MARIAMA BA was born to Muslim parents in Dakar, Senegal, in 1929. Her mother died when she was very young, so she was brought up by her maternal grandparents in a well-to-do family. Because her father, an educated civil servant, insisted that his daughter have a French education, she attended the École normal, a girls' boarding school in Rufisque, near Dakar. There her literary interests were developed, and two of her essays were published. The school also prepared Bâ for later life as a schoolteacher and an active campaigner and speaker on key women's issues, such as polygamy and female circumcision. These issues remained of foremost importance to Bâ both as a writer and as a woman who saw and experienced the effects of these practices on the lives of women in a male-controlled Islamic culture and society.
Bâ married a Senegalese politician with whom she had nine children, but the marriage ended in divorce. Her own apparent unhappy experience with married life provided the inspiration for her highly acclaimed novel, Une Si Longue Lettre (1980; So Long a Letter). She wrote a second novel, Un Chant écarlate (Scarlet Song), but died before its publication in 1981. She had been ill for a long time.
There was an underlying sense of the tragic in Bâ's personal life and in her novels, especially Scarlet Song. But there was also great dignity; Bâ gave a quiet grace to her female protagonists, especially Ramatoulaye in So Long a Letter, who can be seen as the embodiment and voice of the novelist's personal anguish and experience.
Bâ wrote about women in modern African society. Her novels explore the agony and dilemmas and the pleasures and triumphs of women like herself, who are caught between two diametrically opposed worlds: traditional African and modern societies. The emotional, psychological, and physical consequences of being in this position are captured with sensitivity. In the course of examining these cultural conflicts, the novels focus on the institution on which the survival and propagation of all societies · modern and traditional · rests: marriage. So Long a Letter and Scarlet Song show the joys, sorrows, and tribulations of modern African marriages in the lives of several couples. The novels also look at how the actions of family members impinge on the main characters' lives, for better or worse.
Bâ's juxtapositions of various marriages highlight the status of women in contemporary African society. These women live in a society that seems to be designed primarily to keep them subjugated. The men enjoy unlimited freedom, choosing and discarding wives as they wish, while the women are expected to keep silent and accept their lot in accordance with the divine will of Allah.
SO LONG A LETTER
In So Long a Letter (1980), Bâ's first and major novel, she began what was eventually to become the major theme of her fiction · the plight of women in Muslim societies, such as Ramatoulaye and her friend and confidante Aissatou, who after many years of marriage find themselves relegated or discarded by their husbands for younger brides. The novel focuses on how each of these women tries to cope with the trauma of being cast aside after giving so much, including bearing many children. Ramatoulaye grieves for her husband, Modou Fall, who has just died of a heart attack, while the family makes arrangements for the funeral. The funeral and the activities of her in-laws prompt Ramatoulaye to seek escape through a long letter to Aissatou. When faced with having to cope with a co-wife, Aissatou has decided to divorce her husband, Mawdo, and return to school. Eventually she secures a plum job as an interpreter at the Senegalese embassy in New York.
Ramatoulaye's letter turns out to be a sustained account of the emotional and psychological trauma that she has been through in the years preceding Modou's death. She knows Aissatou will understand because she has gone through a similar experience. So as Ramatoulaye touches on their shared experiences, which are similar to those of other oppressed Senegalese Muslim women, she ends up writing her "so long a letter." That her story is told in the form of a letter makes it possible for the novel to have the intimate tone that only a personal letter can have and at the same time avoid the appearance of a conventional autobiography.
A third woman whose life and stories interweave with those of Ramatoulaye and Aissatou is Jacqueline, who comes from the Ivory Coast but is married to a Senegalese. Unlike their mothers, these three women are educated, a fact that unites them. Whereas the older generation was raised solely with traditional Senegalese-Muslim values, the younger women have had a mixture of the traditional and French educations. So while their mothers accepted, in silence (because they have been led to believe that a beautiful woman is a silent one), the position the traditional society imposed on them, these younger women rebelled. Also unlike their mothers, who were content to have their fathers choose for them, the younger women chose their own husbands. The irony, however, is that having the choice alone does not guarantee them freedom, as events in their respective marriages prove. They yearn for the freedom associated with life in a modern world, and they wish to shake off all of the shackles that restrain women in traditional African customs. But they realize that the traditional practices, especially those associated with male privileges, cannot be discarded overnight because they are at the heart of traditional African society.
