"A women must marry the man who loves her but never the one she loves; that is the secret of lasting happiness." - Mariama Ba (1929-81)
Mariama Ba, Iconic Senegalese novelist and campaigner for women's rights. She is the author of the award-winning novel "So Long A Letter" published in 1979.
Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929–August 17, 1981) was an iconic Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Ba is considered as one of the Africa`s best feminist writers. She achieved an instant international fame when her novel "une si longue lettre" (So Long A Letter) published in 1981 won the prestigious Noma Prize and gained wide acclaim. The widely studied novel une si longue lettre (So Long A Letter) was and is still considered the classical feminist statement by a sub-Saharan African woman. Upon it’s translation into English in 1989, So Long a Letter became a constant in American classrooms. So Long A Letter is the first of two novels written by Mariama Bà before her premature death in 1981. The historian Nzegwu has contended that Bâ’s life was rich in events.
Although it is not the first novel written by a Senegalese woman, the novel is the work through and by which Senegalese women’s writing is evaluated. The novel’s appeal to most Western educators is attributed to its thematic focus on the negative effects that Islam and polygamy have on women. The novel validates Western feminists’ assumption or myth of a subordinated African woman who is eternally victimized by her religion and culture.
Born in Dakar, she was raised a Muslim, but at an early age came to criticize what she perceived as inequalities between the sexes resulting from African traditions. Raised by her traditional grandparents, she had to struggle even to gain an education, because they did not believe that girls should be taught. Bâ later married a Senegalese member of Parliament, Obèye Diop, but divorced him and was left to care for their nine children.
Her frustration with the fate of African women—as well as her ultimate acceptance of it—is expressed in her first novel, So Long a Letter. In it she depicts the sorrow and resignation of a woman who must share the mourning for her late husband with his second, younger wife. Abiola Irele called it "the most deeply felt presentation of the female condition in African fiction."
Bâ died a year later after a protracted illness, before her second novel, Scarlet Song, which describes the hardships a woman faces when her husband abandons her for a younger woman he knew at youth, was published.
Bâ was born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1929, into an educated and well-to-do Senegalese family where she grew up. Her father was a career civil servant who became one of the first ministers of state. He was the Minister of Health in 1956 while her grand father was an interpreter in the French occupation regime.
After her mother’s death, Bâ was largely raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents. She received her early education in French, while at the same time attending Koranic school.
Bâ was a prominent law student at school. During the colonial revolution period and later, girls faced numerous obstacles when they wanted to have a higher education. Bâ’s grandparents did not plan to educate her beyond primary school. However, her father’s insistence on giving her an opportunity to continue her studies eventually persuaded them.
In a teacher training college based in Rufisque (a suburb in Dakar), she won the first prize in the entrance examination and entered the École Normale. In this institution, she was prepared for later career as a school teacher. The school’s principal began to prepare her for the 1943 entrance examination to a teaching career after he noticed Bâ’s intellect and capacity. She taught from 1947 to 1959, before transferring to the Regional Inspectorate of teaching as an educational inspector.
Bâ was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parents’ life and her schooling. Indeed, her contribution is of absolute importance in modern African studies since she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they all deserve the title "mother of Africa", and how important they are for the society.
Mariama Bâ felt the failure of African liberation struggles and movements. Her earliest works were essays she wrote while at the École Normale. Some of her works have now been published. Her first work constitutes essentially a useful method of rejection of the "so-called French assimilationist policy".
Bâ advocated urgent consideration and reinvigoration of African life.
This consideration and reinvigoration is essentially founded on the social construct of the relationship between man and woman. Indeed, there is an unequal and unbalanced power in the male/female relationship. According to her, these facts can help us become aware of Africa’s needs for societal change, a change more political than merely making speeches.
As a divorcee and "a modern Muslim woman" as she characterized herself, Bâ was active in women’s associations. She also ardently promoted education. She defended women’s rights, delivered speeches, and wrote articles in local newspapers. Thus, her contribution is significant because she explained and described the disadvantaged position of women in general and especially married women.
