So Long a Letter (French: Une si longue lettre) is a semi-autobiographical epistolary novel originally written in French by the Senegalese writer Mariama Bâ. Its theme is the condition of women in Western African society.
So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ's first novel, is literally written as a long letter. As the novel begins, Ramatoulaye Fall is beginning a letter to her lifelong friend Aissatou Bâ. The occasion for writing is Ramatoulaye's recent widowhood. As she gives her friend the details of her husband's death, she recounts the major events in their lives.
The novel is often used in literature classes focusing on women's roles in post-colonial Africa. It won the first Noma Prize for Publishing in Africa in 1980.
So Long a Letter is written as a series of letters between the main character Ramatoulaye Fall and her best friend Aissatou following the sudden death of Ramatoulaye's husband Modou from a heart attack. The letters are written while Ramatoulaye participates in 'iddah, a four month and ten day mourning process that widows of the Muslim Senegalese culture must follow. Through the letters Ramatoulaye describes the emotions that flooded her during the first few days after her husband's death and speaks in detail about how he lost his life. She then discusses the life that she led with her husband, leading up to when Modou betrayed her by taking a second wife without her knowledge after 25 years of marriage. Ramatoulaye details to Aissatou how she dealt with this betrayal emotionally and how she grew throughout each event in her life.
Senegal was home to many indigenous peoples during precolonial times. Around the 9th century AD Islamization spread throughout Senegal due to the expansive trade routes throughout Western Africa. Today, roughly 90 percent of Senegalese society follows Muslim religion while the remaining 10 percent follows forms of Christianity or mixed religions. Although many people follow Muslim religion, Arabic culture is not practiced in Senegal nor is Arabic spoken as the language. Much of their legal codes are from translated passages of the Qu'ran. French colonialism came to Senegal in the 1800s and enforced a separation of church and state. However many still abide by the Qu'ran's laws which shape ideas of gender roles, family life, marriage, and the patrilineal male dominated society.
So Long a Letter deals with multiple themes, which includes the life of women in Senegal during the 1970s and 1980s, family and community life, Islam and polygamy, and death rituals.
- Ramatoulaye: The widowed Senegalese woman who, after 25 years of marriage and 12 children, narrates the story of her psychological abandonment by her husband, who takes a second wife. Ramatoulaye physically distances herself from Modou who dies four years after this second marriage. Ramatoulaye turns down two other marriage proposals, including that of Daouda Dieng. She is well educated and teaches at a university. After her husband's second marriage, she must work a lot, since her husband cuts off family ties and financial support.
- Modou: The husband of Ramatoulaye and of Binetou. He was well educated, handsome, and charming. For his own selfish desires, he marries Binetou and cuts ties with his 12 children and first wife, Ramatoulaye. He later dies of a heart attack.
- Mawdo: Ex-husband of Aïssatou. After being pressured by his mother Nabou, Mawdo follows tradition of polygamy and marries a young girl also named Nabou, who is his first cousin. After his marriage with Nabou, Aïssatou (his first wife) divorces him. He is Modou's long-time friend and a doctor.
- Aïssatou: Ramatoulaye's best friend, to whom the letters are addressed. She divorced Mawdo because she did not believe in polygamy; she left him a letter explaining her actions and never returned. She takes care of herself well and bought Ramatoulaye a car, which made life much easier for Ramatoulaye. Her divorce is symbolic because it represents a new life for her. She later leaves Senegal with her four sons and moves to the United States to start over. She succeeds in making a new life for herself.
- Aïssatou: Ramatoulaye and Modou's daughter, who is named after her best friend. She enters into a relationship with a boy named Ibrahim Sall, whom she calls "Iba," a poor student who impregnates her. They claim to love each other and plan their marriage after their studies. Since she is still a high school student, Iba's mother will take care of the child until she graduates.
- Ibrahima Sall: A student of law who impregnates Aissatou, Ramatoulaye's daughter. He is tall, respectful, well-dressed, and punctual. Aïssatou is his first and possibly only love, he says. He will marry Aïssatou if Ramatoulaye will allow it.
- Binetou: A young girl around Daba's age who marries her 'sugar daddy' (Modou) because her mother, who was poor, wanted to live the high life and climb the social ladder. Binetou became an outcast who never quite fit in with the younger couples or the mature adults.
- Daouda Dieng: A suitor of Ramatoulaye prior to her marriage with Modou who Proposes to Ramatoulaye after her husband dies, but is turned down.
- Daba: Ramatoulaye's and Modou's daughter. She is married and the eldest child. She is disgusted by her father's choice to take a second wife especially one of her closest friends.
- Arame, Yacine, and Dieynaba: Known as "the trio." They are Ramatoulaye's daughters. They smoke, drink, party, and wear pants instead of ladylike dresses. They represent the next modernized generation after liberation from France.
