Pathetic Condition Of Women In Mariama Ba’s So Long A Letter

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Considered to be one of those novels which add a feminine voice to the highly masculine accounts on Africa’s pre and post-independent era, Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter intimately discusses the conditions of women in Senegal. In a letter to her best friend Aissatou, the protagonist Ramatoulaye narrates the stories of various women, stories about love, marriage, family and children. However, the emotional tone of her first phrases, “By way of reply, I am beginning this diary, my prop in my distress. Our long association has taught me that confiding in others allays pain.” suggests rather pitiful conditions for the women of post independent Senegal. By creating an emotional connection with the readers, Ba aims at achieving a change in mindset, the liberation and emancipation of the Senegalese women. By recounting the stories of Ramatoulaye, Aissatou, Binetou, and Nabou, this essay points out the possible causes of the pathetic conditions of the Senegalese women.

Polygamy is never a matter of gaiety. This Mariama Ba explains in an interview in the popular magazine AMINA in 1979. Citing a text, “La grève des battus” by Aminata Fall, Ba (1979) argues that polygamy is slightly acceptable for the widows and the divorced, old women, who for the sake of having companionship are ready to tolerate the constrains of it. But for the young and the middle aged, never. The pain remains unbearable. The character Ramatoulaye emphasises on this pain. Abandoned by a husband who marries her daughter’s friend Binetou, Rama is forced to face the realities of singlehood and deception. Ba here points out that men are a potential cause of women’s pain. In a flash back, Rama brings back to mind the words of her mother: “too handsome, too polished, too perfect for a man…the wide gap between your two upper incisors: the sign of the primacy of sensuality.” The symbolism speaks for itself. The space between two upper incisors which signify the inability to stick to a single woman and have a sincere relationship. Ba even goes further to narrate the nights of Modou’s absences where Rama will fold his “rejected suits”, helping him in “his seduction of another woman.” The reader then views man (Modou) as an egoistic being, thirsty to have from another woman what he over the years has lost from his wife, irrespective of how the later feels. The man is also portrayed as a manipulative and deceptive being. Conscious of Binetou’s mother’s desire to better their financial situation, Modou promises them a future trip to Mecca, a villa, a monthly allowance amongst other gifts. To fulfil his promises, Modou mortgages the villa he acquired with Ramatoulaye through their joined savings, information that Rama gets to know only after his death. Against the demands of Islam, he equally completely abandons his family, attempting to please Binetou who goes “all a-quiver” when he mentions them.

At this point, we the readers can only sympathise with the character Ramatoulaye who after “a quarter of a century of marriage”, is now reduced to just a friend and betrayed by a man for whom she carries twelve children. We then ask ourselves what the extend of the woman’s trust in man should be, if for his selfish desires he is able to betray his wife, abandon his family and go against his religion. The issues of women are not always caused by the men. Sometimes it lies in the ideologies and beliefs of a particular society. Ba in her novel discusses the heavy influence of class segregation that existed in post independent Senegal. An article from Senegal information (2006) explains that the caste system established was on the bases of labour division, where the free-born or royal lineage come first in line followed by the peasants, the artisans, the blacksmiths, leather workers, wood workers, weavers, griots and slaves. The society considered marriage with people from the lower class problematic. Aissatou’s story reminds the reader of the Senegalese society’s faults. Despite the controversial looks of society, Aissatou has a happy marriage with Mawdo until her mother-in-law aunt Nabou decides the contrary. For years she had dreamt of this moment when she could finally revenge, brighten again the colour of her “noble descent”. Aunty Nabou could not accept it. Her “one and only man” married to a goldsmith daughter who by belief is a bad omen, burning everything in her path.

When his mother threatens him with her life, Mawdo’s back is on the wall. He accepts to marry his cousin young Nabou. Here, Aissatou’s pain lies not in her mother in-law’s unwillingness to accept her marriage to Mawdo, not in her husband’s weakness against his mother but in the views and beliefs of a highly judgemental and segregated Senegalese society. After all it is because of Society’s beliefs that aunt Nabou cannot “recognise herself in the sons of a goldsmith’s daughter.” Thus the feelings of the lower class minority could not be taken into account since “for some people the honour and chagrin of a goldsmith’s daughter count for less, much less than the honour and chagrin of a Guelewar.” The pathos is further enhanced by Ba’s mention of Aissatou’s sons; “they could never be equal to young Nabou’s sons.” How hurting to know that a particular society can discriminate against generations of individuals. Another story, La Princess de Tialiby Diallo Niang will support Ba’s views as it narrates the story of a griot girl who becomes a princess and fights against injustice in a patriarchal and hierarchical Senegalese society. This pathos on Aissatou’s side also allows us the readers to sympathise with her and understand her decision to divorce and escape from the inequalities of her society, securing a better life for her sons.

The importance of obedience and adult influence cannot be neglected in the majorly Islamic population which is the Senegalese society. Respect for the elderly is considered one of those important ways to feel closer to God as “Your Lord has commanded that… you be kind to your parents.” Yet the reward is not only heavenly, but also physically in gaining from the wisdom of the old. But what to say when adult influence stimulates pain? Post independent Senegal has known many conflicts including the conflict of Casamance from 1982, which has encouraged the prevalence of poverty and the need for survival. Coupled with the deranged look of society on female education, marrying one’s daughter for money seemed a suitable situation. For this reason, when Binetou’s mother notices Modou’s interest in her daughter, she sees a chance to “escape from mediocrity.” She cries and begs the poor girl to give in. Hence to give her mother’s life ‘a happy ending,” Binetou forgoes her education and marries Modou. The reader feels sad not for the girl who stops her education and torments old Modou but for the poor girl whose youth and hope is sacrificed to ensure survival. “Worn out, Binetou will watch…the progress of her friends. The image of her life, which she had murdered broke her heart.” Ba here uses two stylistic devices: metaphor to show the extent of Binetou’s misery even though she achieves wealth earlier than her mates and hyperbole to emphasise on her suffering. Binetou’s sad condition is even more stressed by one of Rama’s comments during Modou’s burial “silent, haggard child…” With Modou’s death and a halt in her education, Binetou is now left with nothing.

Another person who suffers from adult influence is Young Nabou. Despite her rather positive end as mid wife and happy wife to Mawdo, the question of if she had to make the decisions for herself cannot be ignored. Young Nabou is used to satisfy her aunt’s desire to see her son married to Royalty. Aunt Nabou “wielded her power over young Nabou’s soul.” Incorporating into her values such as docility, generosity, poise and tact amongst others. Prepared, young Nabou therefore lives a life all shaped for her by an aunt who we can say manipulates her. We even feel further for her when her husband to justify the swelling of her belly and his betrayal of his ex-wife reduces her to “a plate of food.” This comparison highlights Nabou’s failure to make herself a meaning for her life. She probably deserves better than just being a means for satisfaction in the absence of what is genuinely desired.

Mariama Ba’s message as concerns the sufferings of the Senegalese woman and the African woman is clear: free yourself from complete dependence on man whose egoistic desires can lead to downfall, loosen up from the pressures of society’s unjust legislations, avoid vulnerability and be brave and responsible enough to decide for once own life.


Read more