriages are a lot more significant to an understanding of post-Independence Senegalese culture than the mere fact that polygamy exists.
Islamic scholars debate about whether or not the Koran really supports polygamy. Leila Ahmed, for one, has argued that Koranic verses ‘‘that admonish men, if polygamous, to treat their wives equally and go on to declare that husbands would not be able to do so—using a form of the Arabic negative connoting permanent impossibility—are open to being read to mean that men should not be polygamous.’’ In other words, Ahmed shows that the Koran tells men that they are breaking the rules of Islam if they do not treat their wives uniformly and that the Koran then goes on to say that it is humanly impossible for men to obey this rule. Perhaps then, the Koran suggests that men would be wise to marry only one woman. Other scholars note that Mohammed himself did not engage in polygamous marriage until after his first beloved wife had died. His subsequent marriages were more about political alliances than love.
So Long a Letter clearly shows that Moudou Fall is breaking the tenets of Muslim faith in his second marriage. Ramatoulaye who decides that she loves her husband too much to divorce him, tells Aissatou, "I had prepared myself for equal sharing, according to the precepts of Islam concerning polygamic life.’’ But, she never gets a chance to see if she can endure the "humiliation'' of sharing her husband. Moudou abandons her and her children altogether. Ramatoulaye knows that Moudou has "cut off all contact'' and that she was "abandoned: a fluttering leaf that no hand dares to pick up.’’ Binetou, unhappy in marriage, demands that Moudou relinquish all ties with his first family. Ramatoulaye's plight, especially to a Western reader, does not seem to result from the technical polygamy, but from the very real abandonment. It is the old story; after twenty-five years of marriage and twelve children, Moudou wants a "newer model.’’ Or as Ramatoulaye describes, she is being exchanged "like a worn-out or out-dated boubou,’’ the traditional Senegalese dress. She focuses on her middle-aged body: "My stomach protruded from beneath the wrapper that hid the calves developed by the impressive number of kilometres walked since the beginning of my existence. Suckling had robbed my breasts of their round firmness. I could not delude myself: youth was deserting my body.’’ In contrast, Binetou is ‘‘incontestably beautiful and desirable.’’ As Ramatoulaye notes, "Her beauty shone, pure. Her shapely contours could not but be noticed.''
In many ways, Moudou manipulates the law of polygamy for his own purposes. He uses the law to justify his behavior, but he in no way follows the precepts of his Islamic faith. The novel suggests that the fault lies in Moudou's character. Ramatoulaye's mother, after all, never trusted Moudou's appearance, but found him "too handsome, too polished, too perfect for a man.’’ The little the reader learns about Moudou seems to support Ramatoulaye's mother's assessment. Moudou is overly concerned about physical appearance, both his and his wives'. He spends money foolishly for show and lives beyond his means. Most damning, he seems to have abandoned the values and ambitions that caused Ramatoulaye to fall in love with him in the first place. Ramatoulaye may say that it is only the "spiteful" who believe that Moudou sold out the workers he represented as a trade union leader so that he could gain high political office, but she seems to be a biased observer. Indeed, Moudou's need for more money so that he could buy Binetou cars and jewelry could very likely have caused him to become corrupt. Perhaps he did quell "the trade union revolt'' to become the technical adviser in the Ministry of Public Works. He may have abandoned his commitment to improving the living conditions of workers just as he abandoned Ramatoulaye.
Another of the novel's polygamous characters, Tamsir Fall (Moudou's older brother), also seems to manipulate the laws that allow polygamy for his own selfish gain. Some scholars of African culture and polygamy believe that polygamy served an important purpose in pre-industrial Africa. In times when women outnumbered men, polygamy ensured the support of women in need. Additionally, some argue that polygamous relationships helped to produce the many children needed to effectively farm the land. Tamsir, however, has not taken three wives to help support their needs. Rather, as Ramatoulaye throws in Tamsir's face, he lives off of his wives: "Your income can meet neither [your wives'] needs nor those of your numerous children. To help you out with your financial obligations, one of your wives dyes, another sells fruit, the third untiringly turns the handle of her sewing machine. You, the revered lord, you take it easy.’’ Tamsir comes to Ramatoulaye seeking her hand in marriage. He claims to do so out of respect for his dead brother and to provide for the widow. But Ramatoulaye knows that Tamsir is not altruistic. He wants to get his hands on her wealth. If, in Moudou's case, polygamy is an excuse to chase after a girl his daughter's age, in Tamsir's it is a calculated way to make money. The superfluous children (Moudou fathers sixteen before his premature death and Tamsir's are called "numerous'') also seem unnecessary in industrial Dakar. Each child, needing to be educated (Ramatoulaye speaks of the great expense), does not add to the family's material wealth. Rather Tamsir seeks a fourth wife in part to support the children he already has. Tamsir's idea of polygamy perverts any cultural basis that might have justified it.
The novel's two remaining polygamists are much more sympathetic characters. Daouda Dieng (who tries to take a second wife but does not succeed), in Ramatoulaye's estimation, is ‘‘an upright man.’’ A politician, ‘‘he would fight for social justice. It was not love of show or money that had driven him towards politics, but his true love for his fellow man, the urge to redress wrongs and injustice.’’ Not content to work only in politics, Daouda also runs a medical clinic. Believing that his skills as a doctor are too valuable to the people to forsake, Daouda commits himself to the extra work. When he seeks Ramatoulaye's hand in marriage after Moudou's death, he does so because he has always loved her and he believes that he can help take care of her and her twelve children. He does not plan to abandon his first wife, but to live a polygamous life as established by Muslim law. Ramatoulaye refuses his proposal for two reasons. First, she does not love him. Second, as she tells him, ‘‘You think the problem of polygamy is a simple one. Those who are involved in it know the constraints, the lies, the injustices that weigh down their consciences in return for the ephemeral joys of change.’’ Daouda is not indicted for wanting a second wife. Rather Ramatoulaye believes that Daouda, like many men, simply does not realize the ramifications of polygamy. He needs to be taught the costs of polygamy so that he, as a moral man, can reject a system that Ramatoulaye (and Mariama Bâ) finds untenable. Daouda may see polygamy as a way of gaining the happiness—Ramatoulaye's love—that he has sought his entire life. But Ramatoulaye argues that the happiness could only come at a cost so high that it would destroy his conscience.
This is the cost that Mawdo Bâ, Aissatou's husband, learns only too well. His happiness is destroyed by his polygamy, mainly because his beloved wife Aissatou divorces him soon after he marries Young Nabou. Mawdo's reasons for polygamy are much different than Moudou's, Tamsir's, or Daouda's. He marries his cousin Nabou out of a sense of family obligation. His mother, Aunty Nabou, adopted the girl, raised her, and groomed her to be Mawdo's wife. After his mother has announced the wedding date, Mawdo feels cornered. He must marry Nabou to save his mother from humiliation. Aunty Nabou had planned the marriage, moreover, to punish Aissatou. The daughter of a goldsmith, Aissatou had never won the approval of Aunty Nabou, a tribal princess. In this plotline, Mariama Bâ really shows how two very different cultures collide in present-day Senegal. Aissatou, an educated woman, represents "New Africa,’’ and the liberated woman. She and Mawdo marry as equals and out of love. Aunty Nabou, a princess and a renowned teller of ancient folktales, represents the older, ingrained customs. Young Nabou, Ramatoulaye explains, loves Mawdo as though he were a prince out of one of Aunty Nabou's stories. In the battle between old and new ways, the old seemingly win out. Aunty Nabou is able to force Mawdo to marry Young Nabou. Aissatou leaves Africa altogether and begins working for the Senegalese Embassy in America. But Mawdo's unhappiness in the second marriage indicates that the old traditions, the marriages based on noble bloodlines and the acceptance of polygamy, are riddled with problems.
At the end of the novel, Ramatoulaye remains hopeful about the power of love: "The success of the family is born of a couple's harmony, as the harmony of multiple instruments creates a pleasant symphony.’’ She ties the future of nations to the future of families: "The nation is made up of all families, rich or poor, united or separated, aware or unaware. The success of a nation therefore depends inevitably on the family.’’ In these final musings, Ramatoulaye is perhaps wondering what Senegal's success as a nation will be. Her family and Aissatou's family in many ways did not work. Each woman in seeking to marry for love was tripped up by tradition, Ramatoulaye because her husband manipulated the laws of Islam to satisfy the lust born of a mid-life crisis, Aissatou because her husband followed the dictates of his mother. The educated woman and the industrial economy do not mix well with the culture of polygamy. In describing four different manifestations of polygamy, Mariama Bâ seeks to show why it cannot work. In So Long a Letter, the reader mainly learns of Ramatoulaye's heartbreak at her husband's betrayal. But Bâ also indicates how polygamy hurts men, women, and nations, even when the polygamist is a much better person than Moudou Fall.
Source: Kimberly Lutz, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000.
Lutz is an instructor at New York University and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.
The Place of the Woman or the Woman Displaced in Mariama Ba's Une Si Longue Lettre
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3122
Until quite recently the woman's place in African francophone literature has been defined by the male writer. Christopher Miller speaks of the traditional image of the "femme noire'' in African literature, an image that ‘‘shows how francophone literacy constantly 'talks' about women and depends on women for allegorical fuel but excludes women from the process of literate creation.’’ Male writers have traditionally presented female characters who often bear no resemblence to their real-life counterparts. Through their texts these writers have displaced the woman. They have imposed a speech on her that is not her own. They have placed her in what Florence Stratton refers to as the ‘‘shallow grave’’ where female characters are forced to accept restricting stereotypes created and promulgated by masculine societies.
