Bâ, Mariama 1929–1981

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Mariama Bâ 1929-1981

Senegalese novelist.

For additional information on Bâ's career, see Black Literature Criticism Supplement.


Bâ is considered an influential author whose novels examine the unique challenges faced by modern African women who struggle to gain rights and earn a living in a traditionally misogynistic culture. Bâ published her first novel, Une si longue letter (So Long a Letter; 1980), at the age of fifty-one; she died before the release of her second work, Un chant écarlate (Scarlet Song; 1981). Critics have observed that Bâ's novels offer pointed social criticism of the plight of women who are treated as inferior commodities in an oppressive, male-dominated society that resists education and employment for females while it endorses institutions such as polygamy.


Bâ was born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1929. Her mother died when she was young and her father was a prominent government official who traveled extensively. As a result, Bâ was sent to live with her maternal grandparents, who raised her in accordance with their traditional Muslim values. During her formative years, Bâ attended primary school and was recognized as an exceptional student. Despite her grandparents' opposition to advanced education for women, Bâ's father insisted that she attend secondary school at the École Normale du Rufisque. Following her graduation in 1947, Bâ worked as a teacher for twelve years, beginning with a post at the School of Medicine in Dakar, where she eventually became a regional school inspector. During this time, she published a treatise on the state of education in colonial Senegal and she began to speak out about French colonial policy in Africa. Bâ married a member of Senegal's parliament and had nine children. The marriage ended in divorce—a controversial matter in her Muslim society—which inspired Bâ to become active in feminist issues. She contributed numerous essays to African newspapers and periodicals favoring women's rights and an end to colonial activity in Africa. In 1980 Bâ published So Long a Letter, which, a year later, won the inaugural Noma Award—a prize granted to African writers and scholars who publish their works in Africa. Bâ died in 1981 just prior to the publication of Scarlet Song and after a long battle with cancer.


The epistolary novel So Long a Letter relates the story of Ramatoulaye, who nurses feelings of betrayal because her husband, now dead, engaged in a polygamous relationship with a younger woman. The narrative unfolds as a letter that Ramatoulaye writes to her friend, Aissatou, while Ramatoulaye is sequestered in the long mourning period mandated by Islamic law. As Ramatoulaye reflects on her life, the reader comes to know the details of Aissatou's life as well. Like Ramatoulaye's husband, Aissatou's took a second wife. But, unlike Ramatoulaye, who remains married to her husband, Aissatou defies tradition and leaves her spouse, establishing a life and career of her own in New York. As she contemplates the unfair conditions for women in her society, Ramatoulaye becomes enraged when her brother-in-law, fulfilling his duty according to Islamic custom, assumes that she will marry him. Expressing her anger and frustration at being treated like property, Ramatoulaye demonstrates her incipient liberation by boldly rejecting her brother-in-law's terms.

In Scarlet Song, Bâ again relates the story of a woman whose husband takes a second wife. Mireille, a French expatriate, meets and falls in love with Ousmane, a Senegalese classmate at her school. Knowing that their respective families will disapprove of their union, the two lovers elope to Europe. Not long after their marriage, Mireille and Ousmane return to Africa. Their relationship quickly deteriorates because of their striking cultural differences and a lack of support from either spouse's family. Ultimately, Ousmane abandons Mireille and their young son for Ouleymatou, a traditional Senegalese woman. Rejected by both her husband and her family, Mireille goes insane and kills her son because she believes that his mixed race will make him a social outcast. In both novels, Bâ is critical of the subservient role of women in Senegalese marriage, maintaining that the difficulties of male-female relationships are deeply rooted in traditional social strictures.


Critics have praised Bâ's novels as moving and effective portrayals of the plight of women in traditional Af- rican society. Deborah G. Plant underscores the mythic dimension of the female characters in So Long a Letter and Scarlet Song. In the critic's estimation, both novels represent women as archetypal figures who are instrumental in the spiritual, social, and economic well-being of the African continent. Bâ's novels celebrate both the trials and triumphs of such women, Plant maintains, as they forge intimate common bonds through a shared resistance to masculine oppression. Mary Jane Androne evaluates the narrative structure of So Long a Letter, identifying Bâ's innovative use of such genres as epistle, autobiography, and philosophy. The combination of such a diverse range of styles, the critic avers, lends a deeply personal emotional complexity to Bâ's understanding of the collective struggle of women within a misogynistic culture.


Une si longue lettre [So Long a Letter] (novel) 1980

Un chant écarlate [Scarlet Song] (novel) 1981


Deborah G. Plant (essay date summer 1996)

SOURCE: Plant, Deborah G. "Mythic Dimensions in the Novels of Mariama Bâ." Research in African Literatures 27, no. 2 (summer 1996): 102-11.

[In the following essay, Plant argues that Bâ's novels depict African women as archetypal figures who give each other the strength to resist their misogynistic culture and become important contributors to the continent's spiritual, social, and economic development.]

The nostalgic songs dedicated to African mothers which express the anxieties of men concerning Mother Africa are no longer enough for us. The Black woman in African literature must be given the dimension that her role in the liberation struggles next to men has proven to be hers, the dimension which coincides with her proven contribution to the economic development of our country.

          Mariama Bâ, qtd. in Ngambika xi

Such is the mandate of Mariama Bâ. Full to surfeit with romantic accolades that work more to stifle than to uplift and empower Black women—thus, Africa—Mariama Bâ demands that women be recognized as actual beings who not only exist in a physical reality, but who also have made and are making actual contributions to the welfare of that reality. Niara Sudarkasa documents the African woman's proven economic contribution to the struggle for survival, liberation, and a better quality of life for African peoples. "Moreover," she writes, "during the pre-colonial period in many West African societies, women had important political and religious roles that entailed their working extensively ‘outside the home.’" This legacy continues in contemporary society where "virtually all adult females are engaged in some type of money-making activity" (49).

Sudarkasa details the African woman's economic as well as socio-political contributions. In spite of these contributions, the spread of institutionalized religions beginning in the eleventh century, the European invasion beginning in the fifteenth century—both with their attendant patriarchal ideologies—and, later, industrial capitalism served to undermine the esteem of woman and erode her "place" in society. The cataclysmic upheavals traditional societies suffered as a result of their collision with an insidious modernity forced transformations of social structure and worldviews which are yet to be dealt with in a manner beneficial to African peoples. These religious and socio-political forces would relegate woman to a tangential and marginal relationship with and within her society and a corresponding relationship in the literature of Africa. That relationship, however, is not, as Sudarkasa's article among others bears out, a representative one. Though there are notable exceptions regarding the depiction of African women in literature, Mariama Bâ's clarion call for a depiction of woman's role beyond the one-dimensional still resounds.

