Senegal had been a French colony since the seventeenth century. In 1960, Senegal gained its independence and became a separate nation. Mariama Bâ, then, who was born in 1929, lived through the tumultuous years leading to independence and in the time of civic unrest that followed independence. These years also offered a few elite African women access to education. In So Long a Letter, Ramatoulaye records how she and Aissatou were able to go to school under the guidelines that divided French West Africa into autonomous (though not yet independent) countries. This division of the vast French Imperial possessions occurred after World War II. Ramatoulaye's white teacher recognizes the importance of these few African girls' education, and tells them that they have an ‘‘'uncommon' destiny.’’ Considering that today, twenty years after Bâ's death, the literacy rates for Senegalese women are far lower than those for Senegalese men, their fate was uncommon indeed. Bâ's French education and her exposure to Africans from many countries caused her, in the words of her heroine, to be "lift[ed]...out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom, to...appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own, to raise our vision of the world, cultivate our personalities, strengthen our qualities, to make up for our inadequacies, to develop universal moral values in us.’’ This wider perspective, however, of the educated French African woman came into conflict with the social mores and traditions of Senegal. This is evident in So Long a Letter by Ramatoulaye's decision to choose Moudou as a husband over Daouda Dieng, her mother's preferred choice, and by Aissatou's defiance of the traditions that would prohibit her, a goldsmith's daughter, from marrying Mawdo, the son of a tribal princess. Despite their education, both women learn that even in ‘‘New Africa’’ it is not easy for a woman to determine her own destiny. The rituals that demand obedience to mothers-in-law and their husbands' family members contrast with the autonomy Ramatoulaye and Aissatou have in their classrooms. Additionally, they face the problem of their husbands' polygamy. Traditionally, polygamy was designed to provide for women in an area where women far outnumbered men. Further, polygamy ensured the birth of more children, also necessary in a traditionally agricultural economy. But the civic and religious laws that allow polygamy seem out of place in "New Africa.'' Ramatoulaye and Aissatou are more than capable of meeting their own economic needs. Unwelcome co-wives, therefore, undermine the independence they have achieved through their education and careers. Both women view polygamy as an unnecessary vestige of the past.
Bâ also captures some of the other conflicts evident in post-independence Senegal. After Leopold Senghor, a poet/statesman, took office as the first president of Senegal in 1960, he had to contend with civic unrest and a dire drought that rattled Senegal's emerging economy. The character Moudou Fall in So Long a Letter , then, is overcoming great obstacles when as a union organizer he "checks the trade union revolt.'' The novel suggests that he may have acted corruptly in order to gain a high position within the Ministry of Public Works. During Bâ's lifetime, corruption was rife. Though in 1978 the government allowed multi-party elections, only the Socialist party wielded any true power until the year 2000 when a president from an opposing party was elected. In snippets, Bâ does criticize the monolithic power of the Senegalese government, a government that chooses to build expensive embassies in other countries for show while ignoring the needs of its citizens. The needs of the citizens appear great. Even Binetou, who has access to education, comes from...
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a family where food was not plentiful. Young Nabou, a midwife, hopes to improve a healthcare system where too many infants die needlessly, but ‘‘she remained powerless, faced with the force of death.'' Mariama Bâ was writing from a position of relative privilege and comfort, but her calling as a teacher and a writer brought her face to face with the harsher realities faced by many Senegalese.
Epistolary Novel One of the earliest forms of the novel was the epistolary novel. This means that the entire action of the narrative is conveyed through letters. In the case of So Long a Letter, the narrative is told through just one very long letter from Ramatoulaye to her friend Aissatou. Here the letter works almost as a diary. Ramatoulaye records both her feelings and the events that take place around her. She reflects on the past and looks forward to the future. She also transcribes letters within her one long letter. The reader hears her dead husband Moudou's voice through snippets of the letters he wrote to Ramatoulaye before they were married. The reader learns of Aissatou's indignation at her husband's betrayal through the letter she wrote to him. But for the most part, all information is filtered through Ramatoulaye's perspective. A first-person narrator, she is not necessarily a reliable guide to the feelings of her extended family. She cannot get inside the head of her young co-wife, Binetou, or know for certain the motives of the Lady Mother-in-Law (Binetou's mother) or of Aunty Nabou (Aissatou's mother-in-law). Instead she shows the reader how she views the world. This means that questions are often left unanswered. Why did Moudou abandon Ramatoulaye? How was Aissatou able to bear the gossip when her husband took another wife? The reader does not know because Ramatoulaye can only accurately represent her own feelings. In writing down the story of her life, however, Ramatoulaye is also able to control it, to decide what events were important to her own development.