Abena Busia, in her challenging and provocative article on the black women's rebellious voices, hails the arrival of an era where women reject this displacement and reclaim their rightful place:
We are not reaffirming our presence or "actualizing'' ourselves as if we have been absent, we know we never left; we are simply, but quite radically, reclaiming our own stories which have for so long been told for us, and been told wrong.... [W]hatever our national roots or origins, the world has been transformed, and the twentieth-century nation states that we all live in seem fated to develop into bastions of paternalistic power in which both sacred and secular ideologies have worked to domesticate and disempower the female, a process which, in many cases (matrilineal African societies, in particular), has been achieved against the native structuring ideologies of the societies concerned.’’
Women are indeed telling their own stories. They are speaking of their longstanding displacement, and through literature they are claiming their right to their own place. Mariama Bâ's Une Si longue lettre serves well as an example of a woman' s story depicting more realistically female characters who struggle to define their place in the face of a social order which has for so long limited their sense of self. The displacement of women in this novel is two-fold. The initial displacement of the woman by a patriarchal society which usurps her rightful place is seen in the established social system and is expressed by spouses, family members, friends, and religious leaders. This paper argues that a second displacement is the central theme of the novel. Women consciously opt to distance, to displace, themselves from such stereotypes. This subsequent displacement is a challenge to the society portrayed in the novel.
The stories Ramatoulaye recounts in her letter to Aîssatou are stories of abandonment and isolation of different women by a patriarchal society most often represented by the figure of the husband. The most obvious usurpation of the woman's rightful place is seen in the institution of polygamy. Ramatoulaye and Aîssatou suffer abandonment as their spouses choose a second wife to purportedly share, not usurp, their place in the home. In her letter Ramatoulaye reflects on ‘‘cette solitude et cette réclusion forcées’’; she speaks of the many women ‘‘méprisées, reléguées ou échangées, dont on s'est séparé comme d'un boubou usé ou démodé.’’ Challenges to polygamy are silenced by facile justifications of the institution. The family of Ramatoulaye's husband defends Modou' s decision to take a second wife as a divine imperative: "Dieu lui a destiné une deuxième femme, il n'y peut rien.’’ Polygamy is further justified as a uniquely male necessity that women cannot understand but must accept. Aîssatou's husband, Mawdo, explains:
On ne résiste pas aux lois impérieuses qui exigent de l'homme nourriture et vêtements. Ces mêmes lois poussent le "mâle’’ ailleurs. Je dis bien ‘‘mâle'' pour marquer la bestialité des instincts.... Tu comprends. ... Une femme doit comprendre une fois pour toutes et pardonner; elle ne doit pas souffrir en se souciant des "trahisons" charnelles.
It is interesting to note that the force behind Mawdo's polygamous marriage is, in fact, a woman. It is his mother who manipulates this marriage and ‘‘devant cette mère rigide, pétrie de morale ancienne, brûlée intérieurement par les féroces lois antiques, que pouvait Mawdo Bâ?’’ Mawdo accepts a second wife to please his mother and the ancient laws. It is not, then, simply a question of the victimization of women by men in this novel. The framework of Bâ's text is larger: it is the patriarchal society that serves as a backdrop. Women in this society, and female characters in the novel, are often strong proponents of this patriarchal polity. Educated in the "old'' way, women are made an accessory in their repression. In preparing a second wife for her son, Mawdo's mother instills in the young girl the traditional image of the woman:
L' empreinte de l' école n'avait pas été forte en la petite Nabou, précédée et dominée par la force de caractère de tante Nabou qui, dans sa rage de vengeance, n'avait laissé rien au hasard dans l'éducation qu'elle avait donnée à sa nièce. C'était surtout, par les contes, pendant les veillées à la belle étoile, que tante Nabou avait exercé son emprise sur l’âme de la petite Nabou, sa voix expressive glorifiait la violence justicière du guerrier; sa voix expressive plaignait l'inquiétude de l'Aimée toute de soumission.
The young woman is taught to be the submissive loved one in her relationship with the glorified warrior. The traditional term "l'Aimee" is quite revealing. The woman, identified by a past participle, is defined in relation to the man. Her value is determined by her husband. As in the case of the petite Nabou, it is the mother of Ramatoulaye's co-wife who subjects her young daughter, Binetou, to marriage with an older, married man. Even in her anger, Ramatoulaye recognizes that Binetou is "un agneau immolé comme beaucoup d'autres sur l'autel du 'matérial.'’’
Ramatoulaye's reflections on a woman's place, or lack thereof, in a polygamous marriage underline the cruelty of this social order: ‘‘J'étais abondonnée: une feuille qui voltige mais qu'aucune main n'ose ramasser....’’ Her choice of metaphor is apt. Her place usurped, she is adrift. She must now find her own place. She must redefine herself if she is to escape the ‘‘shallow grave.’’
The necessity of this redefinition on the part of the woman is echoed in the words of Daouda, an older suitor of Ramatoulaye who once again proposes marriage to her. An active member of the National Assembly, he recognizes the need for women to speak for themselves, to reclaim their place at the center of society:
La femme ne doit plus être l'accessoire qui orne. L'objet que l’on dé place [my emphasis], la compagne qu'on flatte ou calme avec des promesses. La femme est la racine première, fondamentale de la nation où se greffe tout apport, d'où part aussi toute floraison. Il faut inciter la femme à s'intéresser davantage au sort de son pays.
This male figure's discourse is a challenge to the traditional representation of women in the literary corpus. Ramatoulaye and the many other women of whom she speaks must reject the image of the ‘‘femme noire,’’ a stereotype internalized as young women. Ramatoulaye herself embraced this image when Modou used this traditional representation in his letters written from France during their courtship. These examples of male writing, the only representation of male text in the novel, are reminiscient of traditional male writers. Modou, far from home, writes to a young Ramatoulaye that "le teint laiteur des femmes’’ does not attract him. He writes instead: ‘‘C'est toi que je porte en moi. Tu es ma négresse protectrice. Vite te retrouver rien que pour une pression de mains qui me fera oublier faim et soif et solitude.’’ The images can not but recall Senghor' s "Femme noire'':
Femme nue, femme noire
Vêtue de ta couleur qui est vie,
de ta forme qui est beauté!
J ai grandi à ton ombre;
la douceur de tes mains bandait mes yeux.
or his poem ‘‘Nuit de Sine,’’ in which he asks the woman: ‘‘Pose sur mon front tes mains balsamiques.’’ Modou has imposed the traditional and limiting stereotype of the woman/healer/mother on Ramatoulaye. The young Rama, although a strong woman who chooses her own husband and career, accepts this identity. It is only later, when her husband adopts other traditional perspectives on the place, or lack of place, of the woman, that she must react.
This novel, the writing of a long letter to a close woman friend who has suffered similar pain, is in fact this reaction. Although written in the form of a letter, the text resembles a journal. The ambiguous phrase that opens the text (‘‘en guise de réponse’’) can be understood in two fashions. It can simply mean that this letter is Ramatoulaye's way of responding to previous letters written by Aîssatou, but it can also imply that in place of responding by letter, the author will open a "cahier'' to record her feelings. This intimation of private writing is further enhanced by Ramatoulaye's frequent change of addressee in her writing. Although most of her thoughts are addressed to Aîssatou, Ramatoulaye directs her remarks to others as well: she speaks to Modou, to other ‘‘victimes d'un si triste sort’’ and to those male doctors who misunderstand the pain these women suffer. Furthermore, the letter/journal, written during the "Mirasse," a four-month and ten-day period of mourning and seclusion, is never sent. Aîssatou's imminent arrival at Ramatoulaye's home reduces the text's importance as a letter. Instead, the letter/journal derives its importance as an opportunity for Ramatoulaye to embark on an inner journey to better understand herself. The journey is an exploration of her past and her loss of place. Her recalling of the past becomes a search for her own place. She must "de-place" herself in order to be herself.
The struggle to achieve the dis-placement from the stereotypes imposed on Ramatoulaye is difficult. In her letter she recalls Aîssatou's similar pain as she tries to confront her own. At the time of her own husband's betrayal, Aîssatou cast off the identity society had imposed on her by rejecting her husband's duplicitous love and, significantly, his name. In a letter to her husband affirming her dignity, she wrote: ''Je me dépouille de ton amour, de ton nom. Vtue du seut habit valable de la dignité, je poursuis ma route.’’ In order for Aîssatou to "dis-place" herself, however, she was forced to leave her home. Finishing her education, she moved to the United States to work as an interpreter for the Senegalese embassy.
The fact that she was unable to remain in her society and occupy her own space as she defines it is very significant in Ramatoulaye's similar struggle in which cultures conflict. Ramatoulaye and Aîssatou were educated in Western schools. They are, therefore, the product of two cultures. While traditional thought claimed that "L'école transforma nos filles en disblesses, qui détournent les hommes du droit chemin,’’ as young women they believed themselves ‘‘de véritables soeurs destinées à la même mission émancipatrice’’ and ‘‘libérées donc des tabous qui frustent.’’ Yet, even at a young age, Ramatoulaye recognized the conflicts born of these changes:
Nous étions tous d'accord qu'il fallait bien des craquements pour asseoir la modernité dans les traditions. Ecartelés entre le passé et le présent, nous déplorions les 'suintements' qui ne manqueraient pas.... Nous dénombrions les pertes possibles. Mais nous sentions que plus rien ne serait comme avant. Nous étions pleins de nostalgie, mais résolument progressistes.
As an adult, although Ramatoulaye commits herself to raising modern children, educated men and women who will not settle for a tradition that stifles them, she finds that she herself is marked by this tradition. She is not willing to cast it off as did Aîssatou. She is torn between two cultures. She rejects polygamy but implicitly accepts it by choosing to stay with Modou. She wishes that her children will receive a modern education yet is upset when her daughters defy tradition by wearing pants and smoking.