Mariama Bâ's own literary work is a response to that call. In her first novel, So Long a Letter (Une si longue lettre ), there are a number of women characters who function beyond the typical "role-categories such as girlfriends, mistresses, and prostitutes."1 Their well-wrought delineations mark their multi-dimensionality. Their economic power and contributions are also well detailed, as is their physical, intellectual, and spiritual strength. In So Long a Letter the main character, Ramatoulaye Fall, teaches school. Her income, placed in a joint account with her husband Modou, supported their family, which included twelve children. After Modou's abandonment of the family, Ramatoulaye shouldered "both moral and material" responsibility for the family. Her friend, Aissatou, found herself likewise situated. Choosing to divorce her husband Mawdo rather than continue in a polygynous marriage, Aissatou supported herself and her four sons. The wives of Tamsir, Modou Fall's brother, worked to meet the family's needs. "To help you out with your financial obligation," Ramatoulaye tells him, "one of your wives dyes, an- other sells fruit, the third untiringly turns the handle of her sewing machine" (57). Mariama Bâ recognizes and praises all of woman's work. Whereas an industrial-capitalistic system would divide labor into remunerative and non-remunerative categories, the former valued and the latter valueless, Mariama Bâ recognizes no distinctions. Her narrator declares, "Those women we call ‘house’-wives deserve praise. The domestic work which they carry out, and which is not paid in hard cash, is essential to the home" (63).

Mariama Bâ's characters represent and bring to the foreground not only the economic and socio-political contributions but also the moral and spiritual contributions of African women to the development of their countries. As depicted in her fiction, the African woman is not only complex and multi-dimensional, she is, indeed, mythic; and her role in Mariama Bâ's fiction is, though subtly drawn so, of mythic dimensions. In view of Africa's woman-centered history and in light of more profound definitions of "myth," a sober analysis of the mythic African woman goes beyond nostalgic and romantic "sweet-nothings" while not making of her a "superwoman." Referring to a photograph of an African woman in traditional dress, sitting before her home while holding a baby, Joseph Campbell writes:

This woman with her baby is the basic image of mythology. The first experience of anybody is the mother's body…. The earth and the whole universe, as our mother, carries this experience into the larger sphere of adult experience. When one can feel oneself in relation to the universe in the same complete and natural way as that of the child with the mother, one is in complete harmony and tune with the universe. Getting into harmony and tune with the universe and staying there is the principal function of mythology.


Many scholars agree that Africa is the beginning of human existence and the birthplace of human civilization and culture. In addition, these scholars maintain that ancient African civilizations were woman-centered. Larry Williams and Charles S. Finch write to that effect:

The matriarchy, probably the oldest form of social organization, appears to have evolved first in Africa. Even when the patriarchy emerged and began to supplant the older social organization, matriarchal social forms in Africa have thrived in whole or part up to the present.

          (12; emphasis in original)

John Henrik Clarke also relates his findings regarding woman-centered societies:

In Africa the woman's "place" was not only with her family; she often ruled nations with unquestionable authority. Many African women were great militarists and on occasion led their armies in battle. Long before they knew of the existence of Europe the Africans had produced a way of life where men were secure enough to let women advance as far as their talent would take them.


Given the antiquity of her societies and given her power in those societies, the Black woman, asserts Filomina Chioma Steady, "is to a large extent the original feminist" (36). She is the archetypal womanist. And, as Diedre Badéjò attests, "femininity and power are central to the definition of womanist/feminist" (31). From her analysis of Osun mythology, she draws these conclusions:

(1) that women's power evolves from The Source of all power; (2) that some women have this power innately; (3) that social order cannot proceed without active participation of the female principle; and (4) that Olódùmarè ["the Infinite Being"] envisions a universal order in which balance and reciprocity prevail between the genders.


Mariama Bâ's vision of the ideal society also demands a balance predicated on the principle of complementarity, on cooperation as opposed to the co-opting of power. Ramatoulaye, the protagonist, who gradually feels her innate power, questions the repression of the feminine principle and also desires and envisions a restoration of reciprocity and balance in relationships. Thus, in So Long a Letter, Ramatoulaye rebuts her suitor Daouda Dieng who, defending his "feminist" stance and speeches in the National Assembly, triumphantly states that "there are women in the Assembly." She exclaims, "Four women, Daouda, four out of a hundred deputies. What a ridiculous ratio! Not even one for each province" (60). Daouda Dieng, though a member of "that male Assembly," professes, proudly conveying to Ramatoulaye his progressive politics: "Women should no longer be decorative accessories, objects to be moved about, companions to be flattered or calmed with promises." He continues, "Women are the nation's primary, fundamental root, from which all else grows and blossoms. Women must be encouraged to take a keener interest in the destiny of the country …" (61-62). Ramatoulaye acknowledges Daouda's efforts and the "notable achievements" that have aided the forward momentum of women's struggles. "But Daouda," she contends, calling him three times, "the constraints remain; but Daouda, old beliefs are revived; but Daouda, egoism emerges, scepticism rears its head in the political field. You want to make it a closed shop and you huff and puff about it" (61).2

As opposed to any recognition of the need to balance feminine and masculine principles and work in cooperation for the welfare of African society as a whole, Daouda speaks of the need to encourage fuller political participation from women so that women can protect their own interests. "If men alone are active in the parties," he declares, "why should they think of the women? It is only human to give yourself the larger portion of the cake when you are sharing it out. If men alone are active in the parties why should they think of women?" (62). The welfare of women and children is reduced to a portion of cake. Given Daouda Dieng's insight into the mindset of many of his cronies, given the industrial-capitalistic division of labor and its inherent inequities, and given the artificial schism between domestic and public spheres, one can appreciate the standpoint of Ramatoulaye's daughter, Daba: "I don't want to go into politics; it's not that I am not interested in the fate of my country and, most especially, that of woman. But when I look at the fruitless wranglings even within the ranks of the same party, when I see men's greed for power, I prefer not to participate." Though "men will continue to have the power of decision," she counters, "everyone knows that polity should be the affair of women" (74). Daba prefers to work for change through her own associations and organizations, a realm outside the ostensibly political one. But, given the overlap of "public" and "domestic" arenas as analyzed by Sudarkasa, that does not mean her actions are any less political or any less militant and effective.

When, where, how, why did men lose the security they had which allowed them to see woman as their equal, to respect and encourage her militancy as they would her meekness, her firmness as her femininity? When, where, how, why has woman been taught that "the first quality in a woman is docility," that "a woman does not need too much education," as Aunty Nabou teaches young Nabou whom she prepared to be a wife for her son, Mawdo? Why is woman taught that she is powerless—powerless before what has become some men's "instincts" and appetites as Mawdo harangues Ramatoulaye:

I saw a film in which the survivors of an air crash survived by eating the flesh of the corpses. This fact demonstrates the force of the instincts in man, instincts that dominate him, regardless of his level of intelligence…. You can't resist the imperious laws that demand food and clothing for man. These same laws compel the "male" in other respects….

Driven to the limits of my resistance, I satisfy myself with what is within reach. It's a terrible thing to say. Truth is ugly when one analyses it.


Such rationalizations decree that woman be powerless before the finicky nature of those men who can, with little or no compunction, take up one woman while abandoning another and sheepishly ascribe their actions to nature, to culture—as in the case of Ousmane Guèye in Bâ's second novel, Scarlet Song —to fate, or to Allah. When Modou Fall secretly marries Binetou, the Imam chants to Ramatoulaye: "There is nothing one can do when Allah the almighty puts two people side by side…. God intended him to have a second wife, there is nothing he can do about it" (36-37). Nothing she can do about it; nothing he can do about it. Powerless.

