8 January 2014

Mariama Bâ: Une si longue lettre | So Long a Letter (1979)

The Senegalese writer Mariama Bâ (1929–81) was brought up by her grandparents and received a traditional and pious education. Her father, minister of health and a school director, later encouraged her to further her studies and go on to the École Normale. She taught for twelve years, divorced and remarried, and became a staunch feminist. Une si longue lettre is her first novel: her second – Le Chant écarlate (1982, translated as Scarlet Song) was written during an illness and published posthumously.

The novel, although written in numbered sections, is in the form of a letter begun by Ramatoulaye, who became a widow on the day of writing, to her friend Aïssatou, who had divorced on the previous day. There are strong religious images particluarly at the beginning – for instance she says that help for her husband (who was dying of a massive heart attack) such as massage and mouth-to-mouth ressusitation are no defences against the 'divine will', and sees herself as 'strange and crucified', and hangs on to her rosary.

Her marriage is to a professional man, and Ramatoulaye herself has a teaching job. Some women in her neighborhood go into raptures over the numerous gadgets she has in the home, but they don't realise it comes at a price:

'[G]as cooker, vegetable mill, sugar tongs. They forgot the source of this life of conveniences: up first, in bed last, always working...'

The old teaching was that a woman's best quality is docility, arranged marriages (perhaps with emotional blackmail attached) being common. Ramatoulaye's mother said that the secret of lasting happiness is for a woman to marry a man who loves her, not a man that she loves.

The word co-épouse (co-wife) immediately strikes an odd chord, and then the reader realises that polygamy is practiced. It is bigamy in this case, but comes after twenty-five years of being a loving wife, producing twelve children.

Ramatoulaye's husband Modou, whom she has deeply loved, after twenty-five years of marriage falls for his daughter Daba's schoolfriend Binetou. Ramatoulaye doesn't realise this at the time, although when Daba tells her that 'an old man' is buying her friend clothes, that Binetou's (considerably poorer) parents want to take her out of school and marry the old man, Ramatoulaye tells her daughter to tell Binetou to refuse, but the problem is that the old man has promised a villa, a visit to Mecca for the parents, a car, jewels, etc. But Binetou becomes the sacrificial lamb, and obviously the old man she marries is Modou. Five years later he is dead, hence this letter in Ramatoulaye's period of mourning.

After the funeral Tamsir, her husband's elderly brother, asks her to marry him, but she demolishes him with words, as in a very different way – almost, as she admits, as a 'frondeuse' – she demolishes the proposal of (the already married) Daouda Dieng, a former suitor and politician who to some extent appreciates her feminist spunkiness.

A change is taking place in Senegal, though, and it can be seen in Daba's marriage in which her husband cooks (and better than his wife), and that he openly says that she isn't a servant or a slave: they are the image of the couple Ramatoulaye has dreamed of. But although Daba believes in divorce, she still sees politics as a man's game, and has no interest in it.

Ramatoulaye also, against tradition, goes against the strictures of the past and her religion. She accepts that her daughter (also named Aïssatou) is pregnant by Ibrahima, and accepts Ibu and that he and Aïssatou will continue their education as husband and wife.

Une si longue lettre is an important work in the history of Senegalese literature, particularly in relation to the position of women in Senegalese society.

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