Book: SO LONG A LETTER
Author: Mariama Bâ
(Translated by Modupe Bode-Thomas in 1981)
Genre: African Literature
Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter is a very lengthy letter that recounts the stories of two friends and their husbands who lived in Senegal during the post-colonial period of national reformulation, capturing the story of friendship and young love in the midst of hatred and betrayal.
Ramatoulaye, a recently widowed woman wrote to her longtime friend Aissatou describing the pain and frustration she was encountering all through her husband’s burial ceremony rites, as the said husband (Modou) had humiliated and abandoned her to fend for twelve children alone while he was alive after marrying her daughter’s best friend. Aissatou had divorced her own husband a long time ago when his mother took a younger wife for him.
It is an anguished plea from one conservative woman (Ramatoulaye), to her liberal best friend (Aissatou) who, when faced with the same choice, chose freedom and moved to America.
Ramatoulaye’s letter unleashed a string of memories that details the women’s similar experiences and circumstances from their youth at a French colonial teacher’s college, to them finding love in the arms of men who weren’t approved by their immediate families; Mawdo’s mother disapproved of her son marrying Aissatou, a mere goldsmith’s daughter while Ramatoulaye’s mother was wary of her daughter’s choice of husband whom she saw as overly sensual because of the wide gap between his teeth.
Ignoring these, the women married their dream men who later became highly successful, Modou as a social promoter and ideologue for union workers and Mawdo Ba as a widely sought after surgeon. Years down the line both men betrayed their wives by taking in second wives as their religion allowed them to.
So Long A Letter effectively narrates the challenges modern women face in the post-colonial world as
Ramatoulaye and Aissatou represent women of the “New Africa”, who struggle to find a balance between their work/career and retaining their domestic roles as mothers and wives.
Ba captured the everyday conflict between modernism, religion and age long tradition. She also reveals the fact that the idea of love and marriage is based on the individual (Maybe shaped by educational background too) in spite of religion as the two women found it difficult to align with the Muslim practice of polygamy, an institution they believe fractures strong marital bonds that hold the family together.
The power of a mother’s love and dedication to her children no matter their wrongs was also vivid, my favourite part being where her young daughter Aissatou fell pregnant for an undergraduate and she was torn between scolding her and loving her. “One is a mother to lighten the darkness, one is a mother to shield when lighting streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when muds bog one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end.” “I took my daughter in my arms. Painfully I held her tightly, with a force multiplied tenfold by pagan revolt and primitive tenderness.”
My review would be incomplete if I fail to mention Ramatoulaye’s old flame, Douda who asked to marry her after the mourning period. Being a romantic, I was crushed when she turned down the proposal creating an everlasting rift between herself and the man who had loved her for over 25 years.
Ramatoulaye is not just an African woman; she is not just a Muslim woman. She reflects the life and choices of every woman in the modern society. Her travails are very relatable to many women from all parts of the world.
As lovely as this little book is, it was vague at some point and I found it quite difficult to grasp what exactly was going on and had to go back to read some parts part again to finally internalize the plot events. I also did not find some parts of the letter necessary…. You are writing to a friend who already knows all of these, why relay every bit of the information as if it happened just yesterday?
Still, it’s a highly enjoyable and enlightening book that is greatly recommended for all lovers of African Literature.
To me, it’s a 3/5 Read