Ba, Mariama 1929–1981
Mariama Ba 1929–1981
The Senegalese novelist Mariama Ba was considered one of the most important African writers of the twentieth century. A crusader for the rights of women in the strongly patriarchal world of Islamic West Africa, she wrote two widely acclaimed novels that explored the psychological damage done to African women traditional misogynistic practices, such as polygamy. In a wider sense, Ba captured the conflicts that arose in many African societies as Africans struggled to reconcile their traditional cultures with influences brought by their European former colonizers.
Senegal is a small country on Africa’s Atlantic coast. When Mariama Ba was born in its capital city of Dakar in 1929, Senegal had been under French domination for several centuries; it was one of the areas from which African slaves were shipped to the Western Hemisphere. Ba’s family was a powerful one. Her father was a government official, and she enjoyed the best education available to an African woman of the day, attending and excelling in French-language schools. But Ba was mostly raised by her strict, traditional maternal grandparents, her mother having died when she was young. Her father, who in 1956 became the first health minister of newly independent Senegal, continued to take an interest in her welfare and to stress the benefits of a European-style education.
So Ba enjoyed, in a sense, the best of two worlds. In her writing career she would combined a talent for expression in the European forms of the novel and the essay with a moral strength and certainty rooted in her traditional belief system. When she was 14 she placed first in a West Africa wide competition for admission to a select French secondary school, and she became a published essayist before she graduated. In 1947 she became a teacher. She married the Senegalese politician Obeye Diop and had nine children by him; the rigors of raising such a large family took their toll on her health, and she was forced to give up her teaching post. Later divorced from Diop, she worked as a secretary and as a school inspector.
Many of Ba’s experiences found their way into her two novels, which appeared in the last years of her life. Prior to becoming a fiction writer, though, Ba became more and more involved in women’s issues in general. Joining several international women’s organizations that were establishing fledgling chapters in Africa, she became a noted essayist and lecturer. “We do not have time to waste if we are going to bring something better to African women,” she was quoted as saying in The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. Ba spoke out on women’s legal rights, on education, on polygamy, and, anticipating by many years an issue that became hotly debated at the century’s end, on female genital mutilation.
Ba’s first novel, Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter), was published in 1980, when Ba was 51 years old. Ba wrote in French, which was used in much of West Africa to bridge the divide between the area’s various indigenous languages. Une si longue lettre was immediately successful and was quickly translated into English and other languages. Ba cast her story in the form of an epic letter written by a recently widowed
Born Mariama Ba in Dakar, Senegal, in 1929; died in Senegal in 1981; father a politician and government health minister. Married Obeye Diop (Senegalese Minister of Information); later divorced; nine children. Education: Graduated from the French-language Ecole Normale secondary school, Senegal. Religion: Islam.
Career: Senegalese novelist. Became a schoolteacher after graduating from secondary school, 1947; worked as secretary and school inspector; joined international women’s organizations and became essayist and lecturer, 1960s and 1970s; worked to end female genital mutilation; first novel, Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter), published 1980; second novel, Un chant éclarate (Scarlet Song), published 1981.
Awards: First-ever Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, 1980.
Senegalese woman named Ramatoulaye during a days-long period of mourning prescribed by Islamic law. In writing to a childhood friend, the widow has the chance to reflect on her own life and those of several other women she knows.
Ramatoulaye is the mother of 12 children, and like Ba herself, she lives a traditional life that nonetheless includes European-style schooling. When her life comes apart, she is forced to question many practices of the society in which she lives. The letter recounts the circumstances under which Ramatoulaye’s husband left her five years earlier and took a seventeen-year-old woman as his second wife. After his death, the husband’s brother, again according to tradition, offers to make Ramatoulaye one of his own wives. His motivation is to gain control over the modest amount of money and property Ramatoulaye has acquired. She refuses his proposal.
Une si longue lettre also introduces the reader to two other women, one more Westernized than Ramatoulaye and the other less so. First, the letter is addressed to her friend Aissatou, a divorced woman who has been working at the Senegalese embassy in the United States. Although divorce was rare in Islamic Senegal, Aissatou took that step after her husband, too, married a second woman. Ramatoulaye’s second friend, Jacqueline experiences an identity crisis after her marriage dissolves. As the widow sorts out her own future with these examples before her, Ramatoulaye resolves to develop an independent existence, and when her unmarried daughter returns home pregnant, a major mark of shame in her traditional belief system, Ramatoulaye suspends her anger and indignation and decides to support her.