Bâ also had vision and determined commitment. She felt African people should reduce the deleterious impact of their culture. Women are plunged both psychologically and financially in a sensual indulgence and complete lack of regard for the consequences of men’s actions on families. They are completely blind. These facts led Bâ to believe in her mission to expose and critique the rationalisations employed to justify established power structures.
She thought that distortions of cultural thought and institutions are made to demonstrate masquerades as "tradition" and "culture". Men and Women have been seduced into accepting the continuation of these "customs". People should be "persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman".
Bâ wrote many books openly sharing her thoughts and feelings, including: So Long a Letter (1981), Scarlet Songs (1986), and La fonction politique des littératures Africaines écrites (The Political Function of African Written Literatures) (1981).
So Long a Letter
In 1981, So Long a Letter was awarded the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. In this book, the author recognized the immense contributions African women have made and continue to make in the building of their societies. This book has already been published in more than a dozen languages and is about to appear in more.
The book is written in the form of a letter, or a diary, from a widow, Ramatoulaye, to her childhood girlfriend, Aissatou, who lives in the United States. Nafissatou Diallo (1941–1982), who started her works in the 1970s, was a mirror for Mariama Bâ, whose leading role was a strong-minded character. Moreover, she found support, friendship and values from female confidence, unity and harmony. The discriminatory use of power forces Ramatoulaye to deal with its consequences. This discriminatory power is what is in the novel a form of male domination coming from society’s construction of a patriarchal ideology. Because Ramatoulaye is a woman, she seemingly has no right determining her destiny. Aissatou rejects this notion and chooses her own life without being denied a life of her own by her husband Mawdo.
This strong exploration of feminism is perhaps what makes the novel a strong voice for the oppressed woman in Africa. The woman is oppressed by culture and by virtue of her position. Aissatou rejects this and slowly Ramatoulaye realises she cannot look to her culture for much.
To demonstrate how males are instinctive, Bâ uses female rationality and responsibility. She also portrays men’s irresponsibility by using their sexual instincts. Mawdo, Aissatou’s husband, differs from her. He emphasizes the bestiality of men’s instincts, while she urges her daughter against them. She argues that a man’s instinct is "through his self-control, his ability, to reason, to choose his power to attachment, that individual distinguishes himself from animal."(Mariama Bâ, 1981)
As a Senegalese figure, Mariama Bâ represents a kind of female Leopold Sedar Senghor. She shows that not only men are important in this world. She also shows that to succeed in this life, women should identify themselves and also trust in themselves to overcome these multiple darknesses that compose life. In showing the importance of women, their role in bringing up families and keeping them together in time of calamity is clearly brought out in the novel. This still is a powerful expression of the unheeded voice of the previously silent woman in Africa. Bâ is actually calling on women to take responsibility for their lives throughout the novel.
Through her character Ramatoulaye, Mariama Bâ has expressed herself. This includes the statement that she: "has not given up waiting to refashion her life. Despite everything (disappointment and humiliations) hope still lives within her… the success of a nation depends inevitably on just such families." She also shows that books can be a weapon, "a peaceful weapon perhaps, but they are weapon."(Mariama Bâ, 1981).