The end of the letter, the end of this journey, leads, however, to greater self-knowledge. In the last chapter she confides:
Les irréverisibles courants de libération de la femme qui fouettent le monde, ne me laissent pas indifférente. Cet ébranlement qui viole tousles domaines, révèle et illustre nos capacités. Mon coeur est en fête chaque fois qu'une femme émerge de l'ombre. Je sais mouvant le terrain des acquis, difficile la suivie des conquêtes: les contraintes sociales bousculent toujours et l’égoîsme mâle résiste.
This letter, this journal, leads finally to a transformation. Ramatoulaye is ready to "dis-place" herself. Unlike her friend, she will not leave her culture: she will instead welcome Aîssatou's arrival in the traditional way, yet she is a woman "coming out of the shadows.'' She affirms that "malgré tout ... l'espérance m'habite. C'est de l'humus sale et mauséabonde que jaillit la plante verte et je sens pointer en moi, des bourgeons neufs. Le mot bonheur recouvre bien quelque chose, n'est-ce pas? J'irai à sa recherche.’’
The novel does not end here, however. Ramatoulaye's final statement brings the reader back to the initial theme of the novel, the letter, when she speaks about writing: "Tant pis pour moi, si j'ai encore à t'écrire Une Si longue lettre....’’ The act of writing has become the means to finding one's own place. It is through writing about herself and her past that Ramatoulaye is able to reconstruct herself, to distance herself from disabling stereotypes.
Whereas women from past generations, the mothers and grandmothers of Ramatoulaye and Aîssatou, communicated only through oral means (‘‘Nos grand'mères dont les concessions étaient séparées par une tapade, échangeaient journellement des messages. Nos mères se disputaient la garde de nos oncles et tantes’’), this generation claims the written form as its own. In the same way that a Western education separated these women from a sometimes stifling tradition, it also gave them a powerful instrument that sets them off from the ‘‘femme noire’’ image. The claiming of writing, traditionally an exclusively masculine form of communication, as their own enables the women to dispossess themselves of the images imposed on them by the traditional male writer. The woman is no longer created through the man's text; she creates herself in her own text. Within the context of the story, writing oneself literally becomes a refusal to compromise. Aîssatou's rejection of a polygamous marriage is in the form of a letter to her husband. Through the experience of writing her story, Ramatoulaye progresses from a victim unable to reject polygamy in her marriage with Modou to a woman capable of using the written word in her letter refusing Daouda's proposal of a second polygamous marriage.
This written ‘‘prise de parole’’ does not represent a cultural conflict for Ramatoulaye. As Miller demonstrates, the women in the novel do not simply adopt a uniquely Western form of expression; they adapt it to their own culture, a culture based on orality rather than literacy (although she clearly rejects the exclusively oral education used to manipulate young women, she herself sees great value in the oral lessons of her grandmother as she struggles to raise her children in a changing world). Ramatoulaye's style of writing reflects this mixture of orality and literacy. She continually cites both conversations and written texts as she tells her story. This written account ends, in fact, in anticipation of a conversation with her friend upon her arrival the next day. Orality and literacy blend together.
Busia asserts that "the centrality of oral narrative, so important to African literary tradition, lends distinctive form to the rebellious writings of black women worldwide.’’ Orality is indeed central in Bâ's novel. The familiar tone and the retelling of conversations particularize this style. Perhaps most striking is the inclusion of formulae that are used to announce conversation in Ramatoulaye's culture. Prefacing the actual account of her story, Ramatoulaye uses a well-known formula to indicate the gravity of the matter: ‘‘Amie, ami, ami! Je t'appelle trois fois.'' Bâ insists on the importance of this formula by explaining its significance in a footnote. Tamsir's announcement of Modou's marriage is carefully transcribed with the formal axioms indicating a message of great importance. Finally, repetition of key phrases in the novel recalls the oral tradition of the griot. Ramatoulaye's recounting of her life after Modou's departure is rendered more dramatic, more piercing by repetition of structure and words. Throughout the account, the use of "je" with a verb in the imperfect tense creates a particularly haunting rhythm. Repetition of the phrases ‘‘jétais abandonnée: une feuille qui voltige mais qu'aucune main n'ose ramasser, aurait dit ma grand' mère'' (2 times) and ''Je survivais'' (4 times) insists on the orality of this culture while integrating it with the written form.
Miller points out that even in the choice of genre, Bâ incorporates two traditions. She uses the epistolary form, a European genre rarely adapted to francophone literature, but deviates from this established form by writing a modified journal, a form used most often by male francophone writers. Miller proposes that in doing so ‘‘the position that Mariama Bâ staked out for herself is unique, distinguishable from both the 'European' female point of reference and the 'African' male one. In effect she has broken down that opposition between, on the one hand, 'female' and 'feminist' as uniquely European, and on the other hand, the francophone literary tradition as uniquely male." Ba has defined her own space. As a writer she has displaced herself in relation to both the European and masculine stereotypes. Like Ramatoulaye, her literary creation, writing defines her place.
Perhaps the writing of this novel can be considered Bâ's ‘‘en guise de réponse’’ to the oppressive displacement of women. Interestingly, there is no closure to the novel. Ramatoulaye's conclusion: ‘‘tant pis pour moi si j'ai encore à t'écrire Une Si longue lettre...’’ refuses to conclude. The act of responding through writing, a woman's deliberate displacement of herself as she frees herself from the shallow grave, will continue. The social order has been challenged; there will be no more silence; there will be no closure.
Source: Ann McElaney-Johnson,"The Place of the Woman or the Woman Displaced in Mariama Ba's Une Si longue lettre,’’ in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, September, 1993, pp. 19-28.
Enclosure/Disclosure in Mariama Ba's Une Si Longue Lettre
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3942
Depicting the Dakar-Niger Railway strike of 1947 in his novel Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, Ousmane Sembène gives several female protagonists revolutionary scripts. When Penda delivers a fiery speech proposing that the women of Thiés march on Dakar, she is responding to a community crisis, the railway workers strike, by moving women into public space. Both her speech and the march challenge societal norms: ‘‘De mémoire d'homme c'était la premiére fois qu'une femme avait pris la parole en public á Thiés.’’ Although Sembène projects the women into the political arena, he concludes the novel on an ambiguous note. As the marchers near Dakar, Penda dies, killed by the police. At the conclusion of the demonstration the women return home to resume their former activities: ‘‘Le soir venu, elles regagnaient la maison paternelle ou le toit conjugal.’’ Women who have been catalysts for change either disappear or are recuperated by the patriarchal structure.
Sembène published Les Bouts de bois de Dieu in 1960, two decades before the emergence of Senegalese women writers Nafissatou Diallo, Aminatou Sow Fall, Mariama Bâ, Ken Bugul. Bâ, in particular, offers an important contrast to Sembène's text. I propose to study her Une si longue lettre, seeking a response to the following questions: Does Bâ's text reveal Sembène's same ambiguity? In other words, are women who appear as catalysts for change sacrificed or recuperated by the patriarchy? How does Bâ treat the conflict between the patriarchal tradition that confines African women to domestic space and women's struggle to claim public space?
In her first novel, Bâ chooses the letter as a vehicle for recounting episodes of her heroine's past. Following her husband's death, Ramatoulaye begins a long letter to her childhood friend, Aïssatou, in which she describes how she copes after Modou, her husband of twenty-five years, takes a second wife. Choosing a young woman the age of his oldest daughter, Modou abandons Ramatoulaye and their twelve children.
Bâ received the Noma prize for Une si longue lettre, acclaimed by the judges for its significant testimony and true imaginative depth (Zell). Given its strong attack on polygamy, however, the novel was evaluated primarily as a sociological statement. Critics who focus on the socio-political and cultural dimensions of polygamy in the work agree that Ramatoulaye, the heroine, is a victim of a society that endorses and encourages polygamy, but disagree as to whether she uses her energies heroically to overcome obstacles or to reproach bitterly the patriarchal structure.
Without neglecting the socio-political implications of the work, the present study focuses upon Ramatoulaye's journey to self-understanding, emphasizing the narratee's role in the novel. I shall argue that Ramatoulaye addresses her long letter (28 chapters) to Aïssatou because she is both an intimate friend and an important role model. The reader learns that Aïssatou faced the issue of polygamy in her own marriage, refusing it before the crisis occurred in Ramatoulaye's home. Aïssatou's revolt and subsequent "escape" to America makes her Ramatoulaye's ideal reader. Her success in the ‘‘new world’’ is convincing testimony that the journey outward is possible.
By writing to Aïssatou the narrator introduces the tension between enclosure and the outward journey. In Bâ's fictional world Senegalese men are most often offered the opportunity to make the journey outward, returning home with gained maturity, whereas Senegalese women are usually barred from this experience. Modou has been to France to study; Ramatoulaye has not. Given this context, Aïssatou's journey to the United States is a radical statement of revolt.
The death and funeral of Ramatoulaye's estranged husband result in enclosure for Ramatoulaye rather than the outward journey. Following the demise of Modou, Ramatoulaye is committed by Islamic tradition to spend four months in mourning and seclusion. Ramatoulaye uses this period to travel in time rather than space. She recalls the past in an attempt to understand herself better and to cope with the present. Annis Pratt states that women's escape through imagination is strategic, a withdrawal into the unconscious for the purpose of personal transformation. Indeed, Ramatoulaye turns to the inner journey to obtain knowledge, through self-examination and maturity, through personal transformation. By examining her own thoughts, memories, and the collective experience of family and nation emerging from colonialism, Ramatoulaye attempts to gain a heightened sense of maturity.