Ba’s novel won the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, and plans were made for the publication of her second book, Un chant éclarate (Scarlet Song). However, long in poor health, Ba died in 1981 before the novel’s publication. Un chant éclarate takes up the theme of interracial and intercultural partnership. Its central figure, a white French woman and diplomat’s daughter, Mireille, falls in love with and marries a black Senegalese classmate at the university in Dakar where she is studying, thus severing her ties with her disapproving family. After the husband, Ousmane, takes a second wife, a traditional Senegalese woman, Mireille begins a long descent into mental instability, finally killing the couple’s only child.
Mariama Ba did not live long enough to witness and reap the rewards of her own expanding literary reputation. A strong voice for the growing self-consciousness of African women and a keen observer of changes in the society of her native country, Ba became the focus of numerous studies in American and European journals and book-length studies of African literature soon after her death. By the turn of the century, Un si longue lettre, especially, was widely taught in college literature, women’s studies, black studies, and French-language classes in the United States and around the world.
Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter), novel, 1980; Eng. trans., 1981.
Un chant éclarate (Scarlet Song), novel, 1981; Eng. trans., 1986.
Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, Yale University Press, 1990.
Blair, Dorothy S., Senegalese Literature: A Critical History, Twayne, 1984.
Brown, Anne E., and Marjanne E. Gooze, International Women’s Writing: New Landscapes of Identity, Greenwood, 1995.
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Wordworks, Manitou, ed., Modern Black Writers, 2nd ed., St. James Press, 2000.
Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2000; reproduced in Biography Resource Center, The Gale Group, 2001.
—James M. Manheim
Senegalese novelist Mariama Bâ (1929–1981) was catapulted to international prominence with the publication of her first novel, Un si longue lettre, which appeared in 1980 when the author was 51 years old. At the time, the novel was a rarity in that it had been written by an African woman, and it was especially noteworthy because of Bâ's origins in the predominantly Islamic country of Senegal.
Viewed from a wider perspective, Bâ was a writer who made valuable explorations of the terrain where African traditional cultures met influences brought by European colonialism. As a so-called "postcolonial" writer with a feminist orientation, Bâ gained wide attention from Western critics and students of literature, and the influence of her work increased following her death. Bâ wrote only two novels, but they stand as vivid portraits of the difficult situations faced by women in African societies, and they remain relevant beyond a purely Senegalese context.
Descended from Civil Servants
Mariama Bâ was born in 1929 in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, on Africa's Atlantic coast. Senegal at the time was a department of French West Africa; it had been under French control for several centuries, and the area in which Dakar now stands was a major port for the shipment of slaves to the Western hemisphere. Bâ's family had been well placed in French colonial circles for several generations; her father's father, named Sarakholé, worked as an interpreter for French officials in the colonial city of Saint-Louis and then came to Dakar. Bâ's father was also employed by the colonial government; he was a treasury teller in the French West African government. As the French set up independent Senegalese institutions prior to pulling out of the country, he became the first Senegalese minister of health in 1956.
Bâ's mother died when Bâ was very young, and she was raised mostly by her maternal grandparents. Her upbringing was in many ways a traditional one. She grew up surrounded by the members of a large extended family, with cousins, aunts, uncles, and the spouses of all of these living at various times in the family compound overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The generosity of Bâ's grandfather meant that the blind and the handicapped often took refuge in Bâ's yard, and Bâ's house was one of a group that surrounded a neighborhood mosque. One aspect of her traditional family life was that Bâ's grandparents did not believe that, as a girl, she should receive a formal education. Bâ's father, however, continued to take an interest in her welfare and became her advocate. He taught her to read, gave her books and asked her to recite in French, and took her with him when he worked for a time in the neighboring country of Dahomey (now Benin). He had the power to see to it that Bâ received the best education available in Senegal at the time. She was enrolled in a French-language school in Dakar to study with a woman named Berthe Maubert, after whom the school was later named.
At the same time, Bâ had to do the work expected of a young Senegalese woman. "The fact that I went to school didn't dispense me from the domestic duties little girls had to do," she told the African Book Publishing Record (ABPR). "I had my turn at cooking and washing up. I learned to do my own laundry and to wield the pestle because, it was feared, 'you never know what the future might bring!'" She also studied the Koran with one of Dakar's leading Islamic clerics. Even with these conflicting demands, Bâ managed to notch the highest score in all of West Africa in a competition that won her admission to a top French language teacher-training school, the Ecole Normale de Rufisque. Since her father was out of town, it was left to Bâ's schoolmistress Berthe Maubert to take her side against the wishes of her family, who, she told the ABPR, "had had enough of 'all this coming and going on the road to nowhere.'"