When, where, how, why was woman displaced from her central position as giver, nurturer, protector of life to become "a worn-out or out-dated boubou," "a plate of food," a "good luck" piece, a bouncing ball at fate's whim with "no control over where it rolls and even less over who gets it," a thing, "a fluttering leaf that no hand dares to pick up"—a thing disdained? "Truth is ugly when one analyses it." Mawdo, of course, is right. Why the imbalance between the masculine and the feminine principles? Why the one valorized at the expense of the other? This African woman, why is she told, "Shut up! Shut up!" When Tamsir, Modou's brother, decides he will inherit Ramatoulaye after she comes out of mourning, Ramatoulaye is insulted, wounded, and outraged: "You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You don't know what marriage means to me: it is an act of faith and of love, the total surrender of oneself to the person one has chosen and who has chosen you. (I emphasized the word ‘chosen’)" (58). "Stop! Stop!" protests Mawdo. "But you can't stop once you've let your anger loose." Ramatoulaye could not "tame all that anger down." "My voice has known thirty years of silence, thirty years of harassment. It bursts out, violent, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes contemptuous," she confides to Aissatou (58). Thirty years. In Africa, where the spoken word had primacy, where the procreative power of the spoken word was recognized and revered, this woman remained silent for thirty years. The Word, the sine qua non of being, was denied her. She was, in the most basic and profound sense rendered powerless: "Shut up!"

Modou's total abandonment of Ramatoulaye, then later his death, left Ramatoulaye alone with the moral and material responsibility of her children and herself. "I was surviving," she writes Aissatou. "In addition to my former duties, I took over Modou's as well." She fixed broken doors and windows, managed a meager budget, and cared for her children. Interspersed in the recounting of her duties is the signifying refrain, "I survived…. I survived…. I survived …" (51-53). Her survival was nothing short of miraculous. Women similarly abandoned, like Jacqueline, suffered nervous breakdowns. Others, like Mireille in A Scarlet Song, became insane. Still others were hurled to early graves. Ramatoulaye found her tongue. By speaking for her self she moved from a state of psycho-spiritual nonexistence to one of existence, of being. Prior to her abandonment, Ramatoulaye lived on the periphery of her own life, always trying to please and placate others. The greater portion of her physical, psychological, and spiritual energies were spent in meeting the expectations of her husband, her children, her "family-in-law," and the laws and customs of her religion and society. "I try to spot my faults in the failure of my marriage," Ramatoulaye ponders in a letter to Aissatou:

I loved my house. You can testify to the fact that I made it a haven of peace where everything had its place, that I created a harmonious symphony of colours. You know how softhearted I am, how much I loved Modou. You can testify to the fact that, mobilized day and night in his service, I anticipated his slightest desire.

I made peace with his family. Despite his desertion of our home, his father and mother and Tamsir, his brother, still continued to visit me often, as did his sisters. My children too grew up without much ado. Their success at school was my pride, just like laurels thrown at the feet of my lord and master.


In all this, she was dutifully submissive and self-effacing. And it was there, in the eyes of others, that she garnered her sense of self and self-worth. When she began to speak, however, and on her own behalf, she gave voice to ideas, beliefs, and feelings which expressed her true self and acknowledged her inherent self-worth. She became profoundly aware of herself as an autonomous, complex, and significant entity who had a choice, a say, in how she would live. This self, in its incipient stages of life, she nurtured. The African woman, praised also for her procreative power, her fecundity, is the giver of life. Like Isis, of Egyptian mythology, she is not only procreative, but self-created, autogenetic. It is through the miracle of autogenesis that Ramatoulaye comes into her own. She experiences again what Campbell describes as the first experience: the mother's body. She seeks again balance and harmony. The void created in the house by Modou's absence became her womb. Images symbolic of gestation and fecundity are prevalent in So Long a Letter : "I lived in a vacuum," she tells Aissatou. And it is within the womb of the cinema that she was distracted from the void in this vacuum and learned "lessons of greatness, courage, and perseverance." It was there, in the darkness that she was enlightened and gained a "vision of the world." "The cinema, an inexpensive means of recreation," helped her to re-create herself (51-52). Ramatoulaye emerged from its dark maw renewed. And in the sleepless, solitary night, pregnant with loneliness, Ramatoulaye writes that "music lulled my anxiety. I heard the message of old and new songs, which awakened hopes. My sadness dissolved" (52-53).

Ramatoulaye's ritual acts of "rememory" were the birthpangs of her travail.3 To recall her thirty silent years, to acknowledge and articulate them, the ebb and flow of them, was to begin to understand and heal self. In expressing her trials of abandonment and, as well, the trials of her friend Aissatou, Ramatoulaye knows the pain her words evoke: "I know that I am shaking you, that I am twisting a knife in a wound hardly healed; but what can I do? I cannot help remembering in my forced solitude and reclusion" (26). Ramatoulaye's ritual of rememory evokes her mythic self, allowing her recreated self to issue forth. She is reborn.

When Modou chose to marry Binetou, Ramatoulaye reconciled herself to be a "co-wife": "I had prepared myself for equal sharing, according to the precepts of Islam concerning polygamic life. I was left with empty hands" (6). But emerging from the womb of her solitude and seclusion, she learned, like Aissatou, the necessity of taking one's life into one's own hands. Aissatou would not reconcile herself to polygynous life, as she could not accept Mawdo's "absurd divisions" between "heartfelt love and physical love" (31). She left. She took her life and the lives of her children into her own hands. Ramatoulaye writes that books saved Aissatou. They created for her a womb of fertile interiority as did the films at the cinema for Ramatoulaye. But Aissatou's development was nurtured by Ramatoulaye's presence and encouragements (32). As she was midwife at the rebirth of Aissatou, so Aissatou was midwife to her friend. And it is to friendship that Ramatoulaye sings hosannas throughout the novel. Though Aissatou chose to live the "single life" of the "modern, liberated woman," she respected Ramatoulaye's choice to remain in her marriage and her desire and hope to some day marry again. As E. Imafedia Okhamafe argues in "African Feminism(s) and the Question of Marital and Non-Marital Loneliness and Intimacy," it is not often that respect is accorded women who make choices seen as contrary to feminist ideologies. She observes:

… [S]elf-esteem does not come by telling women to develop androphobia or manophobia since many of these single or divorced or abandoned women would still want to develop intimate relationships with some other men…. What I am saying is that women should have such an option without being made to feel guilty if they choose to exercise it.