The reader's task in this work is to evaluate Ramatoulaye's inner journey, bearing in mind a binary construct, the portrait and the mask. Does the novel conceal as much as it reveals? Let us refine the question. Does enclosure (brought about by the Islamic tradition of respectful mourning) lead to disclosure, or ironically, to concealment and therefore to the self-delusion of a protagonist who proposes an inner journey for the explicit purpose of lucidity and self-understanding?
The novel begins with a direct statement of purpose:
Aïssatou, J'ai recu ton mot. En guise de réponse, j'ouvre ce cahier, point d'appui dans mon désarroi: notre longue pratique m'a enseigné que la confidence noie la douleur.
Having just received a letter from Aïssatou (which we later learn announces Aïssatou's forthcoming visit to Dakar), Ramatoulaye announces Modou's death. At the same time, she expresses the need for this correspondence as support in time of crisis. This very long letter, ultimately a diary, will allow Ramatoulaye to express her intimate thoughts and justify her responses to life through the act of writing to her ideal reader, her closest friend.
Thus, the death of Modou, not his second marriage and ultimate abandonment of Ramatoulaye and their children, is the catalyst for the letter. The important subtext in the work, revealed in the opening paragraphs, is the importance of female bonding, presented as a legacy of traditional Africa. Ramatoulaye recounts the friendship between their grandmothers, mothers, and finally recalls their shared childhood: "Nous, nous avons usé pagnes et sandales sur le même chemin caillouteux de l'école coranique.’’ Hence, at the beginning of her letter Ramatoulaye acknowledges that Aïssatou is her ideal reader because of common experiences: a shared Islamic past, a long sustained friendship, and a painful experience of polygamy—‘‘Hier tu as divorcé. Aujourd-hui, je suis veuve.’’ Later, she will come to terms with Aïssatou's decision, her choice to embark upon the journey outward to a new world and a new life.
Enclosure as an important structuring element of the novel must take into account the Islamic context; the latter influences both the narrative content and structure. The mourning period, an obligation of Islam, provides Ramatoulaye with the time frame in which to write the long letter. Opening the notebook that becomes a 131-page novel, she explains:
Mon coeur s'accorde aux exigences religieuses. Nourrie, dès l'enfance, à leurs sources rigides, je crois que je ne faillirai pas. Les murs qui limitent mon horizon pendant quatre mois et dix jours ne me gênent guère. J'ai en moi assez de souvenirs' à ruminer.
Islam as well provides the vehicle for disclosure. "Mirasse," an Islamic precept, calls for the disclosure of all possessions of the deceased for the purpose of inheritance. Ramatoulaye states: ‘‘Le Mirasse’’ ordonné par le Coran nécessite le dépouillement d'un individu mort de ses secrets les plus intimes. Il livre ainsi à autrui ce qui fut soigneusement dissimulé.’’ Her religion thus encourages revelations of a deceased person's past so as to praise the individual. She reinterprets this practice to allow for the disclosure of Modou's financial and emotional treachery. She explains that upon his death she learned that he had taken a loan to pay for his second wife's home by putting a lien on his first wife's property (a residence that they had in fact paid for jointly). Subsequently, Ramatoulaye broadens the definition of disclosure to unveil Modou's emotional breach of faith in their marriage.
Ramatoulaye's reaction to the process of "mirasse" is crucial to her journey toward lucidity and the reader's understanding of the protagonist. By disclosing Modou's transgressions to the readers (Aïssatou, you, me), she, the betrayed individual, allows us to seek evidence of a healing process. We can then ascertain whether the victim remains victimized, blocked by his betrayal of their married life, or whether she proves capable of transcending the experience by word and deed, discourse and actions.
For the purpose of analysis, the novel can be separated into three sections. Announcing Modou's death and introducing the concept of mirasse, the first part (letters 1-4) puts forth the two structuring devices: enclosure and disclosure. The second part (letters 5-17), depicts Ramatoulaye's journey through time. By means of analepses (reaches into the past or flashbacks), the protagonist gathers information that prepares her for the present. In the final part of the novel (letters 18-24) Ramatoulaye, having spent forty days in mourning, forgives Modou. However, as a widow Ramatoulaye faces a series of moral and emotional challenges that test her judgment and values. These trials complete the protagonist's maturation process.
Hélène Cixous, a leading exponent of the women's movement in France, has written: ‘‘Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.’’ Once Ramatoulaye concludes the description of the rituals surrounding Modou's burial, presenting ethnographic details as well as her open criticism of the crass materialism that spoils tradition, she encounters the difficulty of ‘‘putting herself into the text.’’ She begins with two false starts: a ‘‘cri de coeur,’’ in which she proclaims herself victim, followed by a letter to Modou, not to Aïssatou, in which she remembers with great sentimentality their first meeting. Although Ramatoulaye praises Modou's progressive views, as she recalls them, his words contradict her portrait; they reveal a young man locked into gender stereotypes. For example, calling Ramatoulaye his ‘‘négresse protectrice,’’ Modou languishes in Paris, missing "le dandinement des négresses le long du trottoir.'' Hence, Ramatoulaye's acts of telling and showing contradict one another.
This analepsis, a flashback reaching thirty years into the past, poses the problem of the narrator's reliability. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, who considers personal involvement to be a main source of unreliability, defines a reliable narrator as one who provides the reader with "an authoritative account of the fictional truth.’’ Intense personal involvement in her own story leads Ramatoulaye, an auto-diegetic or first-person narrator, to insert the story of Aïssatou's marriage into the novel. By writing about Aïssatou in addition to writing to her, Ramatoulaye restores the objectivity that will grant reliability to her narrative. Aïssatou serves not only as ideal reader and role model but as reality "anchor’’ as well. Thus, by using the structural device of doubling—parallel events or similar experiences that reinforce the sense of parallel lives—Ramatoulaye regains an authoritative voice.
The doubling begins in the first letter when she remembers their shared childhood. Later, she recalls that both young girls were inspired by the extraordinary vision of their European school director. Looking back on these formative years, Ramatoulaye views her school mistress as the one who freed them from tradition. She writes in the first person plural, emphasizing the school director's effect upon both of them:
Nous sortir de l'enlisement des traditions, superstitions et moeurs; nous faire apprécier de multiples civilisations sans reniement de la nôtre; élever notre vision du monde, cultiver notre personnalité, renforcer nos qualités, mater nos défauts; faire fructifier en nous les valeurs de la morale universelle; voilá la tâche que s'était assignée l'admirable directrice.
The director's message is clearly subversive. Urging her students to break with tradition and to affirm their personality, she calls for revolt rather than submission. Ramatoulaye's act of rebellion is to reject the suitor chosen for her by her mother, and marry Modou Fall, a man of her own choosing. Similarly, Aïssatou, the daughter of a blacksmith, defies the traditional caste system by marrying a son of royalty. Their rebellion has further consequences; their choices prepare the way for polygamy. Ramatoulaye chooses a man whose propensity towards infidelity is immediately recognized by her mother. Aïssatou, who marries above her station, incurs the vengeance of a scheming mother-in-law who succeeds in bringing a second wife into her son's household.
Although the doubling creates the dimension of parallel lives in the novel, the narrator reveals that Ramatoulaye and Aïssatou are not mirror images of one another. When their husbands enter into polygamous marriages for different reasons, one to please a scheming mother, the other to find the excitement of youth, the two women react to polygamy in very different ways. Aïssatou rebels; Ramatoulaye acquiesces. Aïssatou responds to Mawdo's announcement of his second marriage with an angry letter in which she states her refusal to remain within the marriage:
Je ne m'y soumettrai point. Au bonheur qui fut nôtre, je ne peux substituer celui que tu me proposes aujourd'hui. Tu veux dissocier l'Amour tout court et l'amour physique. Je te rétorque que la communion charnelle ne peut être sans l'acceptation du cœur, si minime soit-elle.
Ramatoulaye, who quotes Aïsstou's entire letter, cannot bring herself at this point to follow her friend in revolt. Despite admiration for Aïssatou's refusal of polygamy, she turns the other cheek. The second section of the novel discloses not only Modou's treachery but Ramatoulaye's failed revolt. Both husband and wife lose touch with their earlier progressive selves. He becomes a caricature of an old fool trying to regain his youth: ‘‘Modou s'essouflait à emprisonner une jeunesse déclinante qui le fuyit de partout.’’ She, lacking courage, agrees to a polygamous union out of fear of loneliness. Only after he truly abandons her and she is forced to take on the role of single parent does she resume the rhetoric of revolt. Ramatoulaye arguably writes the ‘‘long letter’’ to Aïssatou upon Modou's death because she was unable to write the ‘‘short letter,’’ as Aïssatou had done, and thereby reject polygamy.
The second section can be characterized as failed revolt, but it prepares the protagonist for the series of trials or challenges that result in her final transformation. This preparation takes the form of comforting past memories on the one hand, and acts of independence on the other. As she evokes memories of her youth and early adulthood, the narrator uses them as a source of happiness. Recalling the years when she was first married to Modou (as was Aïssatou to Mawdo), Ramatoulaye turns to nature for inspiration. She depicts the beach at Ngor:
Sur le sable fin, rincé par la vague et gorgé d'eau, des pirogues, peintes naïvement, attendaient leur tour d'être lancées sur les eaux. Dans leur coque, luisaient de petites flaques bleues pleines de ciel et de soleil.
Viewed metaphorically, the boats waiting to be launched on the vast ocean correspond to the two idealistic couples whose lives, at that moment in time, are filled with boundless dreams. This optimistic phase occurs in the mid-1960s when the Senegalese nation was first emerging from colonialism. As Ramatoulaye faces adult responsibilities in her personal life, Senegal assumes the responsibilities of nationhood. Hence, the narrator establishes a direct link between the personal and the historical-political phase.
