The work, So Long a Letterby Mariama Ba, is a novella which is one of the types of prose fiction. This means that it is longer than the short story we discussed in the last unit but shorter than the novels we will discuss in the next two units. It is written in the epistolary style. I hope that you remember the epistolary style we discussed in our study of types of prose fiction. The story which presents the story of Ramatoulaye Fall, a recent widow is written in form of a letter from Ramatoulaye to Assiatou her friend. She recounts how her husband, Moudou, betrayed their marriage by marrying their daughter’s friend. Ramatoulaye records her anger at both Moudou and the Islamic customs that allow polygamy to privilege men and place women in disadvantaged positions.
Background Of The Author/Work
Mariama Ba, a Senegalese was born in1929 and had her Western education in Senegal. She was a teacher and an advocate for women’s rights. She was divorced, like her character Aissatou, and she joined several feminist organizations in Senegal. Her focus is on the problems women face in polygamous marriages. So Long a Letter which is her first novel was published in 1980 and in 1981,So Long a Letter was awarded the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. This book is an evidence of the immense contributions African women have made and continue to make in the building of their societies. The book has already been translated in more than a dozen languages and perhaps will appear in more.
Mariama wrote many books in which she openly share her thoughts and feelings.Her other works include:Scarlet Songs (1986), and La FonctionPolitique des LitteraturesAfricainesEcrites (The Political Function of African Written Literatures) (1981).
MariamaBâ will always be an inspiring figure for African women. She maintains steps that should be taken to reverse our traditions and customs that are against modernity and against the well-being of women.
The theme of polygamy is prominent in the work. In her long letter to her lifelong friend Aissatou, Ramatoulaye muses on how Aissatou’s marriage was ruined by polygamy just like her own. Ramatoulaye and Aissatou, both highly educated women,have been victimized by the traditional customs that deny women status equal to that of men.
However, as Ramatoulaye relates in the narrative, each woman is able to become successfully independent as they refuse to accept subservient position of a wife expected of them by their custom.This theme is made obvious in her letter to Daouda“ You think that the problem of polygamy is a simple one. Those who are involved in it know the constraints, the lies, the injustices that weigh down their consciences in return for ephemeral joys of change…” (68)
The theme of feminism is equally discernable in the work. The discriminatory use of power in the society by men to humiliate women forcesRamatoulaye to deal with its consequences. This discriminatory power is presented in form of male domination that emanatesfrom the society’s construction of a patriarchal ideology. In this set up, Ramatoulaye as a woman, seems not to have any right to determine her destiny. Aissatou rejects this notion and chooses her own life without being denied a life of her own by her husband Mawdo who also married a young wife.
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 Ramatoulayerealises she cannot look to her culture for much.To demonstrate how males are insesitive, Ba projects female rationality and responsibility. She also portrays men’s irresponsibility by using their sexual instincts.
The novella begins with the normal salutation of an informal letter and is a reply to the one written to her by her friend, Aissatou. It opens with “ DearAissatou, I have received your letter. By way of reply, I am beginning this diary, my prop in my distress. Our long association has taught me that confiding in others allays pain”(1). As expected, the story is a recollection of past events. The events are therefore not presented in a chronological logical sequence but in a series of flashbacks. However the flashbacks are well-coordinated in such a way that the story still forms one organic whole.
She gives her friend the detailsof her husband’s death and the funeral ceremonies that followed the death. She starts the work with how she was informed of the death and in the process, recalls the major events in her and Aissatou’s lives from their childhood, through school, their courtships, marriages and betrayals by their husbands.
Ramatoulaye’s husband, Moudou Fall, died suddenly of a heart attack. Following the strictures of her Muslim faith, Ramatoulaye must remain in seclusion for a long period of time. This seclusion is broken, however, by the ritualized visits of relatives and friends of the dead man. During the first days, Ramatoulaye must share her home with Binetou, her cowife. This young woman is the same age as Ramatoulaye’s oldest daughter. She concludes the letter with information on the challenges of bringing up adolescent children and the general well-being of her children.