In Medias ResIn medias res means in the middle of things. In So Long a Letter, the novel really does begin in the middle of things. Ramatoulaye begins her story by describing her husband's death and funeral. She then takes a mental journey back in time to recall her education and courtship. Next she writes of how her husband abandoned her five years before his death. She writes to her friend of how she endured the abandonment. This takes her back to the present time. At this point, the narrative moves forward as she describes what happens in the months following her husband's death. As the novel ends, she is about to end the seclusion of her widowhood and rejoin the world. Starting in the middle is an important tactic. Ramatoulaye starts at a critical moment in her life—her husband's death. To see how this event will affect Ramatoulaye, the reader must understand what experiences have shaped her. By recalling the past, Ramatoulaye gives the reader a fuller sense of who she is and what she values. The rest of the novel is devoted to showing how she moves on from the critical event. This technique is employed in most epics. By using it to tell the story of one woman's life, Bâ suggests that a woman's personal history is, in a sense, an epic.
Literary Heritage In So Long a Letter, Bâ moves between literary heritages. Educated in a French-run school in Africa and with full access to European culture, Bâ was well aware of Western cultural practices. Her character Ramatoulaye speaks of enjoying ‘‘intellectual films, those with a message, sentimental films, detective films, comedies, thrillers.... I learned from them lessons of greatness, courage and perseverance. They deepened and widened my vision of the world, thanks to their cultural value." Bâ further indicates what she has learned from Western narratives when Ramatoulaye extols the ‘‘power of books.’’ Recalling her own days at a French-run school, Ramatoulaye declares, "Books knit generations together.’’ Cognizant of a world beyond her own, a world opened through books and movies, Bâ was in a position to craft her story through the traditions that best suited it.
Some of these traditions were native to Africa. In the novel, Bâ tells of how a traditional woman, Aunty Nabou, finds power through the stories she tells. Writing about Aunty Nabou, critic Dorothy Grimes remarks that Ramatoulaye links the "seductive power of voice’’ to ‘‘tribal education.’’ Voice, in this case, means the power to move through words, and particularly through the oral storytelling tradition. The message comes from the way the stories are told rather than through the actual stories. ‘‘Telling folk tales, late at night under the starlit sky,’’ Aunty Nabou's ‘‘expressive voice glorified the retributive violence of the warrior; her expressive voice lamented the anxiety of the Loved One, all submissive. She saluted the courage of the reckless; she stigmatized trickery, laziness, calumny; she demanded care of the orphan and respect for old age.’’ These stories, and the way they are told, teach. Values are transmitted through both the folk ways and the new ways, represented by print culture and film. Bâ employs both ways in her novel. She begins the book with an invocation,"My friend, my friend, my friend. I call on you three times.'' As the footnotes to the book explain, such an invocation, drawn from African traditions, "indicates the seriousness of the subject to be discussed.'' The topic is serious because Bâ, like Aunty Nabou or the films that contain important lessons, wants to teach. In the preface to So Long a Letter, the editor writes, "She believed that the 'sacred mission' of the writer was to strike out 'at the archaic practices, traditions and customs that are not a real part of our precious cultural heritage.''' The "sacred mission'' of teaching is what Bâ found in the literary tools she drew upon in her work.
Sources Ahmed, Leila, Women and Gender in Islam, Yale University Press, 1992.
Assiba d'Almeida, Irene, ‘‘The Concept of Choice in Mariama Bâ's Fiction,’’ in Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davis and Anne Adams Graves, Africa World Press, 1986, pp. 161-71.
Brown, Ella, ‘‘Reactions to Western Values as Reflected in African Novels,'' in Phylon, Vol. 48, No. 3, 1987, pp. 216-28.
Champagne, John, '‘‘A Feminist Just Like Us?': Teaching Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter,’’ in College English, Vol. 58, No. 1, January, 1996, pp. 22-42.
Grimes, Dorothy, "Mariama Bâ' s So Long a Letter and Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: A Senegalese and an African American Perspective on 'Womanism,'’’ in Global Perspectives on Teaching Literature, edited by Sandra Ward Lott, Maureen S. G. Hawkins, and Norman McMillan, National Council of Teachers of English, 1993, pp. 65-76.
Makward, Edris,"Marriage, Tradition and Women's Pursuit of Happiness in the Novels of Mariama Bâ,’’ in Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davis and Anne Adams Graves, Africa World Press, 1986, pp. 271-81.
Further Reading Giwa, Audee Tanumu, "So Long a Letter: A Feminism That Is Not,’’ in Kuka, 1985-86, pp. 57-61. Giwa finds Bâ's representation of the Muslim religion and the Koran's laws governing polygamy to be inaccurate.
Sarvan, Charles Ponnutharai, ‘‘Feminism and African Fiction: The Novels of Mariama Bâ,’’ in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3, Autumn, 1988, pp. 453-64. In this article, Sarvan reads So Long a Letter in terms of Senegalese history, colonial education, and Islamic polygamy.