Bâ's novel also attests that mutual respect—reciprocity and balance—is essential to friendship, as it is to any other relationship. Ramatoulaye writes Aissatou, "Even though I understand your stand, even though I respect the choice of liberated women, I have never conceived of happiness outside marriage" (56). As Ramatoulaye's choice was not a judgment against Aissatou, Aissatou's choice never rose to condemn her friend. Rather than abandoning her sister-friend, who chose a way different from hers, Aissatou supported her. Abandoned and left without a means of transportation, Ramatoulaye and her children had to rely on unreliable public transportation. Aissatou responded to her friend's plight with the gift of a car: "I shall never forget your response, you, my sister, nor my joy and my surprise when I was called to the Fiat agency and was told to choose a car which you had paid for, in full" (53). This gift never became for Aissatou a vehicle for pronouncements and dictates against her friend. It never granted Aissatou the right to impose upon Ramatoulaye an ideology that would be, for her, incongruous. Because of Aissatou's disinterested support, Ramatoulaye's self-esteem escalated. Their friendship and sisterhood reinforced her strength to be and become.

Mariama Bâ's metaphors of birth, recreation, and fecundity come to their fruition in Young Aissatou's pregnancy. Metaphors of the mythic African woman are also fully realized at this point. Young Aissatou, Ramatoulaye's second oldest daughter and the namesake of her friend, becomes pregnant while unmarried and still in school. Tradition and convention, epitomized in the character of "the griot woman" Farmata, dictated that Ramatoulaye vehemently upbraid her daughter. Young Aissatou standing before her, pregnant, Ramatoulaye was surprised, angered, disappointed, and hurt. Checking herself, Ramatoulaye stood for immeasured time, figuring her response. At the crossroads of a moment, where mythic and historical time dialogued with actual time to comment on its future, Ramatoulaye remembered: "Remembering, like a lifebuoy, the tender and consoling attitude of my daughter during my distress, my long years of loneliness, I overcame my emotion …" (82). She painfully felt her responsibilities:

To make my being a defensive barrier between my daughter and any obstacle. At this moment of confrontation, I realized how close I was to my child. The umbilical cord took on new life, the indestructible bond beneath the avalanche of storms and the duration of time. I saw her once more, newly sprung from me, kicking about, her tongue pink, her tiny face creased under her silky hair. I could not abandon her, as pride would have me do. Her life and her future were at stake, and these were powerful considerations, overriding all taboos and assuming greater importance in my heart and in my mind. The life that fluttered in her was questioning me. It was eager to blossom. It vibrated, demanding protection.


Giver, nurturer, protector, and preserver of life, Ramatoulaye's ritual act of rememory called forth her mythic self: "I took my daughter in my arms. Painfully, I held her tightly, with a force multiplied tenfold by pagan revolt and primitive tenderness. She cried. She choked on sobs" (83). This is the most moving, most powerful, most profound moment in Ramatoulaye's existence. A primordial knowledge was called up from and echoed back to the timeless, mythic spiral of life: "I took myself in hand with superhuman effort. The shadows faded away. Courage! The rays of light united to form an appeasing brightness. My decision to help and protect emerged from the tumult. It gained strength as I wiped the tears, as I caressed the burning brow" (83).

Ramatoulaye's erstwhile empty hands teemed with life—her life, the cumulation of countless lives before her, her child's life, her grandchild's life and beyond. Ramatoulaye emerged from her tumult with a mythic conception of motherhood which determined her momentous response. The potential for such growth is aborted in Bâ's Scarlet Song. Where Ramatoulaye could "face the flood," Mathilde de La Vallée could not—though she desperately desired to. Her husband, Jean de La Vallée, saw their daughter's marriage to Ousmane, "her nigger," as an "attack on his honour," an "assault on his dignity," and an insufferable disgrace before his French compeers. With the exclamation of "Snake-in-the-grass! Slut!" he banished his daughter Mireille to oblivion. Mathilde, like Ramatoulaye, remembered:

Finally, she read the letter [of Mireille's elopement]. As a mother, she could share her child's despair as she was driven to this drastic measure. Reading between the lines, she could appreciate her dreadful dilemma. She was heartsick at the thought of the wrench her daughter's decision must have caused her. She was moved by the sincerity of her cry from afar. She forgave her. She opened her arms to cradle her child…. [H]er maternal instinct was reborn. Must she forgo the possibility of becoming a grandmother?


Having made her husband her life, Mathilde had no sister-friend in whom she could confide and with whom she could express herself. Her remembering, alone, was not enough. She needed more to overcome, like Ramatoulaye, thirty hushed years. Mathilde's silent scream noiselessly echoed about the infertile caverns of her deliberations to issue forth stillborn:

And then, out of habit—thirty years during which she had not had a thought of her own, no initiative, no rebellion, thirty years during which she had simply moved in the direction in which she was pushed, thirty years during which it had been her lot to agree and to applaud—then, out of habit rather than conviction, she sobbed, "Snake-in-the-grass! Slut!" and fell into a faint.


Overwhelmed in face of patriarchal convention, Mathilde could not summon the courage to help and protect her child.

The umbilical cord cut, isolated and otherwise abandoned in her adopted home of Senegal, Mireille, unable to cope with her external reality, was driven inward. In- teriority is dangerous when there is no connection with external reality to keep one grounded. Mireille, insane, murdered her son, stabbed her husband, his blood a scarlet song which sang a confused and strangled rhythm. Soukeyna, Mireille's sister-in-law, tried to be a sister-friend, a midwife to see Mireille through her mother-in-law's total rejection of her and her husband's abandonment of her. But Mireille, who "no longer spoke," had not understood, like Ramatoulaye, "that confiding in others allays pain."

Ramatoulaye knows what treasure she has in Aissatou. She appreciates the possibilities of and sees the need for friendship and sisterhood. As she writes Aissatou, "Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed" (88). Ramatoulaye knows also that when women suffer, they do not suffer alone. With the repression of the feminine principle, there can be no balance, no order.

"The material of myth is the material of our life, the material of our body, and the material of our environment, and a living, vital mythology deals with these in terms that are appropriate to the nature of knowledge of the time" (Campbell 1). One function of myth is to explain the inexplicable. This, Ramatoulaye concludes, is what mothers do: "one is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable. One is a mother to lighten the darkness. One is a mother to shield when lightning streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when mud bogs one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end" (83). Given her knowledge of the tumultuous times in which she lives and her children grow, she knows she must give them a "living, vital mythology" to help ensure their harmonious existence in the universe. By example and precept, she transmits to her children her mythic concepts of balance and harmony, equanimity and complementarity, flexibility and change.

Ramatoulaye sees herself and Aissatou as "true sisters" with a "mission of emancipation." Ramatoulaye awaits an eagerly anticipated visit from Aissatou. She ponders what effect the changes each has made will have on the other and what discussions they will have about their "search for a new way." "Reunited, will we draw up a detailed account of our faded bloom, or will we sow new seeds for new harvests?" She warns Aissatou, "I have not given up wanting to refashion my life. Despite everything—disappointments and humiliations—hope still lives on within me. It is from the dirty and nauseating humus that the green plant sprouts into life, and I can feel new buds springing up in me" (89). When these two women meet, what then? What then? What then?


1. Anne Adams Graves discusses stereotypical images of African women in literature in her preface to Ngambika, Studies of Women in African Literature.

2. The text's notes explain that to call on someone three times is an invocation that "indicates the seriousness of the subject to be discussed" (90).