- Alioune and Malick: Ramatoulaye's young boys who play ball in the streets because they claim to have no space to play in a compound. They get hit by a motorcyclist that they drag home with the intention of having their mother avenge them. They are disappointed to find that Ramatoulaye does not get mad at the cyclist, but at the boys because they were careless to play in the streets. This shows Ramatoulaye's wisdom in raising her children in the right way.
- Ousmane and Oumar: Young sons of Ramatoulaye. They represent the idea that a father figure would be beneficial for Ramatoulaye's children since several of them are still so young.
- Farmata: The griot woman who is Ramatoulaye's neighbor and childhood friend. She noses into Ramatoulaye's business and is the one to point out Aissatou's pregnancy to Ramatoulaye. She represents a 'Spirit of Wisdom', but doesn't always give the best advice. Ramatoulaye and her become friends despite caste barriers.
- Jacqueline Diack: Protestant wife of Samba Diack, a fellow doctor like Mawdo Bâ. Her husband's openly treacherous tendencies lead her to depression.
- Little Nabou: Raised by Mawdo's mother, Grande Nabou. She is brought up under very traditional Muslim customs and becomes a midwife. She later marries Mawdo Bâ to be his second wife. She is the niece of Grande Nabou and the first cousin of Mawdo Bâ.
- Grande Nabou: Mawdo Bâ's mother, who influences him to marry Little Nabou. She dislikes Aïssatou since she comes from a working-class family and her father is a jewelry maker. Grande Nabou is a princess from a royal family in Senegal and is very conservative in her views and traditions.
- ^ abRizwana Habib Latha, "Feminisms in an African Context: Mariama Bâ'a so Long a Letter", Agenda 50, African Feminisms One (2001), 23.
- ^Bå, Mariama (1981). Une si longue lettre. Senegal: Heinemann. pp. 1–90. ISBN 9782266027.
- ^Sow, Fatou (2003). "Fundamentalisms, Globalisation and Women's Human Rights in Senegal". Gender and Development, Vol. 11, No. 1, Women Reinventing Globalisation (May, 2003). 11: 69–76. JSTOR 4030697.
- ^Ali, Souad T. (2012-01-01). "Feminism in Islam: A Critique of Polygamy in Mariama Ba's Epistolary Novel So Long A Letter*". Hawwa. 10 (3): 179–199. doi:10.1163/15692086-12341236. ISSN 1569-2086.
Writer and political activist Mariama Ba was born in 1929 in Dakar, Senegal to a well-to-do family. Her father worked in the French colonial administration and in 1956 became the Minister of Health of Senegal. Her mother died when she was young. Ba was raised by her maternal grandparents who emphasized conservative Muslim values. She attended a religious school, but was also educated in the French tradition. Due to the intervention of her father, she was enrolled in 1943 in the Ecole Normale (Teacher Training School) at Rufisque, a town some 25 miles away from Dakar where she received her diploma in 1947. Ba worked as a teacher from 1947 to 1959, before becoming an academic inspector. During this period, Ba had nine children with her husband, Obeye Diop. The couple separated and Ba was forced to raise her children as a single parent.
By the late 1970s, after most of her children were adult, Ba turned to political activity. She became a vocal activist for women's rights in Africa and a critic of the neocolonial system that had evolved in most of the newly independent African nations. She was also concerned with and wrote about a number of feminist issues such as polygamy, mistreatment of women in Senegalese society, ostracism of the castes, the exploitation of women, violence against women, and lack of educational opportunities for girls.
Her first and most significant novel, Une Si Longue Lettre (So Long a Letter) was published in 1979. It stands as a landmark of African and Francophone literature which received widespread critical acclaim as well as the Noma Prize for African Literature. Her novel has been translated into numerous languages and is a staple of francophone literature courses worldwide. So Long a Letter is an epistolary novel, written in the form of a letter from a widow to a friend who lives in the United States following the death of her husband. The widow grapples with her polygamous situation as well as the rise of modernity and Westernization. She recounts that, despite the fact that her husband has taken another wife after 25 years of marriage, she remained faithful to her values and religion. Her quiet strength, common sense, and courage are a direct contrast to the depiction of males in the story, including the husband.
Her second novel, Scarlet Song, published posthumously in 1986, also received international attention. The book deals with an interracial relationship in Senegal and the struggle of women to overcome the traditional system of polygamy and gender discrimination.
Ba advocated a greater voice for African women, a sense of emancipation and the changing of laws and traditions which served to subjugate women. She was also an advocate for African cultural revival. In her 1981 work, La Fonction politique des littératures africaines écrites, she argued that Africans should embrace and feel pride in their culture and achievements.
Mariama Ba died in Dakar, Senegal in 1981 after a long battle with cancer. A prestigious boarding school on nearby Goree Island is named in her honor.
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