The setting of the novella is Senegal, a predominantly Muslim community. The names of the characters and other known names and events attest to this fact. For instance, she talks of the “smell of lakh cooling in calabashes” (5). Lakh as explained in the notes at the end of the work is a Senegalese food prepared from roughly kneaded millet flour, which is cooked in water and eaten with curds.
The protagonist, Ramatoulaye, is inspired by her friendship with Aissatou and by her resolute behaviour in the face of adversity. At the beginning of the story, Ramatoulaye was stressed. She writes to her friend to relieve this stress. As a Muslim, she refers to God when her husband Modou Fall died. She also refers to him and to Sharia law concerning polygamy, when her husband, after twenty five years of marriage, marries her daughter’s friend Binetou.
Even though Modou abandoned her and spends their money on Binetou, Ramatoulaye decides to stay with him because of her faith. She feels that she has no choice, because life must go on. She therefore ensures the availability of the basic necessities in her house. She takes care of her family, pays duties and bills and finds food but she is lonely and she misses her “warm” husband. Gradually she tries to overcome her shyness or shame, she goes to the cinema alone. She finds peace and warmth in religion, friends, books, writings and cinema.
Ramatoulaye allows her daughters to wear trousers and modern clothes to reflect her emancipation. In talking to Aissatou about the hardships in her life, Ramatoulaye is actually reflecting on her own experiences. The two have reacted to their husbands’ polygamous states differently;Ramatoulayecontemplates the merit of quitting the marriage and in the end stays.
She is a clear representation of a woman aching to free herself from the bondages of tradition. On the other hand, Aissatou’s decision in the end is far more radical than that made by Ramatoulaye as she did not hesitate to leave her husband. Whether the decisions each woman made for herself were correct may be left to the reader, but the book nonetheless as a whole serves to communicate firsthand common experiences of women around the world face on a daily basis.
Aissatou rises out of her position to disprove oppressive culture. She is a radical woman and an inspiration for Ramatoulaye and her daughter Daba. Aissatou takes charge of her life and walks out of a polygamous relationship. She is Ramatoulaye’s best friend. When her husband took a second wife, Aissatou refused to condone his actions. She divorced him and sought power in her own right. When Ramatoulaye writes to her, Aissatou is working for the Senegalese embassy in the United States, overseeing her sons’ education, and proving her independence. She is the daughter of a goldsmith so that noble background always madeAissatouproud and defiant. She married MawdoBâ, a man of a higher caste, despite the disapproval of his family. Later, she refuses to listen to the naysayers who claim that her sons will be irretrievably hurt by her divorce.
She is educated and even without a husband she believes that she still has a life to hold on to, integrity to move by and an enslaving culture to challenge. This is an important aspect of the message of the novel that the author relates through this character. She therefore acts as an inspiration for a woman suffocating under the whims of culture.
DaoudaDieng is one of the most progressive of the male characters is So Long a Letter. His attitude to women and life generally is reflected in the peace and harmony that surrounds his family and in his success as a politician. His views on the role of women and on women’s emancipation guide his political affiliations and pronouncements. For these views, he has been called a “feminist” at the National Assembly but he remains undaunted in his flight for social justice” (p.61), insisting that Women should no longer be decorative accessories, objects to be movedabout, companions to be flattered, or calmed with promises. Women are the nation’s primary, fundamental roots, from which all else grow and blossom. Women must be encouraged to take a keener interest in the destiny of the country.(pp.61-2).
Through Daouda, Mariama Ba articulates a comprehensive formula for national integration, involving women in national developments and politics. Daouda believes as he explains to Ramatoulaye, that women should not limit their activities to caring for their husbands, their class and their children, but rather should be equally engrossed in public life (p.62).
Abou, Daba Fall’s husband, is another progressive male character in the work. He believes in equality between spouses and helps Daba recover some of her father’s possessions after Moudou Fall’s death.