3. Sethe, in Toni Morrison's Beloved, uses the term "rememory" to describe her act of remembering. As Morrison uses the term and as Sethe experiences its meaning, "rememory" signifies a process of mythic transformation wherein remembering is a painful ritual act essential in the sloughing off of transfixing and debilitating experiences, which allows for regeneration and continuance. It is Sethe's "rememory" of her insane husband Halle, the Sweet Home plantation, and the life and the killing of her baby girl Beloved, that gives birth to her ensuing spiritual peace.

Works Cited

Bâ, Mariama. Scarlet Song (Un chant ecarlate). Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. New York: Longman, 1985.

———. So Long a Letter. Trans. Modupe Bode-Thomas. London: Heinemann, 1981.

Badéjò, Diedre L. "The Goddess Osun as a Paradigm for African Feminist Criticism." Sage 6.1 (1989): 27-32.

Campbell, Joseph. Transformations of Myth Through Time. New York: Harper, 1990.

Clark, John Henrik. "African Warrior Queens." Black Women in Antiquity. 1984. Ed. Ivan Van Sertima. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988. 123-34.

Graves, Anne Adams. Preface. Ngambika, Studies of Women in African Literature. Ed. Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1986. vi-xi.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Okhamafe, E. Imafedia. "African Feminism(s) and the Question of Marital and Non-Marital Loneliness and Intimacy." Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women 6.1 (1989): 33-39.

Steady, Filomina Chioma. "The Black Woman Cross-Culturally: An Overview." The Black Woman Cross-Culturally. 1981. Ed. Filomina C. Steady. Rochester, VT: Schenkman, 1985. 7-41.

Sudarkasa, Niara. "Female Employment and Family Organization in West Africa." The Black Woman Cross-Culturally. 1981. Rochester, VT: Schenkman, 1985. 49-63.

Williams, Larry, and Charles S. Finch. "The Great Queens of Ethiopia." Black Women in Antiquity. 1984. Ed. Ivan Van Sertima. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988. 12-35.

Mary Jane Androne (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Androne, Mary Jane. "The Collective Spirit of Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter." In Emerging Perspectives on Mariama Bâ: Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Postmodernism, edited by Ada Uzoamaka Azodo, pp. 37-50. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, Androne examines Bâ's innovative narrative technique in So Long a Letter, observing that the author combines the genres of epistle, autobiography, and philosophical tract to explore in deeply emotional terms her evolving understanding of the role of women in her culture.]

At the end of Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter Ramatoulaye writes "My heart rejoices each time a woman emerges from the shadows."1 In some respects this summarizes the spirit and central theme of this unusual novel for it foregrounds the course of Ramatoulaye's own life as it celebrates her interest in other women's struggles as well. In evaluating Bâ's feminist vision in So Long a Letter many critics have noted her wide-ranging concerns for the family and the community as well as for individual women. This inclusive vision is a key feature of the African feminism Carole Boyce Davies describes and interprets in her 1986 introduction to Ngambika and like Alice Walker's and Chikwenye Ogunyemi's definitions of black womanism Bâ centers on the "survivial and wholeness of the entire people"2 and looks closely at the "racial, cultural, national, economic and political considerations" 3 which define Senegalese society. As Angelita Reyes states, "Feminism has different meanings for women whose societies have been influenced by colonialism, nineteenth century missionary Christianity, Islam and indigenous beliefs."4 The form of So Long a Letter is also notable, for it is, as Christopher Miller observes, "a peculiar hybrid, representing an original act of literary creativity, a brilliant departure."5 In the course of telling her story and the stories of other women and assessing their import in relation to Senegal past and present, Ramatoulaye also records the process of her own growth. For in this "long letter" she too "emerges from the shadows" and reveals her growth in consciousness while observing the confinement of the forty-day mirasse required of a Muslim woman when her husband dies. The flexibility of the letter as a genre is what allows Ramatoulaye the opportunity to move back and forth in time, to digress, to complain and to reflect.

It is not surprising, then, that so much of the critical response to this novel has centered on the nature and extent of Bâ's feminism. Many critics of the novel claim as Obiechina does that Ramatoulaye "is not and has never been a feminist"6 or that she is trying to be, as Katherine Frank suggests, "an individual self"7 as her friend Aïssatou has. Reyes qualifies Frank's liberal, feminist view of the novel by pointing out the "indigenous feminist discourse" on which the novel is based. For in her letter—the most intimate and personal form of correspondence—to her closest friend, Ramatoulaye bares her soul and divulges her innermost concerns, worries and beliefs. The confiding tone in many instances in this letter suggests the trust that exists between writer and recipient and this carries over to the reader who often feels as if she is overhearing a private monologue. Citing Christopher Miller's claim that So Long a Letter is really Bâ's "blueprint for African women," Uzo Esonwanne sees the form of the letter also as "a peculiar hybrid" which, while staying within Islamic culture, works "to subvert and destabilize certain dichotomies rooted in race, age, sex and culture."8 He sees Ramatoulaye's use of mirasse—the ritual commanded by the Koran […] that a dead person be stripped of his most intimate secrets" (Letter, 9)—as her opportunity to work within Islam as she transforms it making her own original statement which defies the norms of traditional Muslim women as it rejects the tenets of liberal feminism at the same time. It is in the form, then, that Bâ is most original, for she uses it to offer Ramatoulaye's range of emotions and opinions and to express her evolving consciousness of women's roles in her culture.

The inconsistencies critics see in Ramatoulaye's narrative is implicit in the letter as a genre. As Beatrice Didier has suggested, "The authentic letter as an entity […] is characterized by fragmentation, discontinuity, the absence of development and formal arrangement."9 Because she is writing a letter, Ramatoulaye can skip from her bitter memories of Modou's abandonment to philosophical musings on women's political power or distanced recounting of Senegal's history. Even her pleasant memories of her shared girlhood with Aïssatou often break in on the narrative at totally unexpected times. These fragments of narrative are composed of gossip, outbursts of anger and outrage, sarcastic putdowns as well as calm reflection and gentle reminiscence. Ramatoulaye relives the pain of her separation from Modou Fall when she asks what "inner confusion" led him to marry their daughter's friend or when her voice breaks its "thirty years of silence" and "bursts out, violent, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes contemptuous" (Letter, 58) as she excoriates her brother-in-law Tamsir when he inappropriately proposes marriage. But Ramatoulaye also discusses women's position in Senegal in a measured, confident manner asking Daouda Dieng "Nearly twenty years of independence! When will we have the first female minister involved in the decisions concerning the development of our country?" (Letter, 61). She recalls with pride the era of her schooling as she reminds Aïssatou that "We represented a force in the enormous effort to be accomplished in order to overcome ignorance" (Letter, 23). But she is just as passionate thinking about the "cases of many other women, despised, relegated or exchanged, who were abandoned like a worn-out or out-dated boubou" (Letter, 41). The variations critics have pointed out in Ramatoulaye's discourse make up the complexity of her perceptions on women in Africa, which comprise her indigenous feminist monologue. The shifts in tone and perspective offer a rich, textured collage ranging from personal anger and pain to reasoned philosophy. Ramatoulaye is all of these moods in her totality. And her moods shift with all these subjects—she is intensely angry and confused when she thinks of her husband's betrayal, reflective at other times and compassionate and nurturing in other instances as she is when she discovers her schoolgirl daughter's pregnancy.

