Mariama Bâ and Her Novel “So Long a Letter”
C.S. Lewis said “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” (Brainyquote Com, 2017) The setting of So Long a Letter is really important and decisive because it is directly related to the author’s background, which is Dakar the capital of Senegal during the precolonial period and purely in the Senegalese’s tradition and culture. At that time, life was dominated by the Muslim religion’s directions, the polygamy system and the patriarchal system in the society.
Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929–August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Born in Dakar, she was raised a Muslim, but at an early age started to criticise the inequalities between the sexes resulting from African traditions. She lived in a similar society as the one in her book, where girls did not go far in school, women were obedient to their husband, and men were treated as superior than women.
So Long a Letter is a sequence of events narrated in the form of a letter, by the (fictional) recently widowed Senegalese school teacher Ramatoulaye. It is a record of Ramatoulaye’s emotional struggle for survival after her husband’s abrupt decision to take a second wife. Mariama Ba’s life is reflected in the book first with the similar setting and with major figures Ramatoulaye and Aissatou. The presence of similarity and references to Ba’s life is present throughout the book. The most recurrent similarity is the chauvinism criticise by Ba. Either in Ramatoulaye’s life or Aissatou’s own.
First looking at the setting it is seen that the background of the author has a major impact on the way she writes her novel. Bâ was raised during the colonial revolution period. She was a prominent low student at school because though she received her early education in French, she was attending at the same time Koranic school. In the novel it is indicates that Ramatoulaye, her children as well as other female were attending Koranic school, and few of them attended French school. Even when they were doing so they were facing the oppositions from men surrounding them as well as Bâ’s maternal grandparents did not plan to educate her beyond primary school. This is one of the instances which make us to look at how Bâ try to criticise the inequality present at the time between men and women. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist course stemmed from her background, her parent’s life and her schooling.
Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they all deserve the title (The patriotic vanguard, 2013) and how they are important for the society. That is why she laid emphasis on all the details directly affecting the woman in general throughout the novel. “My [wound] continues to bleed” (Page 5). Here the author expose how Ramatoulaye is affected not by her husband’s recent death, but rather the pain that comes up from her husband’s rejection of her by taking a younger wife after twenty five years of marriage. The fact that Modou Fall got married to the best friend of Ramatoulaye’s daughter could have also been analysed looking at how the husband feels about that decision but the author did not extend too much on it because she is touching the different state of mind of the women in the story based on her personal experience.
Aissatou on the other hand, unlike Ramatoulaye she felt her husband and created her own life after her husband Mawdo Ba who took a second wife after years of marriage. Aissatou clearly showed her disapproval with the polygamy that she takes as a lack of respect toward the dignity of women as she said “I am stripping myself of your love, your name. Clothed my dignity, the only worthy garment, I go my way” (Page 32). As a divorcee and “a modern Muslim woman” (The patriotic vanguard, 2013) because she passed through many events during her marriage and it is reflected in the novel when Ramatoulaye expressed her point of vue of marriage. It is clear that there are some similarities with Bâ’s own vision; Ramatoulaye said “Marriage is never smooth. It reflects differences in character and capacity for feeling” (Page 55). It can then be pick out that according to Senegalese women the concept of marriage was perceived as an important passage of all of them. Women are dependent both psychologically and financially of their husband that whatever misbehaviour the husband will have they will not take radical decisions while it actually hurt them.
This aspect is caused by a complete lack of regard for the consequences of men’s actions on families. They are completely found. These facts made Bâ believe that her mission was to criticise the stereotypes used to justify established power structures. This power is what is in the novel a form of discrimination coming from society’s construction of patriarchal ideology. Because throughout the story women seemingly has no right determining their destiny like Ramatoulaye, Binetou, young Nabou. “One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end” (page 83). Ramatoulaye is not completely against polygamy but for sure her pain is clear. Though brave Mariama Bâ experienced the many facets that women in Senegal must deal with. After becoming a widow, Ramatoulaye’s life is really hard because she had no professional training.
As a result she will have to face the economic and emotional consequences of being a single mother. Ramatoulaye was not able to be alone, that is why she said “The nation is made up of all the families, rich or poor, united or separated, aware or unaware. The success of a nation therefore depends inevitably on the family” (Page 89). Ramatoulaye aches in her frustration because she wants her children to have the strength of being a part of a united family. Their family has been divided by the second wife, and Ramatoulaye worries a lot for her children’s future, thus the future of the nation. Education is also one of the aspects which showed that the revolution was evolving. Mariama Bâ becomes an elementary school teacher for twelve years after she received her advanced studies in the Ecole Normale de Refisque. Ramatoulaye is also a teacher in the book.
Bâ passed through the shame and indignity of divorce in life in the Senegalese culture, and had to sustain to the needs of nine children alone with the meagre salary of an elementary teacher in Dakar at the time. It can then be assumed that Bâ relive through the book but this time decided to stay in the failed marriage with Modou Fall. So she beautify this story by describing Ramatoulaye as a strong woman because she stands by her husband although he betrayed him by taking a second wife without her being aware of it. The events that I have described above are a direct transfer of Mariama Bâ’s life as a Senegalese teacher, women and wife. She wrote So Long a Letter as a memoir of her life, but there are some modifications she made in order to preserve her privacy. One of those is the fact that Bâ divorced after twenty five years of marriage while Ramatoulaye holds on to her marriage of thirty years. Also Ramatoulaye have twelve children while Bâ only had nine.
Mariama Bâ has revealed in her book So Long a Letter, her thoughts, her perceptions on life and emotions in various ways. All these facts were identified thanks to the similarities between her life and that of her protagonist, Ramatoulaye. But what is clear is that Bâ was a feminist who criticise the chauvinism in the Senegalese’s culture which was according to her humiliating women. She suffers the indignity of an oppressive Islam culture as a Muslim woman in Senegal. It is thus indicates that Bâ’s background had a considerable impact in the way she wrote So Long a Letter. The question now is: Are books the accurate means to transfer a message? Because the main reason why Mariama Bâ wrote works of art was because she strongly believed that with books her message can be transmitted from generation to generation. This book has already been published in more than a dozen languages and is about to appear in more, this can signify how universal and timeless the book is.
Also according to her “The power of books, this marvellous invention of astute human intelligence. Various signs associated with sound: different sounds that form the word. Juxtaposition of words from which springs the idea, Thought, History, Science, Life. Sole instrument of interrelationship and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress. They enabled you to better yourself. What society refused you, they granted” (Mariama Bâ, 1981)
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