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Mariama Bâ (1929-1981)


Senegalese teacher and writer, whose epistolary novel Une si longue lettre (1980, So Long a Letter) is considered the classical statement of the female condition in Africa. The book won the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa at the 1980 Frankfurt Book fair, and made Bâ at her 50s world famous. Central themes in the novel are male-female relations in patriarchal society, and the tradition of polygamy and its effects on modern African family. "Books are a weapon," Bâ once said, "a peaceful weapon perhaps, but they are a weapon."

"The power of books, this marvelous invention of astute human intelligence. Various signs associated with sound: different sounds that form the word. Juxtaposition of words from which springs the idea, Thought, History, Science, Life. Sole instrument of interrelationship and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress. They enabled you to better yourself. What society refused you, they granted..." (in So Long a Letter)

Mariama Bâ was born into a well-to-do family in Dakar, where she grew up. In the newly independent Senegal, Bâ's father became one of the first ministers of state. After Bâ's mother died, she was raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents. Her early education she received hin French, while at the same time attending Koranic school.

At school Bâ was a prominent student. During the colonial period and later, girls faced a number of obstacles when they wanted to have a higher education. Bâ's grandparents did not plan to educate her beyond primary school, but her father's insistence on giving her an opportunity to continue her studies eventually prevailed. She won the first prize in the entrance examination and entered the Ecole Normale de Rufisque, a teacher training college near Dakar. During this period she published her first book. It was non-fiction and dealt with colonial education in Senegal. At school she also wrote an essay, which created a stir for its rejection of French policies in Africa. However, later in life Bâ recalled her experience with the French colonial educational system in a positive way.

After graduating in 1947, Bâ worked as an elementary-school teacher, married a politician, Obèye Diop, and had nine children. After twelve years, she was forced to resign due to poor health, and she then worked as a regional school inspector. When her marriage broke up, Bâ raised the children alone. A divorcee and "a modern Muslim woman" as she characterized herself, Bâ was active in women's associations, promoted education, championed women's rights, made speeches, and wrote articles in local newspapers. After a long illness, Bâ died of cancer in 1981, six months after So Long a Letter won the Noma Award for Literature. Scarlet Song, about the marriage between a European woman and an African man, was published posthumously.

"As a writer, Bâ emerged from the oral tradition of the Senegalese griot women and wrote a "speakerly text." This tradition of orality in Senegal has been the major outlet for women's voices. The griot women – not controlled by society in ways other women are regarding speech – are given a license by society to say whatever they want without censorship. The tradition of the griot women is important to the Senegalese women, because it has always been one way of making themselves heard and listened to." (Siga Fatima Jagne, in Postcolonial African Writers, ed. Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne, 1998)

Although Aminata Sow Fall's work Le Revenant from 1976 was the first novel by a woman to appear in Senegal, So Long a Letter is widely considered one of the first female-authored francophone novels structured around modern feminist themes. The book is structured in the form of a letter, or diary, from a widow, Ramatoulaey, to her childhood girlfriend, Aissatou, who lives in the United States. As in the works of the Senegalese woman writer Nafissatou Diallo (1941-1982), who began her career in the 1970s, Bâ's protagonist is a strong-willed character, who finds support from women's solidarity. Aissatou's example inspires Ramatoulaey, who must in her own life deal with the consequences of polygamy. Through the character of Ramatoulaey, Bâ questioned the ideology of the founding fathers of Négritude, especially way male writers had mythologized the "femine." 

The story begins with the stressing of the seriousness of the subject, which has prompted Ramatoulaey to write to her friend. Her husband, Modou Fall, has died but she considers it divine will. After 25 years of marriage, her husband had married the friend of his daughter, Binetou. For a moment Ramatoulaey thinks of leaving him but then decides to stay in her marriage, preparing for equal sharing, according to the precepts of Islam concerning polygamic life. Modou avoids her, and spends his money on Binetou. Ramatoulaey fills her days with female duties, she purchases basic foodstuffs, she takes care of the house, pays electricity bills, and she also overcomes her shyness and goes alone to cinemas. Ramatoulaey does not reject the Islamic faith - "my heart concurs with the demands of religion," she confesses. When her daughters want to wear trousers, she first condemns the idea: "Trousers accentuate the ample figure of the black woman and further emphasize the curve of the small of the back."

Bâ juxtaposes male behavior based on sexual instincts and female continence and rationality. Mawdo, whom Assatou had married and left, defends polygamy and tells of a film in which the survivors of an air crash ate the flesh of the corpses to stay alive. "You can't resist the imperious laws that demand food and clothing for man. The same laws compel the 'male' in other respects. I say 'male' to emphasize the bestiality of instincts..." Ramatoulaey later warns her daughter that the existence of means of contraception should not lead to an unhindered release of desires and instincts. "It is through his self-control, his ability to reason, to choose, his power to attachment, that the individual distinguishes himself from the animal." So Long a Letter has been translated into more than a dozen languages, including Finnish.

Bâ's Scarlet Song, about the difficulties of interracial marriage, also gained international attention. Mireille, the daughter of a French diplomat, marries Ousmane, the son of a poor Senegalese family and a Moslem. They move from Paris to Senegal, where Ousmane again adopts the traditions of his family and the community. Mireille, a Western educated white woman, brings with her a conflict into the family. When Ousmane takes a second wife, Mireille breaks down. Through the fate of the French heroine Bâ shows that an individual cannot change unless traditional features of the Muslim society, such as polygamy and subjugation of women, are changed.

For further reading: Emerging Perspectives on Mariama Ba: Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Postmodernism, ed. by Ada Uzoamaka Azodo (2003); Mariama Bâ, Rigoberta Menchú, and Postcolonial Feminism by Laura Charlotte Kempen (2001); 'Mariama Bâ (1929-1981)' by Siga Fatima Jagne, in Postcolonial African Writers, ed. Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); 'Mythic Dimensions in the Novels of Mariama Bâ' by Deborah G. Plant, in Research in African Literatures 27.2. (1996); Journeys Through the French African Novel by Mildred Mortimer (1990); Theories of Africans: Francophone Literature and Anthropology in Africa by Christopher L. Miller (1990); Voix et visages de femmes, dans les livres écrits par des femmes en Afrique francophone by Madeleine Borgomano (1989); 'Feminism and African Fiction: The Novels of Mariama Bâ' by Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan, in Modern Fiction Studies 34.3 (1988); 'Contemporary Society and the Female Imagination' by Cham Mbye in African Literature Today 15 (1987); 'Marriage, Tradition, and Woman's Pursuit of Happiness in the Novels of Mariama Bâ' by Edris Makward. in Ngambika: Studies of Women and African Literature, ed. by Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves (1986); 'The Concept of Choice in Mariama Bâ's Fiction' by Irene Assiba D'Almeida, in Ngambika: Studies of Women and African Literature, ed. by Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves (1986); Femmes africaines: Propos recueillis par Antte Mbaye d'Enerville sur les thèmes de femmes et société by Annette Mbaye d'Enerville (1982)

Selected works:

  • Une si longue lettre, 1980
    - So Long a Letter (translated by Modupe Thomas, 1981)
    - Pitkä kirje (suom. Annikki Suni, 1981)
  • 'La fonction politique des littératures africaines écrites', 1981 (in Écriture Française)
  • Un chant écarlate, 1981
    - Scarlet Song (translated by Dorothy Blair, 1986)

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