Mariama Ba’s “So Long a Letter”

senegal_solongaletter_mariamaba

Recently widowed Ramatoulaye writes “So Long a Letter” to her dear friend Aissatou, a letter in which Ramatoulaye lays bare the personal pain of her husband having taken a second wife.

“And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially.”

Through the heartbreak, indignation, and feminist strength of Ramatoulaye, Mariama Ba shares the struggles of women in a culture where they are devalued, disempowered, and discarded. As the forward to her book suggests, “Ba promoted the crucial role of the writer in a developing country. She believed that the ‘sacred mission’ of the writer was to strike out ‘at the archaic practices, traditions and customs that are not a real part of our precious cultural heritage.'”

“The power of books, this marvelous invention 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 interrelationships 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…”

“So Long a Letter” is a a tiny fighter that packs a powerful punch. In fewer than 100 pages, Ba  condemns the subjugation of women in her native Senegal and, by extension, in other African and Islamic countries which overtly deny the equality of women. Her heroine is worthy and strong, full of barbed indictments and scathing commentary. She is also full of proverbial, hopeful wisdom. Some of Ramatoulaye’s most memorable sentences speak to the heart of women’s roles and experiences.

On subjugation: “A victim, she wanted to be the oppressor. Exiled in the world of adults, which was not her own, she wanted her prison gilded. Demanding, she tormented. Sold, she raised her price daily.”

On friendship and love: “Friendship has splendours that love knows not. It grows stronger when crossed, whereas obstacles kill love. Friendship resists time, which wearies and severs couples. It has heights unknown to love.”

On marriage: “‘You forget that I have 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.'”

On motherhood: “…one is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable. One is a mother to lighten the darkness. One is a mother to shield when lightning streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when mud bogs one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end.”

Mariama Ba represents Senegal and oppressed women everywhere with strength and grace. Her words are often simple, her pace unfolding like a folktale, but her point is clear and her voice soars.

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