So Long A Letter by Mariama Ba, A review.
As much a book about African femininity as it is an ethnological work of art which paints the landscape of what life is like for the post-colonial African woman in Senegal, West Africa. It’s a book I’ve read several times that still reverberates with poignant truths which inspire and defy. A book that reads conversationally and poetically at the same time.
The novel, written by Senegalese-born Mariama Ba, is a collection of letters the protagonist addresses to her best friend immediately following the death of her husband. As the novel progresses, Ramatoulaye Fall laments losing her identity in the confounding morass of Islam in West Africa which threatens to define and confine her destiny. A quick read, it is a treatise on the plight of a woman torn between grieving for a husband on one hand, and the bitterness awoken after a life-time of a delicate dance of submission and societal constructs.
Throughout the book, Ba succeeds in championing both women’s rights and challenging the cultural integrity of traditional customs which reinforce the subjugation of women. Though a work of fiction, it can be deduced that perhaps parts of this story are pieces of the author’s own story; the author herself, having been one of few women in her generation to be sent to school. Readers come to learn for instance, of the deceased’s second wife, a young woman (her daughter’s friend) whom is stripped of a chance for academic pursuit. She describes the tug between women’s intellectual progress and men who succeed in stifling such movement:
“…, being the first pioneers of the promotion of African women, there were very few of us. Men would call us scatter-brained. Others labelled us devils. But many wanted to possess us. How many dreams did we nourish hopelessly that could have been fulfilled, as lasting happiness and that we abandoned to embrace others, those that have burst miserably like soap bubbles, leaving us empty-handed?”
The book eloquently speaks to themes in African culture at large that are timelessly persistent today. It is in essence, Things Fall Apart, from the lens of one African woman to another. An exploratory treatise on access to education, joblessness, marrying within and outside of similar social classes, and the struggle to leave behind “village life” for loftier pursuits amidst it all. Ba weaves in her own social critique of progression as she depicts challenges of the rat race to align with Western civilization and it’s marks of modernity:
“Hard is the climb up the steep hill of knowledge to the white man’s school…Should we have been happy at the desertion of the forges, the workshops, the shoemaker’s shops? Should we have rejoiced so wholeheartedly? Were we not beginning to witness the disappearance of an elite of traditional manual workers?
The author argues that perhaps not everyone needs to be “learned” in order to successfully contribute to a society whose rules and moral compass are ever shifting.
Originally written in French, So Long A Letter, was first translated into English ironically in the same year of the author’s death, 1981. Mariama, herself, an activist, a writer, an African, and a woman, lends her voice to this colorful novel that adds beauty, depth, and spirit to the canon of African literature. It remains a priceless and highly recommended snapshot into one woman’s journey through Islam, Africa, womanhood, and personhood.