According to her: "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…"
Stuck on So Long A Letter: Senegalese Women’s Writings and the Specter of Mariama Bà
East Carolina University, USA
A Paper Presented at the 20th Anniversary Summit of the African Educational Research Network at North Carolina State University Raleigh, USA on 19th May 2012
Mariama Bà’s widely studied novel une si longue lettre is considered the classical feminist statement by a sub-Saharan African woman. Published in 1981, the novel won the prestigious Noma Prize and gained wide acclaim. Upon it’s translation into English in 1989, So Long a Letter became a constant in American classrooms. Although it is not the first novel written by a Senegalese woman, the novel is the work through and by which Senegalese women’s writing is evaluated. The novel’s appeal to most Western educators is attributed to its thematic focus on the negative effects that Islam and polygamy have on women. The novel validates Western feminists’ assumption or myth of a subordinated African woman who is eternally victimized by her religion and culture. Bà’s critics have highlighted the novel’s many contradictions and others have suggested that the narrator’s story is not representative of the voices of most Senegalese women (Rueschmann (1995), D’Almeida (1986)), and that Ramatoulaye’s interlocutor is the West (Nwachukwu-Agbada (1991), Ogede (2011)). However, these critical investigations have not sufficed in moving beyond So Long A Letter. Thirty years after its publication, the novel continuously features in college syllabus, as a text through which to examine the condition of women in contemporary Senegal. It is taught in a varied range of courses in disciplines such as literature, gender studies, religion, and anthropology, among many others. In his essay une si longue lettre: An Erziehungsroman, Riesz and Bjornson (1991) study the ways in which the novel is about the effects of the colonial French education system which trained the Senegalese elite to which Bà belonged, and turned them into brainwashed intellectuals. These authors conclude by asking: “What has changed since then?” There are many answers to this question. A compelling one is that several Senegalese women writers have since emerged and their literary projects challenge the themes and issues at stake in Bà’s first novel. Although many are products of the French education system which remained in Senegal after independence, these authors have produced works that suggest ways in which one can, and must move beyond So Long A Letter. Among other works, Riwan ou le chemin de sable (1999) [Riwan: or the Sandy Track] by Ken Bugul (Pen name of Senegalese author Marietou Mbaye Biloema) is a pertinent text to utilize as a response to Riesz and Bjornson’s question. Both So Long A Letter and Riwan ou le chemin de sable are semi-autobiographies of two Senegalese women of the same generation. In Riwan, Ken Bugul challenges Ba’s representation of the Senegalese culture and her advocacy for a universal brand of feminism. Contrary to So Long A Letter where Islam and the Senegalese culture are oppressive of women, Riwan portrays a brand of Senegalese Islam that allows female agency and turns polygamy into a practice that can be empowering to women.
So Long A Letter is the first of two novels written by Senegalese author Mariama Bà before her premature death in 1981. Bà uses the epistolary form to reflect on the female condition in postcolonial Senegal. Through a long letter which is more of a memoir that Ramatoulaye, the first person narrator, writes to her childhood friend Aissatou, Bà delineates the effects of Islam and tradition on women. As the letter begins, we learn that Ramatoulaye has just lost her husband to a heart attack. She resolves to write the long letter as a way of coping with the four months seclusion mandated by Islam, for widows. Although Ramatoulaye takes on several issues such as politics and the future of the Senegalese family, polygamy is the main focus of her epistolary endeavor. Her missive serves as a reflection on the negative effects of polygamy on Senegalese women. Both Aissatou and Ramatoulaye have experienced sharing a husband with another woman, although their reactions to such experience are different. Aissatou divorces Mawdo after he succumbs to his mother’s pressure and takes his cousin Nabou as a second wife. She goes on to France to study and later works as an interpreter at the Senegalese embassy in the US. Conversely, after twenty five years of marriage, Ramatoulaye decides to stay with Modou when he marries Binetou, a much younger woman who was their daughter’s friend. When Modou abandons her for Binetou, Ramatoulaye assumes the upbringing of their twelve children but stays legally married to him until his death, the landmark event after which she writes the letter.
Reflecting on his students’ reception of So Long A Letter John Champagne (1996) points that one of the dangers of teaching postcolonial literatures in the West, “is that, like the ethnic food fair, it may treat the artifacts of “foreign cultures simply as commodities for Western consumption” (22). Such “commodification” is generally caused by the fact that Westerners utilize their “Western” lens to read “foreign” texts. However, in the case of So Long A Letter, the Western reader need not put on their lens because the narrator purposefully caters to a Western audience. Although the letter is addressed to Aissatou, it is clear that Ramatoulaye’s targeted audience is the West as indicated in Bà’s dedication: “To all women and to men of good will.” The numerous footnotes which translate or explain Wolof terms and practices confirm that Aissatou, who has witnessed or taken part in most of the events narrated, is not the interlocutor. By speaking to an audience geographically and culturally situated outside Senegal, Ramatoulaye’s epistle is a quest for Western sympathy. Champagne shared how readily his class empathized with Ramatoulaye, and even suggested options for her to free herself from her horrible culture and religion.