Because Ramatoulaye's letter is not just a letter, but a hybrid form which is a mixture of "personal complaint, satire and philosophy" (Obiechina, 36) and "journal" (Miller, 278) Bâ creates a flexible format which enables the writer to present this uniquely feminist narrative, because it allows her to be innovative in detailing her story and the stories of other women. The specific values that Ramatoulaye's open and complex forms encompass include her wide-ranging compassion and sympathy for other women as well as her reasoned and sometimes vitriolic diatribes against the injustices women have been forced to suffer. Because she is not compelled to conform to a strict genre, Ramatoulaye is able to push the boundaries of conventional thinking and posit alternative visions of what could be. Her remembered conversations with Daouda Dieng on everything from women's right to vote, to equal pay for equal work, to employment opportunities for women, suggest Ramatoulaye's liberal ideas on the better future she envisions for women. She defends women when he describes them as "mortar shells":

But we are not incendiaries; rather we are stimulants! And I pressed on: "In many fields and without skirmishes, we have taken advantage of the notable achievements that have reached us from elsewhere, the gains wrested from the lessons of history. We have a right, just as you have, to education, which we ought to be able to pursue to the furthest limits of our intellectual capacities"

          (Letter, 60-61).

This recollection demonstrates the function of this hybrid form, which enables Ramatoulaye to capture that moment when as she puts it "I was bolting like a horse that has long been tethered and is now free and reveling in space" (Letter, 61). And even later when approving of Daba's relationship with her husband she observes, "They identify with each other, discuss everything so as to find a compromise" (Letter, 73-74). And through Daba she offers yet another possibility for women for Daba eschews being active in Senegalese politics but prefers her women's organization which has its own feminist non-hierarchical structure:

No: I prefer my own association, where there is neither rivalry nor schism, neither malice nor jostling for position; there are no posts to be shared, nor positions to be secured. The headship changes every year. Each of us has equal opportunity to advance her ideas.

          (Letter, 74).

But Ramatoulaye's vision is not one that privileges professional women. When she describes her day-to-day activities to Aïssatou she has another opportunity to celebrate the domestic work women perform:

Those women we call "house"-wives deserve praise. The domestic work they carry out, and which is not paid in hard cash, is essential to the home. Their compensation remains the pile of well ironed, sweet-smelling washing, the shining tiled floor on which the foot glides, the gay kitchen filled with the smell of stews. Their silent action is felt in the least useful detail: over there, a flower in bloom placed in a vase, elsewhere a painting with appropriate colours, hung up in the right place

          (Letter, 63).

This is, perhaps, as much a tribute to the women who "serve" Ramatoulaye as it is praise for domestic workers, but it suggests a consciousness that does not measure a woman's worth strictly in terms of educational or intellectual achievement.

One useful device Ramatoulaye consistently employs is the flashback or memory of earlier times. Whether she is remembering the origin of her love for Modou Fall and the basis for their relationship or her girlhood bonds with Aïssatou, Ramatoulaye is able to remind her readers of the contrast between past and present and point out the bitter reality her past hopes give way to. In the beginning she tells Aïssatou:

I conjure you up. The past is reborn, along with its procession of emotions. I close my eyes. Ebb and tide of feeling: heat and dazzlement, the wood fires, the sharp green mango, bitten into in turns, a delicacy in our greedy mouths. I close my eyes. Ebb and tide of images: drops of sweat beading your mother's ochrecoloured face as she emerges from the kitchen, the procession of young wet girls chattering on their way back from the springs

          (Letter, 1).

The nostalgic intensity of Ramatoulaye's sensual imagery conveys so well the idealism of her shared girlhood with Aïssatou and records the mood of this phase in their life when "chattering girls" imagined anything was possible in their lives.

In assessing the totality of Ramatoulaye's statement in So Long a Letter it is important to recognize not only the variety and shifts in tone but also the extent of her growth as an individual woman and as a spokes person for other women. There is no one constant "self" for she is not in the present the same woman who fell in love with and married Modou Fall nor is she the same person who resigns herself to staying in a marriage after her husband takes a second wife. Even Ramatoulaye's description of her education, which was supposed "to lift us out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom" (Letter, 15) suggests an ironic consciousness of the false basis of this promise of progress through "modern" education, which was a product of the French colonial presence. The changes Ramatoulaye goes through are apparent at every juncture in the narrative. Forced to be independent, to provide for and care for her children, to run a household and to function on her own socially, Ramatoulaye changes in indelible ways. In living through Modou Fall's abandonment of the family and his failure to provide for them financially, Ramatoulaye is paradoxically empowered. The consciousness that provokes her to argue with Daouda Dieng over the representation of women in political decision making or to castigate the system that allows women to be "despised, relegated or exchanged" is also reflected in her decision to reject another marriage after her husband's death.

There is considerable evidence that Ramatoulaye has changed dramatically in the five years between her husband's taking a second wife and his death. This transformation is apparent throughout her letter as she measures the distance she has come as she faces new challenges in the present. Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of Ramatoulaye's growth is reflected in her parenting. When she discovers her daughter Aïssatou is pregnant she reacts with compassion and takes her daughter in her arms to comfort her. Her advice is pragmatic and immediate—she meets her daughter's boyfriend, takes him into the family and enables Aïssatou to continue her schooling. Educating her younger daughters frankly about sexuality becomes her highest priority. Indeed it is apparent by the novel's conclusion that Ramatoulaye's ideas about love, marriage and male-female relations are not nearly as traditional or conservative as some critics claim they are. Her often cited statement—"I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman" (Letter, 88)—is not a justification for not divorcing Modou Fall as some critics claim, but rather a reaffirmation of the need for equality and interdependence of a man and a woman within marriage. The confusion over Ramatoulaye's attitudes toward love, marriage and polygamy center on her varying statements on her personal feelings for her husband and her more reasoned view of marriage as an institution. I do not see these as being in conflict, but would argue that her statements to Aïssatou and Tamsir Fall collectively represent her ideas. She confesses to Aïssatou that "I remain faithful to the love of my youth […] I cry for Modou, and I can do nothing about it" (Letter, 56). In her recollection of her conversation with Tamsir, she says, "You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You don't know what marriage means to me: it is an act of faith and of love, the total surrender of oneself to the person one has chosen and who has chosen you" (Letter, 58). At another point she tells Aïssatou "even though I understand your stand, even though I respect the choice of liberated women, I have never conceived of happiness outside marriage" (Letter, 56). Ramatoulaye makes these statements in the context of her own life when she confesses that she misses her "nightly conversations" and "bursts of refreshing or understanding laughter" with her husband. However, she does not suggest that all women should marry, that polygamy should be protected when it is so abused or that women should not imagine more liberal arrangements within marriage. That Ramatoulaye sees her eldest daughter Daba's marriage as an ideal is clear from her approval of Abou's statement that "[Daba] is not my slave, my servant" (73) when he defends their sharing household tasks. After her husband's death when her former suitor Daouda Dieng proposes marriage, Ramatoulaye turns him down not only because she does not love him, but also because she is unwilling to "bring myself between you and your family" (Letter, 68). It is clear, then, by the conclusion of her letter that Ramatoulaye rejects polygamy as it exists in the present, not only because she has seen how its misuse disrupts families and tears at the fabric of society, but also because it has become a practice that men distort and abuse when they use it to justify sexual variety and ego gratification. Although Ramatoulaye does not explicitly condemn polygyny, Bâ makes it clear in her portrayal of her that by the time Daouda Dieng proposes she cannot countenance the painful and disruptive effects taking another wife would inevitably produce on modern Islamic families in Senegal at that time. In envisioning marriage as "bringing myself between you and your family" Ramatoulaye acknowledges not only that she cannot be a part of a polygamous marriage, but also that this arrangement is no longer tenable for modern families.