In Ramatoulaye's account, she, Aissatou, and Jacqueline choose to marry modern, educated African men · Modou, Mawdo, and Samba, respectively. Stubborn opposition from their parents does not deter the young couples from going ahead with the decision to base their unions on personal choice and reciprocal love. In spite of this, and in spite of years of toiling and sharing their lives together, the husbands end up treating them the way men have always treated women throughout the ages in their society. They are still "despised, relegated or exchanged . . . abandoned like a worn-out or out-dated boubou" (p. 41) because of what Ramatoulaye in her rage calls the exclusive right of men to answer natural urges for sexual variety, a right to betray love and the loyalties of so many years. Bâ seems to imply that all men are the same: no matter what circumstances have led to marriage and no matter what pressures are brought to bear on the couples, men are polygamous by nature. Bâ's anger is not directed at the practice of polygamy but at the men who hide behind it to break the contract of faith that a marriage demands. Her disapproval is also directed at the in-laws who stand behind their sons to get back at their uppity daughters-in-law.
The three women no doubt believe that by marrying men of their choice · educated, modern men · they would be spared the trauma of having to share their husbands with new and younger brides. But Modou, Mawdo, and Samba discard their wives like objects when they feel like experimenting with polygamy. The men forget that for their wives, marriage means a union between two and only two individuals to be sustained through caring and sharing. Edris Makward points out in his essay on Bâ:
Two initially successful marriages, between Mawdo and
Aissatou and [Ramatoulaye] and Modou, ended in failure precipitated by
the excesses of polygamy. But while the former couple's failure is
partly due to Mawdo's mother's efforts to correct what she considered
as her son's misalliance, his marriage with a member of a lower caste,
the latter is simply caused by Modou's infatuation with a much younger
The marriage of Samba and Jacqueline fails in part due to the refusal of Samba's Muslim family to accept their son's wife because she is non-Senegalese and a Christian. But the marriage fails mainly because of Samba's unfaithfulness and inconsiderate behavior and his desire to take full advantage of his traditional right to polygamy.
In addition to the callous behavior of Modou and Mawdo in taking second wives, there is also the issue of family pressure on marriages. Mawdo's mother swears revenge when her son marries a mere goldsmith's daughter, a threat she carries out by grooming a second wife from the right caste for him. This marriage, therefore, is doomed from the start. The union of Samba and Jacqueline is also under pressure because she is seen by society as a foreigner. And Ramatoulaye suffers the destabilizing influence of her sisters-in-law, as she reminds her friend that
in our different ways, we suffered the social
constraints and heavy burden of custom. I loved Modou. I compromised
with his people. I tolerated his sisters, who too often would desert
their own homes to encumber my own. They allowed themselves to be fed
and petted. They would look on, without reacting, as their children
romped around on my chairs. I tolerated their spitting, the phlegm
expertly secreted under my carpets.
His mother would stop by again and again while on her outings,
always flanked by different friends, just to show off her son's social
success but particularly so that they might see, at close quarters,
her supremacy in this beautiful house in which she did not live. I
would receive her with all the respect due to a queen.
Despite all Ramatoulaye's efforts to please members of her husband's family, Modou still takes a second wife, Binetou. To add insult to injury, after Modou's death, his brother Tamsir expects to take Modou's place as husband to Ramatoulaye and Binetou, in accordance with Senegalese-Muslim custom.
To Tamsir, Ramatoulaye also offers an economically useful alliance. She earns her own living as a teacher, and she has just come into possession of quite a few things as a result of her husband's death. Understandably, Ramatoulaye lashes out at Tamsir: "You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand" (p. 58). In the same vein, young Nabou, whom Mawdo will eventually take as a second wife, is handed over to her aunt, Tante Nabou, by her father with words that clearly indicate her status as an object: "Take young Nabou, your namesake. She is yours. I ask only for her bones" (p. 29). Of course, Tante Nabou, still spiteful toward her daughter-in-law, Aissatou, for being a mere goldsmith's daughter, proceeds to train and use the young girl as her instrument of revenge, and when the time comes she in turn hands her over to her son. Her own words again reinforce this image of an object being passed from hand to hand: "My brother Farba has given you young Nabou to be your wife, to thank me for the worthy way in which I have brought her up" (p. 30, emphasis added).