Students seemed uniformly horrified at Ramatoulaye's plight,
and, in particular, at the role assigned to women by Islam.
A particularly bright student remarked that the Islamic religion
seemed to sexualize women excessively. Another wanted to
know why Ramatoulaye remained faithful to her religion, given
Islam's negative influence on her life. Why didn't she just
convert to some other religion, he wondered. (26)
In his attempt to have his students move beyond their assumptions of Islam, Champagne appropriately remarks that their reading of the text is corrupted by the negative representations of Islam in the media. Ramatoulaye’s representation of Islam reinforces such stereotype because she fails to emphasize that the practice of Islam is not homogeneous, and that, the kind of Islam she portrays is specifically Senegalese.
The caveat for using a literary work in order to teach a specific culture is that students tend to believe that novels are realistic, especially if the focus is Africa. Because of the chronic assumption that African cultures are homogeneous, backward, and fixated in time, Western students easily believe that what they read is true and inherent to each and every African community. By addressing a Western audience, Bà feeds such stereotypes.
Sharing his pedagogy on teaching So Long A Letter in an anthropology course, James A. Pritchett (2000) substantiates how effectively Ramatoulaye’s narration pulls western readers in. “There is an extensive focus on polygyny, Islam, and urban lifestyles in contemporary Senegal.
All are treated with such brutal honesty and intimacy of detail that it leaves the reader feeling a bit like a voyeur” (50). Voyeurism is an historical staple of Western scholarship on Africa. Western anthropologists have particularly approached African communities as terrains of discovery of things exotic and weird. Bà’s Western audience is not disappointed because the book shrewdly pulls them into the “intimate” aspects of the Senegalese culture which they had set out to discover. So Long A Letter is a book that Western educators can easily assign in order to meet their students’ expectations about Africa.
So Long A Letter’s greatest appeal in the West lies in its ability to confirm Western feminists’ assumption of the African woman as a beast of burden. Based on its reception in feminist and gender courses, Bà has accomplished her literary project. An internet search for “So Long A Letter in gender courses” revealed 960,000 results. Although this is not proof that the novel is taught in that number of courses, it shows that it is viewed as a statement on gender struggles in Africa. Based on the idea of a global sisterhood whereby all women have the same plights and aspirations, the novel is embraced by most students in gender courses. Lisa Williams’ (1997) students found parallels between their lives and Ramatoulaye’s.
While So Long a Letter is concerned with the lives of two women in postcolonial
Senegal, this novel spoke to the needs and struggles of the women in my class.
As members of the first generation in each of their families to attend college, these
students faced tremendous obstacles to gain an education. Some were single
mothers working at demeaning jobs during the day and attending school at night (142)
Obviously, one can point to the dangers of comparing the lives of first generation female college students in the US to that of an educated middle class Senegalese woman, but the point is that these students assume the universality of women’s struggles. This universal brand of feminism allows Western feminists to feel the need to form a coalition with Ramatoulaye. With So Long A Letter, Bà positions herself as a champion of the liberation of the African woman from the whims of tradition. Champagne remarks about his students: “As properly trained Western feminists, students saw their role as one of championing Ramatoulaye's attempts to free herself from both her backward and oppressive culture and the confines of Islam”. Together with her “global sisters”, Ramatoulaye takes Islam and polygamy to the trial bench. Her representation of polygamy aligns itself with Western feminist scholarship of the 80s and 90s which generally claimed that women in Africa are victims of patriarchal societies.