In this sense Obioma Nnaemeka's description of marriage in So Long a Letter as "monogamized polygamy"10 is very much to the point. As she argues, "Mariama Bâ puts on stage a bunch of irresponsible philanderers who use the institution of polygamy as an alibi, whose wealth and easy mobility in an urban setting make it possible to manipulate the system to their own advantage" (Nnaemeka, 184). It is this version of polygamy that Ramatoulaye rejects. She says at the time of her husband's second marriage that she chose to remain—"a choice that my reason rejected but that accorded with the immense tenderness I felt towards Modou Fall" (Letter, 45). Shortly after this, Ramatoulaye reports, her husband "never came again […] he forgot about us" (46). Despite the urgings of her daughter Daba to "Leave. Draw a line through the past" (Letter, 40), Ramatoulaye is unable to erase the twenty-five years of marriage or to separate herself from the customs of Muslim culture or for that matter to obliterate a past, which has been her life up to that point. Certainly one of the questions the novel raises is whether Ramatoulaye would have made the decision to remain in this marriage had she known that she and her children would be so completely abandoned, emotionally and economically. As Nnaemeka observes what Bâ is exposing through Ramatoulaye is the pain women and children experience when modernity disrupts Muslim practice and allows men to manipulate polygamy for their own ends (Nnaemeka, 170). What Ramatoulaye and other women in her position suffer is much like Western style divorce where women and children are left to shift for themselves. And it is this corruption of the Muslim practice of polygamy, where the equality of wives within marriage and the economic well being of the entire family is supposed to be paramount, that Bâ is rejecting.

Indeed, Ramatoulaye's first person outpouring in this novel is not just her story, it is the story of many women—her friend Aïssatou to whom she writes, her daughters, her acquaintance Jacqueline, Farmata her griot neighbor, as well as her husband's second wife Binetou and her mother. In telling her own story Ramatoulaye constructs a mosaic of all these women's lives, which expresses the range of female attitude and situation in modern Senegal. It is a narrative that transcends the speaker's grief as it recounts the circumstances in her country and her culture, which have profoundly affected the lives of men and women as they flounder in the confusion of changing times. All these stories she narrates are told "in the context of the collective national history with its gender politics and economic, class and ideological conflicts" (Nnaemeka, 169). Ramatoulaye isolates particular ways in which women are confined because of class, gender and religion in each of these individual narratives. Aïssatou's decision to divorce her husband when he marries a second wife is the most dramatic contrast to Ramatoulaye's own story. Aïssatou's split is definitive—"I am stripping myself of your love, your name. Clothed in my dignity, the only worthy garment, I go my way" (Letter, 32). The contrast between Aïssatou's life where she further educates herself in France and them moves to Washington D. C. with her four sons to work as a translator at the Senegalese Embassy and Ramatoulaye's decision to exist as the abandoned first wife is not as stark as it may seem. It is true that Aïssatou's "plot" to get education and, then, money, mobility and power is a male trajectory and one paradigm for Western feminists. The silence in the text on Aïssatou's subsequent life, however, is notable. We never hear, of course, about how she struggles to raise her children or the compromises she must make as a professional African woman in an embassy in America when she and her children are separated from their culture, her female friends and her extended family back in Africa. The story of Jacqueline's alienation and breakdown after her marriage is a monitory one. Isolated by culture and religion from Senegalese society, Jacqueline must put up with a philandering husband, hostile in-laws, and an urban world that considers her a "hick." When reflecting on Jacqueline's psychosomatic complaint of a "strange weight in her chest" Ramatoulaye observes that "Often, the pains you are told of have their roots in moral torment" (44). Fortunately, for Jacqueline an enlightened doctor is able to see the psychic origins of her malady and bring her back to life and sanity. But her story reminds Ramatoulaye to "Brace oneself to check despair and get it into proportion!" (Letter, 41).

Even Ramatoulaye's narration of Binetou's history suggests that she sees her as a victim of her mother's ambition and Modou Fall's lust. Like Jacqueline, Binetou suffers because the fatal combination of the class system working together with Modou's deliberate misuse of polygamy conspire to rob her of her youth, her opportunity for education and her physical vitality. In mourning her "sugar daddy's" death, Ramatoulaye describes her as a "silent, haggard child" faced with emotional, social and economic loss. And even when she is at her height, beautifully arrayed in public on her husband's arm, she appears "worn out" as she watches young lovers—"The image of her life, which she had murdered, broke her heart" (Letter, 50). Ramatoulaye is critical of the mercenary practices that encourage young women to marry to promote the economic and social positions of their families. The class bias of Nabou's aunt and Mawdo Fall's mother are also soundly condemned. Nabou is carefully trained to snare Mawdo Bâ in order to satisfy his mother's social prejudices—"Mawdo's mother, a princess, could not recognize herself in the sons of a goldsmith's daughter" (Letter, 30). Like Binetou Nabou is robbed of her youth and her education—her aunt reminds her of her royal origins and "taught her that the first quality in a woman is docility" (Letter, 29). Farmata, Ramatoulaye's neighbor and the "griot woman of the cowries" is yet another alternative to Ramatoulaye with her campaign to promote Ramatoulaye's marriage to Daouda Dieng. She respects Farmata but "the truth of this woman a childhood companion through the long association of our families, could not hold good for me, even in its logic of concern […] Once more, I was refusing the easy way because of my ideal" (Letter, 70). Farmata's tirade when Ramatoulaye rejects Daouda Dieng's proposal reiterates the traditional thinking of many Senegalese women. The inclusion of the stories of the other women who are inseparable from Ramatoulaye's sense of herself, emphasize the collective spirit of this letter. It is one woman's letter, but it reveals a consciousness that cannot separate itself from a sense of how other women are faring in the culture. These narratives all suggest not only Ramatoulaye's critique of some of the misuses of tradition in her own society, but also her consciousness of the ways in which her well being and happiness are intricately connected with the lives of other women—her daughters, friends and female relatives. In this respect Bâ's narrative deconstructs the paradigms of Western autobiography which plot the linear destinies of their subjects as single trajectories that consist of overcoming a series of obstacles by themselves. Ramatoulaye has her own individual struggles. Her recounting of her own emotional, spiritual odyssey records the challenges of raising twelve children by herself, meeting the financial obligations of the family and surviving socially as a woman alone. But she does not see her situation as necessarily worse than that of other women in her culture and she acknowledges the help of servants, of her older children and of her extended family. There is gratitude for the help others offer and no self-pity.