Likewise, Binetou's mother sees her daughter as an object with which to secure for herself a future life of plenty. Binetou's marriage to Modou as his second wife is, for her mother, the only gateway to a life of luxury that she has long been denied. She therefore pushes and prods her daughter until the poor girl agrees to marry Modou, a man whom she despises and ridicules, who is too old for her, and who incidentally is the father of her best friend. Binetou's mother sacrifices her daughter's life and future for a life of affluence. And she closes her ears to Binetou's pleas that she is not in love with Modou and would not be happy in a marriage to him. The poor girl's feelings and wishes do not count · after all, she is only a woman.
Finally, during Modou's funeral, his wives have no say in what goes on, how much is spent, and what should be bought and used for the burial. They are simply confined in a place where they are hardly seen or consulted by anyone, all this according to Muslim law and rites for the dead. This means that the in-laws have the liberty to spend generously on the funeral. Very often, as is the case with Ramatoulaye and Binetou, the relatives end up spending so much that the wives and children left behind have nothing to live on. Of even greater annoyance to Ramatoulaye is the fact that all through the funeral the wives are treated as equals, no matter how long they were married to the dead man. This illustrates how women are simply lumped together on the same level, irrespective of age, service, and individual achievement. Ramatoulaye wryly, and very bitterly, comments on this injustice to Aissatou: "Our sisters-in-law give equal consideration to thirty years and five years of married life. With the same ease and the same words, they celebrate twelve maternities and three" (p. 4).
After the betrayals of Ramatoulaye, Aissatou, and Jacqueline by their husbands, each woman responds differently. Ramatoulaye, the author of the letter, chooses not to make a clean break from Modou; instead she stays and forces Modou to leave their matrimonial home. Normally, it is the woman who leaves when a marriage breaks down, while the man stays and enjoys his new wife. But going against tradition, Ramatoulaye stays and tries to piece the shards of her shattered life together and raise her twelve children without Modou's help. Her decision to stay in the marriage, despite her daughters' opposition, is based on a weak assertion that she has never "conceived of happiness outside marriage" (p. 56), and she appears to bow to tradition in her unfailing faith in the institution of marriage. In the end, though, her stubborn determination to carry on without her husband pays off, since Ramatoulaye emerges from this experience both knowing and appreciating herself better.
Aissatou, on the other hand, makes a complete break from Mawdo. She left with her four sons, making a success of her new career and a new life for herself and her children. And Jacqueline, although she suffers a mental breakdown because of the way she has been treated by Samba, is still able to pull herself together before another downturn in her mental health, from which total recovery would be impossible. A doctor with a "soft, reassuring voice" gives Jacqueline the heart to go on living, and she leaves hospital fully understanding "the heart of her illness" and ready to fight against it (p. 45). Thus, out of despair comes hope and renewal for these women. Bâ's optimism in this novel is not surprising, because these women represent aspects of Bâ's own experience · their battles had been hers as well.
Bâ's second and last novel, Scarlet Song, has a structure similar to that of the first. Scarlet Song also uses juxtaposition of marriages to highlight the position and plight of women in modern African society. However, this novel goes further in dealing with real effects of traditional practices on marriage. Scarlet Song does not, like So Long a Letter, concentrate on the breakup of the marriages, but rather on the internal tensions within the unions and the resulting psychological trauma and devastation. The novel is also concerned with polygamy and the destabilizing interferences of the extended family that very often lead to the subsequent failure of most marriages.
In Scarlet Song Bâ explores the concept of choice and its attendant notion of responsibility. In the previous novel not all the choices made by the characters affect other people the way they do in Scarlet Song. The story centers around two young students, Ousmane and Mireille, who are in love and eventually marry in spite of attempts by members of both families to stop them. These two young people · the man Senegalese and the woman French · marry for love just as Ramatoulaye and Modou, Aissatou and Mawdo, and Jacqueline and Samba do in the earlier novel. Mireille's diplomat father whisks her off to France the moment he finds out about her love for Ousmane, despite his avowed open-mindedness about nonwhite people and interracial relationships. But the couple still manage to meet and get married in Paris. For a while all goes well; it is not until they return to Senegal that their problems begin. The idealism of the early years disappears as they come face-to-face with the reality of modern African society, in which all the traditional values are still strong.