Critics are right to point that this fight for women’s liberation is vested in her attempts to evaluate an African culture through patronizing Western standards. As women who attended colonial French schools, both Bà and her narrator Ramatoulaye look at their culture through corrupted eyes. Champagne has pointed to the importance of evaluating postcolonial literatures within the context of the postcolonial environments which produced postcolonial intellectuals such as Bà. Ramatoulaye’s text reveals that her generation constitutes a female elite trained by the colonial French school which agenda was to produce assimilated subjects. To that effect, Ramatoulaye perceives her culture as a liability. Recounting Modou’s funeral, she sees the ceremony as an inconvenience and anticipates that mourners would be stealing from her. “On the third day, the same comings and goings of friends, relatives, the poor, the unknown. The name of the deceased, who was popular, has mobilized a buzzing crowd, welcomed in my house that has been stripped of all that could be stolen, all that could be spoilt”. Ramatoulaye’s arrogance toward her culture is a byproduct of the French’s educational project. Praising her former teacher, she writes:
Aissatou, I will never forget the white woman who was first to desire for
us an ‘uncommon’ destiny. To lift us out of the bog of tradition,
superstition and custom, to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations
without renouncing our own, to raise our vision of the world, cultivate our
personalities, strengthen our qualities, to make up for our inadequacies, to
develop universal moral values in us: these were the aims of our admirable
As an assimilated subject, Ramatoulaye conceives her French education as an enlightenment of her backward African mind. She embraces many aspects of French culture, including her adoption of the nuclear family, isolates herself from her culture and seems to have no relatives. She defines herself by her relationship to Modou, excluding other places where most Senegalese women find their worth such as in their roles as aunts, cousins, nieces, surrogate mothers, sisters, and much more.
Ramatoulaye and Aissatou are fixated on monogamy and romantic love imported from French culture. Based on romantic love, Ramatoulaye goes against her mother’s apprehension about Modou, while Aissatou and Mawdo defy their families and marry outside their respective social castes. Though their husbands’ second marriages are betrayals in their inability to inform their wives beforehand, the two friends’ attitude toward polygamy is defined by romantic love, which they both made the premises of their marriages. Their definition of love is the complete surrender of oneself to a man. Speaking to Tamsir, Modou’s older brother who wanted to marry her after the latter’s death, Ramatoulaye writes: “You forgot 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” (56). She further confesses to Aissatou: “Even though I understand your stand, even though I respect the choice of liberated women, I have never conceived happiness outside marriage” (56). Her inability to fathom a life separate from Modou, makes it difficult for her to cope with his betrayal. Both Ramatoulaye and Aissatou see their husbands’ polygamous choices as an annulment of a contract sealed through romantic love.
Contrary to So Long A Letter, Riwan ou le chemin de sable’s narrator celebrates polygamy. Published in 1999, the novel is the third installment in a trilogy by Ken Bugul [The one no one wants (Wolof)] (Pen name of Senegalese author Marietou Mbaye Bileoma.). The narrator in Riwan juxtaposes her quest for her identity with that of a mentally ill man whose name Riwan, serves as the title of the book. After a long stay in Europe, the narrator returns to her small village alienated and disillusioned with the West. Through her friendship with the local Serigne, a Muslim cleric from the Mourid brotherhood, she is able to rediscover her roots and reconcile her fragmented self. She later becomes the Serigne’s 28th wife, upon invitation from the other women.
Ken Bugul’s first novel, The Abandoned Baobab (1982), garnered the same appeal from Western feminists as So Long A Letter because it features a female protagonist who is fascinated with the West. In The Abandoned Baobab, Ken Bugul followed the steps of Bà in So Long A Letter by featuring victimized African woman who is at odds with her culture and looks to Europe for salvation. In The Abandoned Baobab the narrator’s fascination with Europe leads to objectification, prostitution, drug abuse, and mental illness. In Riwan, Ken Bugul shatters Western feminists’ assumptions about African women and challenges the negative portrayals of polygamy. Because of this tour de force, Ken Bugul’s popularity among Western feminists has diminished. Although she has written more than two books, her work is not taught or translated as widely as Mariama Bà’s. Riwan has won the prestigious Grand Prix de l’Afrique Noire, yet it still does not have an English translation
1, which would make it accessible to most Western readers.
Going back to my claim that So Long A Letter is the book by which Senegalese women’s writing is represented, I would like to offer ways in which Riwan ou le chemin de sable constitutes a work to contrast with Ba’s novel, in order to look beyond the representations that the latter offers.