It is no surprise that after Ramatoulaye discovers her daughter's pregnancy that she embarks on a new stage of progressive mothering and raises her daughters to function in the modern world aware of their bodies and conscious of the dangers not only of smoking but also of promiscuous sexuality. Ramatoulaye is shocked when she discovers three of her daughters smoking because she felt she had "created a favourable atmosphere for sensible behaviour and for confidence" (Letter, 77). And with the more serious revelation of another daughter's pregnancy, she determines to take a more proactive and direct approach in advising them: "I insist that my daughters be aware of the value of their bodies. I emphasize the sublime significance of the sexual act, an expression of love […] Each woman makes of her life what she wants" (Letter, 82). Ramatoulaye credits Aïssatou with being in the forefront in choosing to go her own way independently and sees her taking part "in the search for a new way" (Letter, 89). But she also makes claims for herself at the end of her letter saying, "I have not given up wanting to refashion my life […] hope still lives within me" (Letter, 89) and she asks Aïssatou "to check or encourage" her eagerness. It is important to see Ramatoulaye not as either a conventional liberal feminist or a conventional Senegalese woman of a privileged class, but as a woman forced to change because of the pressures of her experiences and who negotiates the problematic conditions of her life. What Ramatoulaye spells out in rehearsing the events, decisions, crises and joys of her life is what it means to live a feminist life that can tolerate contradictions, overcome challenges, endure loss and find fulfillment in the interstices of an imperfect society as she struggles to raise her children, work at her profession and participate in the life of the community. The conclusion of her letter is appropriately open-ended—"I felt that I had emerged into the light after a long journey through a dark, narrow tunnel" (Letter, 88). It is appropriate that this uniquely formed novel have no closure because Ramatoulaye has suggested throughout her letter that much of what has happened to her in the five years after her husband's departure and in the forty days of her mourning has involved disposing of barriers and learning to live provisionally. The indeterminate future Ramatoulaye faces is evidence of her growth as well as her future possibilities.


1. Mariama Bâ, So Long a Letter, 88.

2. Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Janovich, 1983, p. xi.

3. Chikwenye Ogunyemi, "Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English." In Signs (11), 63-64.

4. Angelita Reyes, "The Epistolary Voice and the Voices of Indigenous Feminism in Mariama Bâ's Une Si Longue Lettre." Carole Boyce Davies Ed. Moving Beyond Boundaries, Volume 2, Black Women's Diasporas, p. 210.

5. Christopher Miller, Theories of Africans, 283.

6. Emmanuel Obiechina, "Female Perspectives in African Literature." in Nwanyibu. 39. Phanuel Egejuru and Ketu Katrak. Eds.

7. Katherine Frank, "Feminist Criticism and the African Novel." In: Eldred D. Jones. Eds. African Literature Today, 14, 206.

8. Uzo Esonwanne, "Enlightenment Epistemology and ‘Aesthetic Cognition’: Mariama Bâ's So Long A Letter." In: Obioma Nnaemeka. Ed. The Politics of (M)othering: Womanhood, Identity, and Resistance in African Literature, 83.

9. Beatrice Didier, "Auto portrait et journal intime," Corps Ecrit, 5 (1983) 173.

10. Obioma Nnaemeka, "Urban Spaces, Women's Places: Polygamy As Sign in Mariama Bâ's Novels." In: Obioma Nnaemeka, Ed. The Politics of Mothering, 175.

Works Cited

Bâ, Mariama. So Long a Letter. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1981.

Didier, Beatrice. "Auto portrait et journal intime," Corps Ecrit, 5 (1983) 173.

Esonwanne, Uzo. "Enlightenment Epistemology and ‘Aesthetic Cognition’: Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter. In: Obioma Nnaemeka. Ed. The Politics of (M)othering: Womanhood, Identity, and Resistance in African Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Frank, Katherine. "Feminist Criticism and the African Novel." In: Eldred D. Jones. Ed. African Literature Today, 14. London: Heinemann, 1984.

Miller, Christopher. Theories of Africans. Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990.

Nnaemeka, Obioma. "Urban Spaces, Women's Places: Polygamy As Sign in Mariama Bâ's Novels." In: Obioma Nnaemeka. Ed. The Politics of Mothering. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Obiechina, Emmanuel. "Female Perspectives in African Literature." In: Nwanyibu, Phanuel Egejuru and Ketu Katrak. Eds. Trenton, N. J.: Africa World Press, 1997.

Ogunyemi, Chikwenye. "Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English" in Signs (11) 1: 63-64.

Reyes, Angelita. "The Epistolary Voice and the Voices of Indigenous Feminism in Mariama Bâ's Une si longue lettre." In: Carole Boyce Davies. Ed. Moving Beyond Boundaries, Volume 2, Black Women's Diasporas. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Alice Walker. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, Janovich, 1983.



Abuk, Christina. "Urbanisation's Long Shadows: Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter." Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 29, no. 4 (July 2003): 723-40.

Studies the cultural effects of migration and urbanization on Senegalese women in Bâ's So Long a Letter.

Bernard, Patrick S. "Mapping the Woman's Body: Race, Sex, and Gender in Mariama Bâ's Scarlet Song." Women's Studies 34, no. 7 (2005): 575-609.

Contends that Scarlet Song locates women's bodies as the geographic site of individual and collective identity formation in modern Africa.

Halling, Kirsten. "Negotiating the Crossroads between Tradition and Modernity: Cinematic and Visual Imagery in Mariama Ba's Une si longue lettre." Essays in French Literature, no. 40 (November 2003): 81-102.

Maintains that each chapter of So Long a Letter is stylistically similar to a film scene in its use of visual imagery and argues that such a cinematic approach brings modernity to a traditional narrative.

Oko, Emelia. "Eros, Psyche, and Society: Narrative Continuity in Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter and Scarlet Song." In Feminism and Black Women's Creative Writing (Theory Practice and Criticism), edited by Aduke Adebayo, pp. 168-77. Agodi, Ibadan: AMD Publishers, 1996.

Compares Bâ's representation of love in So Long a Letter and Scarlet Song, asserting that while love is depicted as a romantic ideal in the first work, it is treated more realistically as a product of human egocentrism in the second.

Yousaf, Nahem. "The ‘Public’ versus the ‘Private’ in Mariama Bâ's Novels." Journal of Commonwealth Literature 30, no. 2 (1995): 85-98.

Examines Bâ's literary depiction of the political, social, and religious subjugation of contemporary Senegalese women in both the public and domestic realms.

Additional information on Bâ's life and works is contained in the following sources published Gale: African Writers; Black Literature Criticism Supplement; Black Writers, Ed. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 141; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 87; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; and World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 2.