As in So Long a Letter, the bride in Scarlet Song is rejected by some members of the groom's family, in her case because she is white and from another part of the world. Mireille's problem is even greater than the problems of Aissatou and Jacqueline because of the enormous cultural gulf between her and her inlaws. In Paris mixed-race couples enjoy the freedom to be by and for themselves; in Senegal they must face all the problems an interracial marriage may bring. Eventually the marriage deteriorates to such an extent that Ousmane begins to seek fulfillment of emotional and what he calls cultural needs in his childhood flame, Ouleymatou Ngom, whom he eventually marries without his wife's knowledge. And when poor Mireille is informed of this by Soukeyna, the only member of Ousmane's family to befriend and try to understand her, she responds first with disbelief, then with sadness and rage. Finally, she goes mad, and in revenge she kills their only son, Gorgui, whom she sees as a mulatto who can be comfortable neither in her own culture nor in her husband's.
The failure of the marriage and the tragedy it brings about is presented by Bâ as resulting from the inability of the couple to make the necessary adjustments and compromises that a coming together of cultures and races demands. Although Mireille decides to convert to Islam, she cannot accept the traditional customs, such as polygamy and extended families, in the Senegalese society. As a result, she holds strongly to her Frenchness. At the same time Ousmane escapes into a fake search for cultural "authenticity" as a means of establishing his male dominance in the marriage. The outcome of such intransigence can only be disaster. Their stubbornness is further compounded by Yaye Khady, Ousmane's mother, who does not approve of the marriage in the first place. Although she does not go out of her way to wreck her son's marriage, as Mawdo's mother does, by encouraging the relationship between her son and Ouleymatou she achieves her desire to see her son married to a more suitable daughter-in-law.
For Bâ, the problem is not with interracial marriages per se, but rather with the people who enter into them. By providing the enviable example of Lamine, a close black friend of Ousmane's and his European wife, Pierrette, Bâ suggests that this seemingly enormous racial and cultural gulf can be bridged. Lamine, who is able to deal with the conflict, says: "You can't combine two different conceptions of life. If you're to be honest, you've got to make a choice. You want happiness without making any sacrifices. You won't make any concessions, while demanding concessions from others. Married life is based on tolerance and a human approach" (pp. 98-99). And tolerance seems to be the one ingredient lacking in most of the major characters in Scarlet Song.
According to Bâ, the essential problem of oppressed and marginalized women in modern Islamic African society can be tackled by a reduction in the influence of the twin marriage destroyers: polygamy and the extended family system. Men use polygamy to satisfy their desire for extramarital sexual relations. Pressures from the extended family make it impossible for a couple to work for and find happiness in their marriage on their own terms. By presenting Mireille's fight and collapse in Scarlet Song, Bâ warns that although the women in So Long a Letter fight and survive in their individual ways, tragedy could well be the outcome, especially for someone like Mireille who has been brought up in a culture so different from the polygamous, Islamic, communal culture into which she has married.
In portraying the harmonious marriage of Lamine and Pierrette in Scarlet Song, Bâ shows that modern marriage in an African Muslim society could succeed · even if the marriage is racially mixed and despite the negative influence of the extended family · with some effort from both parties. Toward the end of So Long a Letter, Bâ hints that the lot of women in African Muslim societies may be changing for the better. Daba and Aissatou, Ramatoulaye's two older daughters, represent the future for such women. Their relationships with men are based on openness and compromise, which were lacking in their parents' relationships. With women receiving more education and gaining more independence, certain traditional and Islamic practices · such as a man's claim to his deceased brother's wife and children · will change. Whereas the older generation of women had no choice, Ramatoulaye chooses to reject her brother-in-law's claim. In Daba and Aissatou's generation, such a claim may never be suggested.
From: Akukwe, Nwamaka B. "Mariama Ba." African Writers, edited by C. Brian Cox, vol. 1, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1997.