Although the mid-section of the novel depicts a protagonist who appears to have lost her earlier rebellious stance (and is therefore unable to revolt against her husband's abuse of power), two specific incidents toward the end of the section indicate that, despite her initial acquiescence, Ramatoulaye will recapture both the spirit and the language of revolt. First, Ramatoulaye recounts her experience of braving the curious stares of a public who wonders why she is alone at the cinema.
On dévisageait la femme mûre sans compagnon. Je feignais l'indifférence, alors que la colère martelait mes nerfs et que mes larmes retenues embuaient mes yeux. Je mesurais, aux regards étonnés, la minceur de la liberté accordée à la femme.
Here Ramatoulaye finds the courage to venture alone into public space but at the same time masks her anger toward a hostile public. Then Aïssatou's gift of a new car allows her to travel more freely in the city. The Fiat proves to be a challenge. She conquers her fear of driving and obtains her driver's license. These experiences affirm her presence in public space. Occurring after Modou's departure but before his death, they attest to the protagonist's essentially independent spirit and foreshadow her final transformation.
The fortieth day of mourning marks the beginning of the third and final section of the novel. At this point, the widow forgives her late husband. In addition, suitors begin to ask for her hand. First Ramatoulaye's brother-in-law and then a former suitor propose marriage. Presented with a co-wife several years before, Ramatoulaye is now asked to become one herself. Refusing her brother-in-law (whose offer is motivated by the desire for her inheritance), she finally expresses her anger: "Ma voix connaît trente années de silence, trente années de brimades. Elle éclate, violente, tantôt sarcastique, tantôt méprisante.’’ The woman who greeted the announcement of Modou's second marriage with a smile and feigned indifference now removes the mask of passivity and acquiescence. She finds the words to affirm her identity, expressing her conviction that marriage must be a choice between partners, not an arrangement between families:
Tu oublies que j'ai un coeur, une raison, que je ne suis pas un objet que l’on passe de main en main. Tu ignores ce que se marier signifie pour moi: c'est un acte de foi et d'amour, un don total de soi à l'être que l’on a choisi et qui vous a choisi. (J'insistais sur le mot choisi.)
Later, rejecting the second suitor, Daouda Dieng, whose motivation is affection not avarice, Ramatoulaye writes him a letter to explain that she cannot enter into a polygamous marriage because she has suffered the consequences of one. Thus, Ramatoulaye finally writes a letter rejecting polygamy, although neither the tone nor the circumstances recall Aïssatou's angry words to her ex-husband, Mawdo.
Having learned to express her anger openly as she rejects polygamy, Ramatoulaye faces her final trials. Forced to cope with family crises as a single parent, she rises to each occasion: a son's motorcycle accident, then the pregnancy of an unmarried daughter.
As she writes her last letter to Aïssatou, Ramatoulaye eagerly awaits her friend's visit. The dual process of introspection and writing, of enclosure and disclosure, have led Ramatoulaye to cease questioning Modou's initial rejection. No longer a victim, she now expresses new hope in her future. ‘‘C'est de l'humus sale et nauséabond que jaillit la plante verte et je sens pointer en moi des bourgeons neufs.’’ The epistolary novel that began with Modou's death ends in an expression of rebirth.
Ramatoulaye's journey leads to lucidity. She discovers that Modou abandoned her because of his weakness, vanity, and she learns a deeper truth, to believe in herself. By removing her mask, the smile of acquiescence, she recovers her earlier vitality and optimism. Moreover, the successful conclusion of the first journey prepares the protagonist for a second one, a new quest for happiness.
At the end of the novel Ramatoulaye awaits Aïssatou in the traditional manner, seated on a straw mat. Unlike Aïssatou, who chose the outward journey and left Senegal in order to begin a new life, Ramatoulaye decides not to leave her community. She avoids the risk of uprootedness in exile, the challenge that her friend assumes, and reaches a new beginning via a different route. Ramatoulaye creates an identity that blends traditional and modern elements. Rather than break with her society, she attempts to work from within.
An interesting parallel can be drawn between Bâ's novel and the orphan tale of oral narrative. For example, Bernard Dadié's ‘‘Le Pagne noir’’ recounts the adventures of Aïwa, sent by her stepmother to whiten a black cloth. As she travels in search of water in which to wash the object, the orphan courageously confronts danger and frustration. Finally, the ghost of her mother descends from heaven to replace the black cloth with a white one which the stepmother immediately recognizes as the winding sheet used to bury Aïwa's mother. Not only does the orphan accomplish the task, she teaches the wicked stepmother a lesson.
Both Bâ's novel and Dadié's folktale depict a vulnerable female protagonist. Ramatoulaye, like Aïwa, ventures forth unprotected in a hostile world. She has lost the protection of her husband (a variant of the orphan's loss of a parent), and is forced by a patriarchal society to grapple with a series of difficult tasks. One of her final tests is to reject her two suitors. By refusing a second marriage to which she is not committed by love, Ramatoulaye confronts and overcomes her fear of loneliness. The orphan's trials have been compared to initiation rites. Ramatoulaye's tests initiate her to a new stage of life: the role of a single person.
In Dadié's orphan tale, Aïwa, despite her hardships, never removes her mask, a smile: "Elle sourit encore du sourire qu'on retrouve sur les lévres des jeunes filles.’’ Ramatoulaye, on the other hand, discards the smile that has functioned as a mask and asserts her individuality and independence. As she assumes a dynamic identity, she reaffirms the rebellious spirt of her youth. Challenging the patriarchy that demands submission and obedience, Ramatoulaye looks within herself to find the courage to break free.
When Aïwa accomplishes the impossible task, she is rewarded for her stoicism and obedience by receiving the help of her mother, a spirit of the dead. Ramatoulaye's intercessor, however, is not a spirit from the other world, but Aïssatou. The faithful friend and confidante offers Ramatoulaye two gifts, a car and a letter, and thereby provides her with tools of transformation. The Fiat allows Ramatoulaye to lay claim to public space by traveling freely in it, thus encouraging her to affirm a new identity. The letter, Aïssatou's declaration of separation from her husband, Mawdo, initiates Ramatoulaye to the act of writing as a process as well as a product of liberation.
In contrast to the winding sheet of the dead mother, a white cloth that puts an end to the orphan's quest in Dadié's narrative, the white sheets of Ramatoulaye's notebook propose a new beginning. Presented as a therapeutic activity in the early pages of the novel, writing subsequently results in liberation as well as in healing. Moreover, in Bâ's novel, the act of writing as a process of disclosure that promotes discovery and self-affirmation clearly reinforces female bonding. Hence, the two structuring devices, enclosure and disclosure, the one facilitating the journey inward, the other recording it, serve another important function; they strengthen communication between Ramatoulaye and Aïssatou. These bonds between narrator and narratee have made it possible for Ramatoulaye to put herself into the text.
At the end of her journey, Bâ's heroine, unlike Sembène's catalysts for change, is neither eliminated nor recuperated by the patriarchy. On the contrary, Ramatoulaye has learned to use the enclosure as her refuge and writing as a means of communication to strengthen female bonding. In Bâ's text the written word becomes a creative tool of self-expression and a weighty weapon against the patriarchy. By recording her journey to self-understanding, Ramatoulaye, in effect, writes her own revolutionary script.
Source: Mildred Mortimer, ‘‘Enclosure/Disclosure in Mariama Ba's Une si longue lettre,'' in The French Review, Vol. 64, No. 1, October, 1990, pp. 69-78.
Still a Victim? Mariama Ba's Une si Longue Lettre
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6186
'Women are man's proletariat.' (Karl Marx)
'Woman is inferior to man and is his subject.' (The Koran)
The head of every man is Christ; the head of every woman is man.' (The Bible)
Since the first contact with the white world, black literature has remained a literature of the underprivileged, a voice of the victim, a mirror of man's inhumanity to man, a record of the revolt of the recalcitrant against the cultural rape perpetrated by the racist colonizer. Unfortunately, the community has emerged worse off than the individual. From the long drawn-out struggle came self-determination, self-satisfaction, self-aggrandizement: the self before the other; the élite before the masses; man before woman. Black literature underscores the continued colonization of the race; for authentic decolonization can be achieved only when the equation changes from self-independence to society-independence, from male-superior/female-inferior to male-female.
Like the near impossible dream of genuine black emancipation in a world where confusion, conflagration and ever-changing complexities and complexes draw people away from a real effort to solve basic problems, female liberation may remain just that, a dream frustrated by harsh, existential realities. The Bible gives us Adam and Eve. The Koran asserts male superiority. The twentieth century, the era of dynamism and progress, the age of decolonization and purification (some would quickly add decadence and pollution), presents a forum for feminism, even if the fad is viewed with a sneer by the chauvinistic community.
Feminism, an occidental phenomenon like many others, has spread ever so slowly but steadily to the forbidden land of Africa. Forbidden, because the continent where man supposedly first surfaced prides herself on her tradition and resilience against foreign cultural intrusion. Such 'aberrations' as feminism are abhorred by many who are, however, the very purveyors of the bastardization of that culture whose contents remain confusing to their civilized minds. Criticism does not stop feminism from rearing its head; for society is a dynamic entity condemned to change from within and without. The war between male and female is now a contemporary constant, and new literary voices from among the once silent minority cry out to be heard, even if there is reason to doubt on whose behalf the revolt is being declared.
