Mbaye, Mariétou (Bileoma) 1948–
Mariétou (Bileoma) Mbaye 1948–
Senegalese author Mariétou Mbaye wrote of the particular challenges faced by women in her country. The legacy left by centuries of foreign rule, combined with a predominantly Muslim culture, made Senegal a place where women desiring independent lives faced unusually high barriers. Only one of Mbaye’s books was translated into English: her 1991 memoir The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman. This and her subsequent novels sometimes appeared under the pen name, “Ken Bugul,” a Wolof term that translates as “nobody wants this child.”
Mbaye was born on November 28, 1948, in Louga, Senegal, when the country was still a part of French West Africa. Her father, Abdoulaye, was a marabout, or Muslim holy man, who was in his eighties at the time of her birth. She attended a school in her village as a youngster but was later sent to live with an aunt in a larger city so that she might attend its lycée, or French high school. For years, Mbaye battled anger and feelings of abandonment over her mother’s decision to send her away. But the move was a positive one in many ways, for Mbaye went on to the University of Dakar, in Senegal’s capital, and then won a government grant to study in Belgium. Her time in Europe, however, was anything but enriching: she was dismayed by the racism she experienced and felt bereft and cut off from her culture and homeland. She abandoned her studies and lived in a debauched state for some years, much of which she described in The Abandoned Baobab.
Mbaye returned to Senegal in 1980 and married an elderly marabout who died a short time later. She went to work for family-planning agencies and began writing in earnest. Her autobiography written in French, Le Baobab Fou, was published by Nouvelles Editions Africaines in 1984. Mbaye’s Paris-based editors urged her to use the “Ken Bugul” pseudonym, a common one for women writers in West African literature. Mbaye pointed out, however, that the name is a blessing of sorts in Wolof culture, for it is sometimes bestowed on a child whose mother has suffered more than one stillborn birth-if “nobody wants” the infant, then neither will God, and so it might survive.
Le Baobab Fou’s publication and shocking revelations of the author’s life in Belgium caused a stir in Senegal, as its author told Bernard Magnier in an interview whose quotes were translated for a Research in African Literatures article. “[T]he fact that I had written this book,” Mbaye recalled, “that I had dared to write it and publish it… they said it couldn’t be true.” The title of Mbaye’s autobiography reflects her symbolic love for the large baobab tree that stood across from her family’s home when she was a child. She wrote of the French presence in Senegal during her youth, her attempts to fit into a society where traditional African values and ways were disdained in favor of an idealized European image of the “native,” and of a general sense that she did not belong, no matter where she went or how hard she tried.
Mbaye returned to her own village after a time at the lycée. Her colonial education set her apart, and as a teen
Born on November 28, 1948, in Louga, Senegal, Africa; daughter of Abdoulaye and Aissatou (Diop) Mbaye; married Semiou Bileoma (a physician; deceased); children: Yasmina Ndella. Education: Attended University of Dakar; studied in Belgium. Religion: Muslim.
Career: ASBEF, Senegal, program coordinator, 1982-86; International Planned Parenthood Federation, Africa region, program officer in Togo, after 1986; Africans International, administrator; writer.
Addresses: Home —B.P. 1048, Porto Novo, Benin.
she turned away from her culture completely, speaking French, wearing dresses and high heels, and reading French fashion magazines. Her time in Belgium, recounted in what Publishers Weekly described as “a terrifying journey of self-discovery,” involved drug abuse and prostitution; she also ended a pregnancy and had an affair with a woman-all of which are seriously proscribed in Senegalese society. “Europe is exposed as a hedonistic playground in which people communicate only through illusion,” observed Research in African Literatures writer Nicki Hitchcott about Mbaye’s memoir.
The Abandoned Baobab recounts Mbaye’s return to Senegal and a reconciliation with her mother and her culture-though one that is forged on her own terms. “I couldn’t be like those women who, every evening, would wait for their husbands whom they needed more than the air that they breathed,” she wrote. “The women would burst out of themselves during the day and then, as soon as the men came home, everyone would withdraw.” Published in the United States in 1991, The Abandoned Baobab was termed “a wise, lyrical account, superbly translated” by Publishers Weekly. Other critics considered it a benchmark work for West African women writers. “For the feminist reader, Le baobab fou is an important text because it recognizes feminism as a call for solidarity and not, as is traditionally maintained in Africa, for the promotion of the individual,” declared Hitchcott in her Research in African Literatures critique.
Mbaye also wrote Cendres et braises (Ashes and Embers), published in Paris in 1994. An autobiographical work as well, it begins with the female narrator recounting a story to a friend. She tells of her Paris lover, a married French man whom she calls “Y,” who is physically abusive. Though she sometimes leaves him, the narrator feels compelled to return to what she terms la valse infernale, or infernal waltz. This dance conflicts with the rhythms of her native Senegal, where some of the action takes place. In the end, the listener is revealed as a marabout who guides the narrator back to her true Senegalese self-and in the final paragraph, the storyteller relates how her mother then sold her to the marabout. “While this story is very much a personal one, it provides a social commentary on woman’s role, on differing perceptions of polygamy, on the importance of the mother-daughter bond, and on the postcolonial difficulties of finding one’s identity,” observed E. Nicole Meyer in a review for World Literature Today.
Though she held a job as an administrator for Africans International, a cultural organization that promotes African arts abroad, Mbaye continued to write. Her other works include Riwan ou le chemin de sable (Riwan or the Sandy Track) and La Folie et la mort (Madness and Death). She lived in Porto Novo, Benin, and had one child.
Le Baobab Fou (The Mad Baobab Tree), Nouvelles Editions
Africaines, 1984; translation published as The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman, Lawrence Hill, 1991.
Cendres et braises (Ashes and Embers), L’Harmattan (Paris), 1994.
Riwan ou le chemin de sable (Riwan or the Sandy Track), Présence Africaine (Paris), 1999.
La Folie et la mort (Madness and Death), Présence Africaine, 2000.
Publishers Weekly, November 1, 1991, p. 75.
Research in African Literatures, summer 1997, p. 16.
World Literature Today, winter 1996, p. 226.
Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2000.
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