Like Ramatoulaye, the narrator in Riwan belongs to the Senegalese female elite trained by the colonial French educational system. Further alienated by an extended sojourn in Europe, she returns to Senegal fragmented. She later demystifies the West through her interactions with the Serigne and the companionship of the women in his harem. Her re-birth allows her to take a closer look at her alienation and offer a counter discourse to western epistemologies on women and marriage. From the start of the novel, Ken Bugul subverts the Western style of narration employed by Bà (the letter), and adopts an African form of storytelling.
Jour de marché.
The repetition of these phrases throughout the book, defies fixed temporality as in the usual opening line for stories: “Once upon a time.” This embracing of African oral traditions implies the author’s desire to go back to her Senegalese roots. The evocation of the market day reiterates that desire to return to African ways of evaluating time, and suggests that many members of the community bear witness to the events which she is about to narrate. The narrator’s interlocutor becomes anyone who is present during the telling of the story. Furthermore, a major convention of African storytelling is that stories are not true. Their purpose is to impart wisdom. African stories and tales are didactic means to instruct future generations. As substantiated in her dedication “A Mame Yande Fall, ma copine de la ville et à mes trés regrettées niéces Sokhna Mbaye et Mame Diarra Diagne à qui je raconte ceci aujourd’hui.” [To my friend from town Mame Yande Fall and to my much mourned nieces Sokhna Mbaye and Mame Diarra Diagne to whom I am telling this story today.] Although her nieces are deceased, Ken Bugul imparts her wisdom to them for the next generation to learn from the lessons imbedded within her story. Storytelling allows the narrator to refuse the responsibility of representation adopted by Ramatoulaye through her epistolary narration.
The setting is also a subversion of the urban focus of So Long A Letter. In so doing, Ken Bugul decentralizes the debate about the female condition. Dianké, the fictive name of the village, is a way to reject verisimilitude and to register the tale within the framework of a non-place. It also suggests that Western assimilation is more anchored in urban areas where many intellectuals reside. Rural areas are places where traditional practices are resilient. With nostalgia, the narrator recounts Nabou Samb’s nuptials. “Aujourd’hui encore, le mariage de Nabou Samb etait accroché aux lévres des gens, à la poussière des chemins sablonneux de Mbar à Mbos. [To this day Nabou Samb’s wedding hangs on people’s lips, on the dust from the sandy roads between Mbar and Mbos (41).] Unlike Ramatoulaye who dreads family ceremonies, Ken Bugul’s narrator celebrates them and regrets not having gone through some of the rituals.
Que de femmes modernes avaient souffert en silence, sans oser se l’avouer, de
n’avoir jamais vecu ces moments? Comme moi! Etre issue d’un milieu, y avoir
grandi, et n’avoir pas connu les rites et les pratiques de ce milieu, conformement
a des echelles de valeurs qui commandaient toute une vie ou toute une mort.
How many modern women have suffered in silence without daring to
acknowledge to themselves the regret of having never lived these moments?
Like me! To have come from a place, to have grown in that place, and not
having gone through the rituals and practices such as the ascending values which
govern a whole life or a whole death. (75-76)
She tries to recover her identity and acknowledges that her generation is conflicted. Their adoption of Western culture has led to a disjointed self, which longs for the African traditions they had rejected in the name of modernity. In her attempt to instruct future generations, the narrator describes in detail Wolof wedding ceremonies such as céet2and xaxar3. Her didactic project includes the safeguarding of Wolof traditions through storytelling, including polygamy.
In Riwan, polygamy does not have a negative connotation. Unlike Ramatoulaye, she conceives monogamy as a relationship dictated by possessiveness. While taking a stand against child marriages through the story of Rama, the young girl who was offered to the Serigne without her consent, the narrator suggests that when women are given a choice, polygamy can work. In her case, she willingly decides to join the Serigne’s harem because of her spiritual connection to him. Her marriage to the Serigne allows her to find the self she has been searching for.
