We all agreed that much dismantling was needed to introduce modernity within our traditions. Torn between the past and the present, we deplored the ‘hard sweat’ that would be inevitable. We counted the possible losses. But we knew that nothing would be as before. We were full of nostalgia but were resolutely progressive. Mariama Bâ, So Long a Letter
Mariama Bâ means a lot to me because she was the first African woman writer I’d ever read. I like to think I recognized her genius at age 14 when I read So Long a Letter for the very first time but it’s only now as an adult with more awareness and lived experience that I really understand how powerful of a writer she was.
This book seems simple enough in storyline, a long letter written by Ramatoulaye to Aissatou, her long time friend on the event of Ramatoulaye’s recent widowhood. The letter contains so much more than just words to a friend though; incorporates feminism, Senegalese tradition, religion, and history, all the things that were very relevant to the lives of these two women. Ramatoulaye, mother of 12 children whose husband of 30 years abandoned her 5 years prior to his death for a much younger second wife, details her childhood, marriage struggles and so on. The emotions that are brimming under the surface may not have had an outlet in many circumstances but in this case the protagonist has an audience in her best friend Aissatou who, when her husband decided to take on a second wife, divorced him rather than stay in a polygamous household against her wishes.
I’ve always been interested in stories that take place during times of transition and this letter details a lot of the thoughts and observations of the transition from colonialism to independence. This winter I sat down with my 90 year old grandmother who was a young primary school English teacher during colonialism and she told me about what a hopeful time independence seemed to be for African women. She told me about how empowered she felt being able to work, and another thing she mentioned was how people thought that she, as a woman in the 1940s and 50s, must be pretty eccentric to even want to work. I had always thought of my grandmother as very conservative and traditional but hearing her story made me realize she was more of a rebel than I’d ever be. Mariama Bâ was coincidentally born in the same year as my grandmother so rereading her thoughts on African feminism during this time really made me reflect on my conversations with my grandmother and how life changed for African women during transitions:
We were true sisters, destined for the same mission of emancipation. 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 headmistress.
It’s interesting reading this book in the 21st century, over half a century onwards from independence and realizing that that hope the continent felt was sort of misplaced and didn’t come to fruition in many ways because of poor governance. A powerful book that I’m sure I’ll love forever.