The unprogressive characters in So Long a Letter include Modou Fall, Mawdo Ba, Tamsir, Binetou and her mother and her Aunt Nabou,Aissatou’s mother-in-law who arranges Mawdo’s second marriage and thus makes it inevitable for Aissatou to divorce him. It is their active support of polygamy for very selfish motives that brings about the disruptions and conflicts generated in the families of Modou Fall and Madou Ba. “The bitter conflict in the family affects the social and economic condition of the characters. But its most destructive impact is seen in the life of Modou Fall. He not only becomes financially bankrupt and falls into debt, but also loses his health so that within five years after his second marriage, he dies of heart attack” (Ezeigbo,12).
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. The letter indicates that she found support, friendship and values from female confidants, unity and harmony. The story is presented in the first person narrative. The reason for this is clear. When you write a letter, it is as if you are talking to the person the letter is addressed to. That is the case here.
However, unlike in letters, some of the incidents are recounted so vividly that some conversations between major participants are included. The events, characters, and incidents are presented in detailed and vivid descriptions. One prominent feature that aids this vivid and graphic presentation of events is the use of short sentences and this imposes a sense of urgency on specific incidents. For instance, her description of her reaction to the telephone call from the doctor when her husband died is presented in this way:
A taxi quickly hailed! Fast! Fast! Faster still! My throat is dry. There
is a rigid lump in my chest. Fast: Faster still. At last, the hospital: the
mixed smell of suppurations and ether. The hospital- distorted faces,
a train of tearful people, known and unknown, witness to this awful
tragedy. A long corridor, which seems to stretch out endlessly.At the
end, a room.In the room, a bed. On the bed, Modou stretched out, cut
off from the world of the living by a white sheet in which he is
completely enveloped (2).
The feminist position of the author is not in doubt as she comments freely on the relationship between man and woman in the society. She shows that not only men are important in this world so women should strive to live their lives independently without undue attachment to traditional values that seek to subordinate them. She highlights the importance of women, their role in bringing up families and keeping them together in time of calamity.The book is seen as “… a powerful expression of the unheeded voice of the previously silent woman in Africa. Ba is actually calling on women to take responsibility for their lives throughout the novel” (Azodo, 21).
Ramatoulaye expresses Ba’s point of view in the novel. She speaks strongly on several occasions in support of women’s education. Her question “When will education be decided for the children on the basis not of sex but of talent?” (p.16), is fortified by her comment to Daouda:“We have a right, just as you have, to education, which we ought to be able to purse to the farthest limits of our intellectual capacities. We have a right to equal well paid employment, to equal opportunities”(16).
Ramatoulaye sees the situation where there are only four women out of a hundred deputies in the National Assembly as very unhealthy for national development. The need to have more women representation cannot be over emphasized as only then can women’s views be aired and propagated. She also cries out against the injustice in the cabinet where women are completely marginalised.
One of the earliest forms of the novel was the epistolary novel. This means that the entire action of the narrative is conveyed through letters. In the case of So Long a Letter, the narrative is told through just one very long letter from Ramatoulaye to her friend Aissatou.
Here the letter works almost as a diary. Ramatoulaye records both her feelings and the events that take place around her. She reflects on the past and looks forward to the future. She also transcribes letters within her one long letter. The reader hears her dead husband Moudou’s voice through snippets of the letters he wrote to Ramatoulaye before they were married. The reader learns of Aissatou’s indignation at her husband’s betrayal through the letter she wrote to him.
In this article we have discussed a novella in which we encounter a woman who, even while railing against her fate, takes solace in many traditional values. She hopes for a world where the best of old customs and new freedom can be combined. The text reflects a world where women are pitted against each other. Ba accurately describes the social, religious, and gender differences that can divide a people even as they strive to forge a strong new nation.
She is sympathetic to all women, even the perceived enemies in the novel especially the youthful new wives who displace the middle-aged women. In letting one woman eloquently tell the anguish of her heartbreak, Ba suggests that all women have important stories to tell and their plight should be given a voice.