in 1980, Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter recounts the stories of two women and
their husbands, lifelong friends living in Senegal during the post-colonial
period of national reformulation. The novella is written in the form of a
lengthy epistle from one woman, Ramatoulaye, to her beloved friend Aissatou.
Ramatoulaye, the book’s speaker, has just experienced the death of her husband,
Modou, and as a devout Muslim woman, she is central to the ceremonies performed
for her husband’s burial. Like Ramatoulaye, Aissatou also is without her husband,
Mawdo Ba, having divorced the man after his taking of a second wife.
Ramatoulaye’s letter unfolds in a string of reminiscences that detail the women’s mirroring circumstances. Beginning in their youth at a French colonial teacher’s college, Ramatoulaye’s story portrays the blossoming of two couples’ love, and their dedication to one another despite the disapproval of their immediate communities: Aissatou, a goldsmith’s daughter, is looked down upon by her husband’s once royal family, while Ramatoulaye’s mother is greatly disappointed in her daughter’s choice of husband, whom she portentously sees as overly sensual. The men both grow highly successful, Modou as a social promoter and ideologue for union workers, Mawdo Ba as a heavily sought after surgeon. Ultimately, both men betray their wives by assuming co-wives, and much of the novel centers upon the different paths each woman takes in reaction to such betrayals.
Throughout the novel, Ba effectively illustrates the challenges women faced in this steadily modernizing, post-colonial social context. Both Ramatoulaye and Aissatou represent women of the “New Africa”, and having been highly educated, their life experiences break with the isolated experiences of their female predecessors. The women’s social roles are multifarious: while their teaching careers offer an avenue for personal meaning outside of the home, as well as contributing to their families’ economic well-being, they also retain their domestic roles as mothers and wives. While in many ways thriving under this added pressure, the women face the added obstacle of negotiating their devout Muslim faith in a modern world. Both women censure the polygamous relationships that their husbands justify with Islamic axioms and biology; whereas Modou invokes Allah’s intention of putting himself and his new wife “side by side”, Mawdo, a doctor, falls back on his uncontrollable “instincts that dominate him”. To Ramatoulaye and Aissatou, the existence of a co-wife renders the emotional connection and devotion the partners have with one another meaningless. On one level, such a belief reveals an individualistic idea of love likely engendered through their Westernized schooling, and importantly, one unable to align with the Muslim practice of polygamy, an institution the women believe fractures strong marital bonds that hold the family together.
Yet Ba takes this further, and ultimately churns out a deeply felt message of the necessity of unity and solidarity between the sexes, and of the inseparability of women’s issues from those of national politics. Such a message holds great value in the modern context, especially in post-colonial countries still struggling with issues of nationhood and national identity. Aesthetically, the novel struggles a bit when translated from the original French to English; some passages and phrases seem clunky and lack euphony, while others retain their elegance (especially Aissatou’s final letter to her husband). As such, the original text is recommended if possible. However, this slight detraction does not significantly mar this heartfelt novella - a deep, personal note that should appeal to readers the world-over.
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