Grace Ogot, Efua Sutherland, Ama Ata Aidoo, Flora Nwapa, women writers all, constitute the 'old guard', steeped in the traditions of the land, complaining of their sufferings as subjects of the male master, but seeking solace in a society that has proclaimed woman the mother. That group's conciliatory position has been superseded by a current of revolt. Compromise is replaced by criticism and condemnation. Respect turns into repudiation. Devotion is buried by divorce. Buchi Emecheta, Nafissatou Diallo, Mariama Bâ, those are the voices currently crying out for the liberation of woman, the second-class citizen. Not an easy struggle, that; for the vocal female victim, born of the delicate wedlock of tradition and colonialism, and therefore imbued with the modernizing notions of intellectualism and equality, cannot shed the cloak of womanhood, that glorified niche carved out of the birth-pangs that constitute every mother's everlasting joy. Contradiction is indeed inevitable. Hard choices have to be made, and commitment could be destructive. Une si Longue Lettre is a study of those contradictions.
Mariama Bâ, the author, is Senegalese, an educated Senegalese, a member of several associations interested in enhancing the female position in a predominantly Moslem, male-oriented society. Her western education notwithstanding, she would like to be considered as an 'average Senegalese woman', 'a woman of the house'. Lettre is her first novel and it is filled with autobiographical elements, expressing as it does the novelist's desires and dilemma's, tracing her life in a society caught between the established order of the past and the exigencies of the present. A traditionalist at heart, Bâ aspires to be a revolutionary. A maternal retiring figure through and through, she aspires to be a pioneer in female emancipation. Her family upbringing and the Koranic training have imbued her with the absolute law of 'divine wish': man is woman's overlord. Added to that is Bâ's fatalism. Destiny is a fixed reality, impossible to avoid.
Destiny seizes whoever he wants, when he wants. If his desire tallies with yours, he brings you an overabundance of bliss. But most often, he unbalances and brings conflict. You can only submit yourself to his laws.
However, such fatalistic tendencies are contradictory to the tenets of the white man's school where Bâ learned how to manipulate the French language. Submissiveness in the face of suffering is discouraged and the victim is told to demand total reform of the social order. Her 'letter' is written in the form of a notebook kept by the heroine named Ramatoulaye. Married for thirty years to Modou by whom she has twelve children, Ramatoulaye has been separated for five years from her husband who repudiated her and left her for a much younger woman. Her 'letter', ostensibly addressed to a bosom friend, a divorcee working as an interpreter in the Senegalese embassy in New York and due to return home very soon, is written immediately after Modou's death. It is a reflection of life in a psychological ghetto of mental torture and social disorder, where woman is a slave and a beast of prey. Divorce is a rarity but separation and infidelity are common. The life of the couple, far from being a haven of contentment and consideration, is a hell of conniving criminals and common cretins. According to Bâ, two camps are precisely delineated: the victimizer, the slave-master, the ruler of this hell on earth, is Man; the victimized, the slave driven at times to the point of mental exhaustion, is Woman.
The Male Victimizer
Man, the unfaithful husband; Man, the womanizer; Man, the victimizer—Bâ's novel describes him in all his negative forms, without an exception to console his pride. First, there is Ramatoulaye's spineless husband, Modou Fall, a successful lawyer, a trade-union leader turned company executive. Happily married for twenty-five years, he suddenly takes an interest in Binetou, a teenage schoolgirl and friend of his daughter, Daba. Before his first wife can sift through the maze of lies and manipulations, Modou has abandoned the matrimonial home to live with his new wife and her mother. Ramatoulaye is left forever with the question unanswered: 'Madness? Spinelessness? Irresistible love? What internal upheaval deranged Modou Fall to make him marry Binetou?' Definitely the fault is not Ramatoulaye's; as she makes the reader understand, she has made a thorough self-analysis and has come up with nothing to explain her husband's behaviour. Modou himself has the following explanation: God has destined him to have a second wife. To which the victimized heroine quickly responds with a sneer similar to that of a perfect angel ogled by a lecherous wolf but adamant to keep her innocence intact.
Yet, there are indications that Modou may not be a totally lost case of male monstrosity. Ramatoulaye mentions the fact that Binetou, 'a bit timid, frail, ill-at-ease, visibly, in (the bourgeois) milieu', is a beautiful apple ripe for plucking by someone with eyes good enough to see. 'Her beauty shone, pure. The harmonious curves of her body could not pass unnoticed'. There she was, all aglow, a constant visitor to the Fall household, God's beauty there for appreciating by the clear-sighted, handsome Modou. Besides, Binetou, beautiful and appreciative of beauty around her, takes in the concrete elements of comfort in the Fall home. Bourgeois bountifulness conflicts with peasant poverty and the young girl's mother drives home the point, incessantly. She 'wishes so much to get out of her mediocre condition' and begs her daughter to give her 'a happy ending, in a real house'. So, the narrator depicts the mother as a materialistic, daughter-hawking monster while her daughter is the innocent victim.
Man is the symbol of evil. There is Modou's friend, Mawdo Bâ, an excellent doctor but an execrable husband. Like Modou, he is happily married to Aïssatou, intelligent daughter of a goldsmith. The wife does the husband proud by raising her status in society: she becomes a teacher, leaving behind her the banal existence of the uncivilized for the bourgeois life of the civilized. Mawdo falls prey to his mother's jealousy and vengeful sentiments over her only son's relationship with Aïssatou, the simple peasant, and her poor, lower-class family. The narrator writes:
Your mother-in-law, who saw you glowing near her son, who saw her son frequent more and more your father's forge, who saw your mother become more robust and better dressed, your mother-in-law thought more and more of her vengeance.
The vengeance came in the form of a girl, the niece of AuntNabou, Mawdo's mother. She goes to her brother and brings back the young girl to live with Mawdo. Duty towards mother calls for devotion. Devotion to duty is concretely expressed in desire of the flesh. Little Nabou grows in girth quickly enough. A child is the natural outcome, and Aïssatou decides to put an end to her life with Mawdo. Her parting remarks to the irresponsible husband:
You wish to dissociate love pure and simple from physical love. I hurl back at you the accusation that carnal knowledge cannot be without the acceptance of the heart, no matter how minimal it is.... Man is one: grandeur and animality confused. No gesture on his part is pure ideal. No gesture on his part is pure bestiality.
If Mawdo is guilty of failing to control the sexual beast in him, one wonders whether he is any more guilty than the mother who makes him marry his beautiful cousin; or more guilty than Ramatoulaye who helps Aunt Nabou to raise and educate the wife-to-be in full knowledge of the facts, while Aïssatou is kept in total ignorance.
There is no redemption for man, the monster. There is the Senegalese doctor, Samba Diack, married to the Ivoirian Jacqueline. A stunning beauty, she disobeys her parents, marries the foreigner in Abidjan and leaves with him for Dakar. Landed in a world strange to her, she becomes disoriented and disillusioned. She is harried for being a Protestant in a Moslem society, and is treated as a bushwoman by the hostile Senegalese. Diack makes life worse by his constant escapades with the alluring Dakarois girls that he had missed so much during his Ivoirian sojourn. Jacqueline falls into nervous depression and is on the brink of insanity. Fortunately, she is saved by a competent, humane psychiatrist who helps rid her of the dark shadow dogging her footsteps. And Diack? Not much is really said about him in the novel. The bare facts of his disdainful nature are put before us. Jugement has been made by the narrator: Man is guilty, as usual. However, all the episodes described by the narrator prove beyond doubt that the victimizer, no matter how vile he is, no matter how mean he is, is an ever-present figure in woman's life.
Aïssatou; Divorce, a Solution in Solitude
Man's basic guilt, the root cause for his vilification, the main element of his vicious behaviour, is polygamy. Polygamy, the estate revered by traditionalists as a function of Africanity. Polygamy, once supported and even suggested by African woman as a socioeconomic expediency. That, vows Aïssatou, is a thing of the past. Polygamy is now the bane of society. Polygamy is a vice to be dealt with not by procrastination but by divorce. So, Aïssatou Bâ leaves the beast called Mawdo.
Aïssatou is, like her friend Ramatoulaye, an intellectual, that rare breed especially among the female species. Excellent students in the white man's school, their intelligence is extolled by their peers, and they themselves set out to be pioneers in the emancipation of women. Ramatoulaye will forever remember the white woman who 'first wanted for [them] a destiny ‘‘out of the ordinary'’’. She continues:
We were real sisters destined for the same emancipatory mission. To free us from the prison of traditions, superstitions and local mores; to make us appreciate multiple civilizations without denying ours; to raise our vision of the world, to cultivate our personality, reinforce our qualities, checkmate our faults; bring to fruition in us the values of universal morals; there is the task that the admirable headmistress took upon herself.
The civilizing mission of colonialism could not have succeeded better. Aïssatou and Ramatoulaye are, so to speak, among the select few, and the selectors are, naturally, the whites. Their light shines forth in all its splendour. The path is well traced out before them: to bring to reality the 'profound options of the new Africa, to promote the black woman', to liberate her from the frustrating taboos of traditional Africa. The lesson is taught with precision, and assimilated—the word is not used by chance—extraordinarily well: marriage is built on love. Parents have no right to choose a husband for a girl. Dowry is a materialistic institution. All that matters to the wife is her husband who belongs to her wholly and to whom she belongs wholly, irrespective of any family ties that he normally has. Polygamy underscores African savagery and man's dehumanization of woman.
Aïssatou has four children by Mawdo, but that is a secondary issue when the time of rupture arrives. Consideration for the children would be another example of the tenets of a society of treeclimbers. 'Innocent victim of an unjust cause and hardy pioneer of a new life', she rejects sharing her husband's vile existence. She prefers dignity to disgrace, chooses solitude instead of solidarity. Solidarity. The warmth of a touch, a smile, a gesture. The sound of human voices. The chatter of children playing under the tropical sun. The shouts of a shameless husband defending his sham cause.