At this new school, Bâ encountered another helpful teacher, a Mrs. Germaine Le Goff, who "taught me about myself, taught me to know myself," Bâ told the APBR. At the time, much French language education in Africa was devoted to training students to assimilate into European ways, but, Bâ said, "She preached for planting roots into the land and maintaining its value…. A fervent patriot herself, she developed our love for Africa and made available to us the means to seek enrichment. I cherish the memory of rich communions with her…. Her discourse outlined the new Africa." Bâ began to write. She credited, in addition to her teachers, the moral strength of her grandmother as an influence on her writing, and as a writer she would combine mastery of the European forms of the novel and the essay with a moral fortitude that had roots in her traditional belief system.
Taught High School
Bâ wrote a book about the colonial educational system and a widely discussed nationalist essay while she was still in school. She received her teaching certificate in 1947 and worked as a teacher, starting at a medical high school in Dakar, for 12 years. Bâ married Senegalese politician Obeye Diop, and the two had nine children. Life became difficult for Bâ after she and Diop divorced and she had to raise her large family alone. She began to suffer from health problems that would plague her for the rest of her life, and she had to resign from her teaching job. Later she became a regional school inspector and worked as a secretary.
Bâ's experiences provided her with raw material for two novels, which she wrote at the very end of her life. The international feminist movement added another layer to her writer's consciousness. As her children grew, Bâ joined international women's organizations that were forming African chapters, and she began to write op-ed columns for African newspapers and to lecture on such subjects as education. One of her central concerns was the institution of polygamy, which often left married women with few legal rights. Well ahead of other feminist activists, she also took on the issue of female genital mutilation, a subject that gained in prominence only toward the end of the twentieth century.
Bâ worked for some time on her first novel, Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter). After it was issued in late 1979 by the Editions Nouvelles Africaines publishing house in Dakar, it quickly gained acclaim from African and French critics. Bâ wrote in French, and translations of the book into English, Dutch, German, Japanese, Russian, and Swedish soon appeared. Une si longue lettre won the inaugural Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, a prize funded by a Japanese publisher. As the title indicated, the book was written in the form of a long letter—a medium that allowed Bâ to bridge the gap between African forms of spoken storytelling and the traditional structure of a novel. The central figure in the novel is Ramatoulaye, a woman whose husband, Moudou Fall, has died of a heart attack. She reflects in her letter on her own life, that of the letter's recipient, and those of other women in her circle.
Addressed Polygamy Issue
Ramatoulaye's story includes elements of Bâ's own. She is a teacher, she has 12 children, and she has combined European-style education with a traditional life. The letter recounts a crisis in Ramatoulaye's life that develops after her husband takes a second wife, a 17-year-old friend of one of his daughters. At the young woman's insistence, Ramatoulaye's husband deserts his first family. Ramatoulaye decides to stay married, but she introduces the reader to another woman, Aissatou, who has chosen the difficult path of divorce in the same situation and has begun working for the Senegalese embassy in the United States. Aissatou is the addressee of Ramatoulaye's long letter, and her situation is somewhat different from her friend's; she has married for love, but her husband has been forced by family pressures to take a second wife.
Bâ's novel also focuses on several polygamous male characters and their various motivations. Une si longue lettre is a keen portrait of a society in transition, several strands of which comes together at Moudou Fall's funeral. Ramatoulaye's letter recounts the funeral's aftermath, as well as the events leading up to her husband's departure and his death. One of his brothers, according to tradition, offers to make her part of his own contingent of wives, but Ramatoulaye feels that his intention is to take control of her money and property and to bring another wage-earning wife into the family, and she refuses his proposal. Ramatoulaye's own daughter, representing another stage in the development of African women's consciousness, enters the novel at the end.
Reaction to Une si longue lettre was not uniformly positive; some Islamic critics charged that Bâ had unfairly implied that Islam as a religion endorsed polygamy. Nevertheless, Bâ's second novel, Un chant éclarate (A Scarlet Song), was quickly readied for publication by Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines. Un chant éclarate deals with the theme of interracial marriage and again touches on polygamy and the deeper distortions of African tradition that have resulted from European colonialism. At the novel's center is a white French woman, Mireille, the daughter of a French diplomat serving in Dakar. Mireille falls in love with and marries a black Senegalese student, Ousmane, while both are studying at a university in Dakar. Her family cuts off ties with her as a result of her decision. Ousmane takes a second wife, a traditional Senegalese woman, and Mireille begins to suffer symptoms of mental illness; she finally kills the couple's only child.
In poor health for many years, Bâ died in 1981, before Un chant éclarate could be published. She did not live to enjoy the rewards of her own growing reputation. Her two novels were seen as representative of the growing social consciousness of African women, and Bâ became the focus of numerous studies in American and European journals. By the late 1990s Un si longue lettre, especially, frequently showed up around the world in college and university curricula in the fields of literature, women's studies, black studies, and the French language.
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