Ainsi le Serigne m’avait offert et donné la possibilité de me réconcillier avec moi
-même, avec mon milieu, avec mes origines, avec mes sources, avec mon monde
sans lesquels je ne pourrais jamais suivre. J’avai échappé à la mort de mon moi,
de ce moi qui n’était pas à moi toute seule. De ce moi qui appartenait aussi aux
miens, à ma race, à mon people, à mon village et à mon continent.
The Serigne had offered and given me the possibility of reconciling myself with
myself, with my surroundings, with my origins, with my roots, with my world,
without which I would never have been able to survive. I had escaped the death
of my self, that self that didn’t belong to me alone. That self also belonged to my
people, to my race, to my village and my continent. (167-168)
The narrator finds herself through her union with her spiritual father but most importantly, the companionship of his other wives constitutes the catalyst of this recovery.
She joins the harem because of her longing for female companionship. Her relationship with the other wives is based on mutual respect and a desire to reap the benefits of a union with a man who is religiously and spiritually gifted. Through her bonding with the Serigne’s other wives, the narrator discovers that her education and travels across the globe have exposed her to foreign ideas and theories, which ultimately are the source of her alienation. She voices envy toward the women who remained home and did not benefit from a Western education. “Les épouses du Serigne qui n’avaient pas voyagé autant que moi, n’avaient pas connu les angoisses qui avaient gaché une grande partie de ma vie.” [The wives of the Serigne who had not traveled as much as I had, didn’t not have the kinds of concerns which destroyed a good part of my life (189).] Because of their limited exposure to the West and its ideas, the Serigne’s other wives are not perpetually yearning for masculine validation. The courtyard where they spend most of their time is a world filled with laughter and female bonding. Their conversations revolve around the prices of commodities, the latest fashion, politics, the education of their children, God, life, death, and occasionally, the Serigne. Though they look to the Serigne for occasional sex, they practice masturbation and engage in erotic games for sexual fulfillment. Through these women, the narrator learns that she did not have to define her existence based on her relationship to a man. ”Je découvris ainsi que nous n’avions pas besoin de recréer les mâles,d’accrocher nos vies aux leurs.” [So I discovered that we did not have to re-create males, to hang our lives on theirs (177).] This realization is a subversion of the Western feminist tradition where educated women positioned themselves as those who know.
By acknowledging that she learned to redefine herself from the uneducated women in the Serigne’s harem, the narrator challenges Western feminist ideas, and suggests that the feminist discourses which contributed to her loss of self, are Eurocentric and patronizing. They are discourses based on too many theories, false assumptions, and a desire to compare oneself to men.
“Les femmes moderns étaient condamnées au bavardage mondain pour se faire accepter et aimer. Taisons nous et agissons. “ [Modern women are doomed to empty mundane talk in order to be accepted and loved. Let us shut up and act (185). She enumerates many places where the co-called subordinated African women find agency (187). These examples serve to challenge Western feminist scholarship about African women and contradict the universal female struggle implied in So Long A Letter.
Over thirty years after her death, Mariama Bà’s specter has stands over Senegalese women’s writings. Her novel So Long A Letter has been the text through which Senegalese culture and the practice of polygamy in Africa are evaluated. Western scholars and readers are particularly drawn to this novel because it substantiates their stereotypes of Africa. They identify with Ramatoulaye because of her attempts to evaluate her culture through Western standards. Like Things Fall Apart, which continues to be the representative of African literature in world literature courses, So Long A Letter is the statement about Senegalese women’s lives. This seemingly fixation on So Long A Letter suggests that Ramatoulaye’s representation is applicable to all Senegalese women, and that her vision of the culture is absolute. It also implies that Senegalese women’s writings has not moved from the themes and issues raised in Bà’s novel. Ken Bugul’s Riwan ou le chemin Riwan offers complex ways of looking at polygamy and Islam. It complicates Ramatoulaye’s representations and contradicts her Western feminist claims. Through Riwan, Ken Bugul shows that there isn’t a universal brand of feminism and that postcolonial intellectual must free herself from empty theories by decolonizing her mind, in order to recover her fragmented self. Unfortunately, Riwan ou le chemin de sable is not translated into English.