The anger of a tearful wife consoled by the presence of the human face near her late at night and in times of trouble. But such solidarity, without rhyme or reason, without logic, is unacceptable to the civilized, calculating mind. Aïssatou leaves Dakar for New York with her four children. The narrator leaves a lot of questions half-answered or unanswered, such as the following: is Aïssatou happy in her solitude? How does she survive through the cold, wintry New York nights? What is her present attitude to men? Ramatoulaye's story tends to imply that Aïssatou's departure is not an action taken in search of happiness; or if that is the motive, that the objective is never attained. The saving grace in Aïssatou's embattled existence is her career and, as any overworked administrator, or interpreter or intellectual, would admit, a career is aeons removed from human care; books, in the final analysis, beget boredom. In Ramatoulaye's opinion, Aïssatou is saved by her books. 'Having become [her] refuge, they supported [her]'.
The power of books, marvellous invention of man's astute intelligence. Various signs, associated into sounds; different sounds moulding the word. Arrangement of words from which idea, thought, history, science, life, spring out. Unique instrument of relationship and culture, unequalled means of giving and receiving. Books knit together generations in the same continuous labour towards progress.
This ode to knowledge, powerful in its poetic fervour, overwhelming in its declaration of the birth of life through books, is far from convincing as far as happiness is concerned, however. Indeed, Aïssatou's rupture from her husband allows her to develop her skills and utilize her intelligence, although no clear statement is made by the narrator as to how those possibilities exist more outside the family home than within. The suggested reason is the lady's opportunity to travel abroad, although again we are not told that there was ever any problem in the nature of the husband's refusing to allow his wife room to breathe and travel. Anyway, Aïssatou travels to France—and the myth of the metropolis, centre of civilization, bursts forth in all its splendour—and then she goes to America. Ramatoulaye tells us what her friend's letters tell her: the sojourn in foreign lands and the immersion in her career help Aïssatou turn away resolutely from 'the searchers of ephemeral joy and of facile liaisons'. Still the questions already posed remain unanswered. To all intents and purposes, culture constitutes a mere consolation. The career has afforded the lady upward mobility. She makes a lot of money, enough to be able to buy a brand-new car for Ramatoulaye who feels greatly hurt by the sight of her husband's second wife dashing all over Dakar in her ever-changing Alfa Romeo sports cars. Now, a tendency to out-bourgeois the bourgeoisie is common among the lower classes. If Ramatoulaye is convinced that such is the case with her rival Binetou's mother, the same should be true for her friend Aïssatou.
The same Ramatoulaye who sees her friend's liberation through books, narrates to us a sad case of the search for knowledge, namely that of a French teacher in Dakar: 'Studies must have been the only distraction of her youth. Cross-grained, she must have blocked out all fits of passion. Her solitude no doubt made her seek change' (p. 66). The change found is a teaching assistantship in Senegal. Older and wiser, the French woman, still a spinster, seeks solace in the colony. Her dreams of evasion end up unrealized. Her hopes in exotic lands are destroyed. Disillusionment sets in. She ends up on a hospital bed, beaten, nailed down by a throat infection, awaiting repatriation to the homeland that she fled. Before the chosen day arrives, death chooses her as his victim, thus completing her destiny of distress. Books, as we have stated, often beget boredom. Life is with human beings, in spite of the setbacks, the sadness, and the suffering. No doubt the same essential element is lacking in Aïssatou's life.
Besides, what originality exists in the vocation of an interpreter? Like the translator, and the secretary, the interpreter is a mere messenger of a message, a carrier of a cargo. A vehicle. A voice. A slave. A shadow. And the vehicle sometimes lacks communication; and the voice at times turns hoarse and misinterprets the message. The slave is used and discarded by the master; the shadow can never become the being. So, while achieving a goal worthy of the black bourgeoisie—they are all slaves of their borrowed civilization—Aïssatou remains what she has been: a sad slave, a loveless loser. She and her children will have a story to tell upon their return from America and, if others' experience is anything to go by, that story will be one of alienation, racism and solitude.
Ramatoulaye, or the Victim Turned Victimizer... and still Victim of Love and Life
If Aïssatou symbolizes female intransigence, Ramatoulaye represents compromise, or so it would appear. She is abandoned after twenty-five years of marriage. Her eldest daughter, the intrepid, revolutionary type named Daba, is totally in favour of divorce from her inhuman father. But Ramatoulaye hesitates, then decides against divorce. She stays in the family home with her children, while Modou moves to the new house with Binetou. A case of the victim accepting her situation? Not so, insists the heroine, because the 'letter' that constitutes the novel being studied, a 'point of support in [her] anguish', is a form of vengeance. The text is written after Modou's death; it therefore also represents, as the narrator affirms, 'confidential information that drowns distress'. Not for Modou the sweet memories of his widow, nor the valediction based on the departed soul's virtues. Modou had his way in life; in death, he becomes a victim of his wife's sharp idiomatic weapon. However, that is only part of the story. Modou is not only one man, but all men. The narrator makes plenty of generalizations. All men are traitors. All are polygamous by nature. All are sexual animals. All are victimizers that must be victimized. Hence Ramatoulaye sets out to hurt all men. The way she chooses is to refuse all suitors. First, Tamsir, her husband's brother who, by tradition, has a right to her. She spits her venom at the ugly man:
You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You are ignorant of what marriage means to me: an act of faith and of love, a total gift of the self to the being that you've chosen and that has chosen you.
Thus the aspiring conqueror is destroyed by a deft move of the feminist tongue. The point is emphasized several times in the text: she chose to marry her husband; she chooses not to leave the family home; she chooses not to marry her brother-in-law, just as she chooses not to marry Daouda Dieng, the man of virtue and riches who was her first love.
But, as usual, certain questions remain unanswered: is it simply a matter of choice? Is Ramatoulaye's rejection of Tamsir not due to her desire for vengeance against a man who supported her husband's polygamy? Has her choice not to marry Dieng got something to do with his polygamous life and his age? Is her recalcitrant attitude symptomatic of her wish to be a trail-blazer? Her relationship with Dieng poses other questions, such as: is she really in love with the man? Is her decision not to marry him a result of her jealousy of his first wife? The affair shows that Ramatoulaye and Daouda are, indeed, in love. After her official mourning period, he visits her and proposes anew. She awaits his visit with anxiety. She is burning with love for the man's compliments. She is dying to be ogled, to be fawned upon. She exalts: 'To be a woman! To live like a woman! Ah, Aïssatou! That night, I was moved, pardon my feeling. The savour of life is love. The salt of life is again love'. And when Daouda asks for her hand in marriage that second time, she experiences a moment of ecstasy, of 'drunkenness'. The gentleness of his words inebriates her, and she says that she is not ashamed to confess it. One wonders then why the following statement, made at the moment of decision: 'My heart does not love Daouda Dieng. My mind appreciates the man. But the heart and the mind are often discordant'. Her letter to Daouda, in spite of its ambiguity and decorum—traits of bourgeois hypocrisy—is categorical on one score, that she abhors polygamy. Playing second fiddle is not her idea of marriage, yet she wishes to continue seeing the man. The latter rejects her offer of friendship.
The Dieng case is of the utmost importance in understanding the narrator's character. I have stated that all men are vilified by her, without exception. Daouda Dieng, to a certain extent, constitutes an exception, because he has all the virtues that the other men mentioned in the novel lack. Once that general assertion is made, however, we are once more confronted with the ambiguity that is present throughout the novel: what, in essence, is Dieng's virtue? The question is pertinent, and remains unanswered, because the man is guilty of the one sin that makes for the condemnation of all the others, namely, he is a polygamist. Ramatoulaye's softness towards him, her ability to see beyond polygamy for once, are proof of the love that binds them together. This critic's opinion is that the heroine decides not to marry Dieng because she stands a good chance of being accused of playing the destructive role filled by the likes of Binetou and little Nabou. That would be another element of the contradiction which is her life. Who knows, she might have found happiness and harmony with Daouda Dieng, even as one of his wives; but social constraints which she actually imposes upon herself, block her path. A case of the reactionary hidden in a revolutionary's clothing.
The unequivocal rupture with Dieng brings us back to the beginning: Ramatoulaye the would-be victimizer remains a loving, willing victim to the end. 'Excessively sentimental', she finds it very difficult to assume the role of a pioneer of feminism. Unlike Aïssatou, she cannot forget the first fire lit in her by the irrepressible, irresistible Modou:
Modou Fall, the very instant you bent before me to invite me to dance, I was convinced that you were the one I was waiting for.
In spite of the later days of abandonment and harshness, she is definitively marked by the earliest qualities of the man:
Above all, you knew how to be tender. ... The discovery of your sharp intelligence, your engaging sensitivity, your usefulness, your ambition, that admitted no mediocrity.
In spite of the wishes of the adult children, she decides to stay. And the consequence? Times of suffering. Tears of solitude. Despair aggravated by the man's death. 'I lived alone in a monotony only cut short by the purifying baths and change of mourning clothes, every Monday and Friday'. In spite of everything, Ramatoulaye loves Modou, just as she has always loved Daouda Dieng. The picture that remains in the reader's mind is not that of the man packing and leaving the house; not that of the male brute sexually attacking the innocent Binetous and Nabous of Africa; not that of the wife vomiting her ire on the monstrous man and leaving Africa for healthier climes abroad. The engrossing picture is that of Ramatoulaye, suddenly called to her dead husband's hospital bed, overwhelmed by what she calls the 'atrocious tragedy', desperate in her desire to revive him, straining to take his lifeless hand but restrained by sympathizers, sincere and hypocritical ones alike. That love surpasses all class constraints and traditional taboos. Ramatoulaye's mother is reticent about her liaison with the 'too handsome, too perfect' Modou. The daughter insists, disobeys, goes with her man.
