Analysis of ‘So Long a Letter’ by Mariama Ba
So Long a Letter
Analysis of ‘So Long a Letter’ by Mariama Ba – So Long a Letter, is a novel written in French by Mariama Ba. It is almost an autobiographical kind of a novel. Mariama Ba was Senegalese writer who wrote in French and she was a feminist. She was raised as a Muslim. Even as a young girl she criticised the inequalities amongst the sexes seen in the African Muslim traditions. She had to struggle to be educated as she was raised by her grandparents who had very conservative views.
This book was awarded the first Noma Prize for publishing in Africa in 1980. She married a member of Parliament Obeye Diop-Tall whom she divorced. She had nine children from this marriage. So Long a Letter is a similar story where the protagonist goes through an unhappy marriage but has twelve children. Like her real life there are political shades in the book.
So Long a Letter, begins with a letter being written by Ramatoulaye, a Senegalese woman living in Dakar to her friend Aissatou who is living in America. Ramatoulaye is grieving her husband Modou’s death and during the mourning days, forty days, she writes something like a diary and she intends to send it to her friend. The diary captures her younger days till the day her husband dies of heart attack. However she begins with the funeral proceedings and the Muslim customs during this period.
Then she moves on how she met Modou, their life as sweethearts, their marriage and their life as young couple. Ramatoulaye’s family was not very happy about this marriage as they thought Modou was a loaf. Daouda Dieng was another suitor who was older and more established. But Ramatoulaye rejects him to marry her love.
After thirty years of marriage Modou rejects her and marries someone very young. Along with this story she also narrates the story of Aissatou. Aissatou married Mawdo, a medical student and of noble birth and their life was also a happy life till he was forced to marry a younger cousin. This was planned by Mawdo’s mother who disapproved of her son marrying Aissatou. She raises her niece and forces Mawdo to marry her. He does so fearing his mother would fall ill. He promises that he still loved Aissatou and was marrying only to please his mother. But he has children through that marriage which was Aissatou could not accept and she divorces him.
Almost as a parallel, Ramatoulaye also had her tough times. One of her daughters Daba had a good friend Binetou and she always spoke of a ‘sugar daddy’ who was rich. After a while Binetou’s family forces her to marry this sugar daddy which she does. Some days later Ramatoulaye realises that this ‘sugar daddy’ was her husband and she is devastated. Binetou who was like her daughter walks into her life, into the position of co-wife.
Unlike Aissatou she does not desert her husband even when her children tell her to abandon her. Now he was dead she has to go through more trials. Tamsir an acquaintance proposes which she refuses. Daouda Dieng also proposes but even that she rejects. Two of her children are killed, girls are caught smoking and one gets pregnant out of wedlock. She handles all the turbulent times with strength, poise and equanimity. She concludes the letter hoping her friend will return to Senegal.
Ramatoulaye is the narrator and the main character of the book. She grew up in Senegal at a time when it was getting independence from the French and she was politically engaged. Ramatoulaye also stands for the future of the country as she is a feminist but she does not break completely free from the shackles of conservatism. She is a teacher and a devoted mother and her marriage is rocky but she puts up with it.
Aissatou is the friend of Ramatoulaye who moves to America after marriage. Her marriage is also not a very happy one but she walks out on her husband. She does her higher education and works in the Senegal embassy in America. Modou is the husband of Ramatoulaye who is union organizer and is actively engaged in the politics of the country. Mawdo is husband of Aissatou belonging to a higher class. He marries a second time at the insistence of his mother. This shows that the man could not hold his moral ground or under the pretext of force from his mother he enjoys the pleasure of another marriage jeopardising the first one. Other characters are the children of Ramatoulaye and Modou and some friends of the family.
Customs of Islam, progress, modernity are the main themes of the book. Ramatoulaye is a Muslim who is caught in its custom and she is mourning the death of a husband who deserted her to marry a young girl. There is progress in the political scene. Senegal has come out from the colonial rule and that affects the characters in the book. Aissatou is also going through a bad marriage but being in America she walks out of it; this is the influence of modernity. Motherhood, friendship and marriage also are the other themes of the novel. Dialogue and address are also the themes of the novel So Long a Letter.
The setting is Dakar where Ramatoulaye lives. It moves around the different places in Dakar. Her friend is in America but the story does not move to that place.
“This is a moving book, percipient and wise, about the slow pace of emancipation for women in modern Africa.” – Andrew Sinclair, The Times
“Despite the fact that the story was written in 1979 it is still possible to identify with this story. In this age of the liberated independent woman we are still expected to keep our African traditions even those that were designed to subjugate women.” Potentash – Award winning lifestyle blog
Abiola Irele called it “the most deeply felt presentation of the female condition in African fiction”.