Marriage without dowry, without pomp, under the disapproving looks of my father, before the painful indignation of my frustrated mother, under the sarcastic remarks of my surprised sisters, in our town silenced by astonishment.
And we might rush to state that all is a matter of love between the heroine and her man. But the ambiguity prevalent in the text exists here, too. Love in the colonial context—that society evolving toward the accepted zenith of materialistic civilization—is not detached from the material. Love of the man goes with love of his money. Love means care, and comfort—love of lovers, and the good life. Ramatoulaye's avowed engrossment in the metaphysical, soulful aspects of her marriage notwithstanding, her desires, her nature, her life, bear the indelible mark of the évolué woman. She can hardly stand her in-laws who, by their very existence, seem to constitute a threat to her oasis of plenty with Modou. And the reader remembers vividly the white colonial officer's wife up in the reservation; you must book an appointment before daring to go up there to disturb the peace of the master's ménage. The reader recalls encounters with his brother's foreign wife; blood does not absolve one from the sacrilegious act of visiting without warning or invitation. The black bourgeoisie and their white ways: Ramatoulaye, black as the night, sun-tans with pleasure on the beach of Ngor. 'The sea air incited us to good humour... discouragement and sadness went away replaced suddenly by feelings of plenitude and radiance'. The beach is the refuge of the rich. Escape in suburbia is the privilege of the sophisticated. The whole picture brings to mind the contrast between the privileged and the impoverished; the healthy air of the sea as against the hellish air of the city; the mansions of the middle-class as against the miserable structures in which the masses are imprisoned. Ramatoulaye claims that some in-laws unjustly envy her material power and the power of her mind, and she sees nothing wrong in her own situation as compared with that of the pauper. The fact is, she has a choice; the pauper does not. It is, indeed, that wish to exercise her freedom of choice that makes her marry Modou instead of Dieng. It is that love of freedom that makes her espouse western education, or is it? The freedom of feminism does not triumph totally, even when the feminist claims to hate man with all her heart:
Some men called us crazy. Others called us little devils. But many wanted to possess us. How many dreams had we fed desperately, that could have been concretized in lasting happiness and that we have disappointed in order to embrace others that have pitiably blown up like soap-bubbles, leaving us empty-handed?
So love is not removed from lust, even in the psyche of our ardent feminists. Freedom is not far from imprisonment. Feminism cannot rid woman, African woman, of femininity. Ramatoulaye loves to be possessed; just as she finally, definitively, is possessed by Modou, Man.
If hate lies at the root of the autobiographical Une si Longue Lettre, love is ever-present too. Autobiography is itself a lesson in bitterness and scepticism in the face of the disappointments and failures of life. Bitterness is decidedly evident in the style of Bâ's novel. The omniscient, omnipresent narrator-heroine chooses her moments of perspicacity and paucity of knowledge rather dexterously, and always to the detriment of Man and mother-in-law. That technique raises questions of authenticity. How, for example, does Ramatoulaye know what goes on in the minds of others, besides those whom she talks to directly or those whom she learns about from others? Bitterness engenders bias. Extremism is the hallmark of this feminism even if, as partisans of any victimized group would quickly add, such a posture is often a necessity in the face of the all-too-powerful victimizer. Bitterness of the bourgeoisie: Ramatoulaye cannot comprehend 'the entrance of Modou, a personality, into that family of ndol [paupers]'. Binetou, Modou's second wife, deserves all the pity in the world however; innocent and sincere, 'she did not know Modou's overwhelming will-power, his tenacity before the obstacle, his pride to vanquish, his resistance inspiring new assaults at every failure'. The narrator asks the exculpatory question: 'What can a child do before a furious mother that howls her hunger and thirst for life?' However, we know that Binetou is more or less as old as Ramatoulaye was when, at the moment of marriage, she disobeyed her mother, chose Modou and rejected the mother's choice. And if Binetou is 'a sacrificial lamb, as are many others, before the altar of material', it is no less of a truth that Ramatoulaye, and Aïssatou, are avid worshippers before that very altar.
Indeed, the innocent victim named Ramatoulaye is mean. And Ramatoulaye the critic is a cheat. She establishes a hierarchy even among the female species. Aïssatou is superior to little Nabou; Nabou is superior to Binetou; Ramatoulaye, naturally, is superior to all. The yardstick for comparison is the level of civilization. Civilization, as in western culture. Civilization, as in acculturation. Civilization, as in capitalism. For the reader must be clear about one fact: Ramatoulaye's middle-class origins are to her a source of pride and her commitment as a pioneer is, first and foremost, to that class.
Conclusion: Elements of a Colonized Literature
Now, my way of bringing together class stratification and commitment to female freedom might be viewed as a contradiction which, indeed, it could be but is not. Ramatoulaye's feminism as an expression of freedom constitutues only a partial aspect of the total reality of African life. Femininity is the virtue of the traditionalist; feminism, the veneer of the progressive striving to become a man. The latter feels insecure, unfulfilled, incomplete. Colonialism has taught her the lessons of civilization. Equality. Emancipation. Independence. In short, the African woman has a right to enjoy the privileges of the man who is now the new master. Like the man, the feminist lives on borrowed training and thoughts. But the questions remain: what is freedom in decolonized Africa? Is African literature as a whole truly de-colonized from a borrowed life, a borrowed language? We may recall that the French language continues to give the privileged position to the masculine; to a borrowed life, a borrowed literature. It is true that the best-known African writers are still those able to manipulate ‘without a trace of accent or cultural cleavage’, the master’s tongue. Bâ’s feminism, especially as expressed by Aïssatou the interpreter, smacks of Beauvoirism: the traditional marriage is a deterrent to woman’s promise. No marriage. No attachment. No master. The home becomes a transitory institution. Love is a passing sentiment secondary to other elements of existence. The emphasis is on the female self.
Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist stance is based upon concrete experiences within a particular Eurocentric context, which creates some problems for the European imitator, but grave difficulties for the African follower. Firstly, the European may find that her’s is not an easy-to-generalize, true freedom. Secondly, the African finds that Beauvoirist liberation does not end up in real freedom for the woman; it engulfs the erstwhile victim in another abyss, solitude. The critic Albert Memmi is categorical about what the real objective of all oppressed beings ought to be: ‘an oppressed person does not save himself all alone’. The irony, the aggressiveness behind the fatalism, the oppressive stand taken by the feminist, the African feminist, cannot save her from her communal background, unless she decides to go into permanent exile, which in itself would constitute a facile, sham solution. Solidarity, human, man-woman (couple), man-child-woman (family) solidarity, that is the essence of life. The couple remains perhaps the best solution to solitude. Lack of children is an abstraction, a mutilation of life. It is significant that the Ramatoulayes of Africa have not decided to live without children. Beauvoirism preaches a fake freedom, a liberty that is no less a lie than the cataleptic civilization passed on to the colonized by the colonizer.
Female emancipation is fraught with ambiguities. Ramatoulaye is caught between tradition and progress. Though her declared choice is the latter, her lived experiences prove her attachment to the former. The picture of her daughters in slacks is, for her, an eyesore. Life without marriage is death. When all the tears are shed, when the tension subsides, she affirms: ‘I remain convinced of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman’. The harmony of the couple coalesces with the happiness of the country. The family is a microcosm of the nation. Success. Solidarity. It is symbolic that the narrator leaves to a man, Daouda Dieng, her feminist politician-friend, the last word on the female condition:
Woman must no longer be the decorating accessory. The object that you displace, the companion that you flatter, or calm down with promises. Woman is the original, fundamental root of a nation where every contribution is established, from which every development emanates. Woman must be induced to be more interested in her country’s destiny.
Ramatoulaye accepts the declaration like a silent goddess in the traditional setting, which goes to show that the woman still needs the male on many an occasion, even where proof of her freedom is concerned. Daouda Dieng, the politician, the feminist, is as much a colonized person as Ramatoulaye, a fact probably hard to take but a fact all the same. Earlier in the novel the narrator states that one of the aims of the ‘new’ African woman, that is the educated, is to ‘appreciate multiple civilizations without denying ours’. Now, the problem that neither she nor Dieng has solved is, how to do just that. The age-old problem of the colonized: how to escape the colonial cage stifling black culture; how to remain black in a world becoming whiter every day. The black woman’s problem, in the final analysis, is part of the bigger burden of being black in the world.
Marx has stated that woman is man’s proletariat. A true statement, indeed, but only as far as western, or European, civilization is concerned. Therein lies the dilemma of Africa. She is caught between her own culture and the imported culture. Marx means economic enslavement, no doubt. But there is more to it: social and psychological alienation; cultural bastardization; a destiny of death. The black woman is confused; the black man too. She needs love and demands it from her man. Unfortunately, the burden of blackness and the confusion of his borrowed culture often prove too overwhelming to allow him time for love. He is too busy comparing himself to the white man and, ironically, the same self-destructive process is being desperately pursued by the woman. So, Ramatoulaye Fall, confused, civilized, committed, is still seeking solace somewhere. She will no doubt write ‘such a long letter’ again, to herself, to her sisters, to us her men. And she may find solace some day, and we may read her letter, or tear it up and throw it into the dustbin.
Source: Femi Ojo-Ade, ‘‘Still a Victim? Mariama Ba’s Une si Longue Lettre,’’ in African Literature Today, African Publishing Company, No. 12, 1982, pp. 71–87.