In So Long a Letter the late Mariama Bâ offers a sensitive portrayal of women’s struggle in her native Senegal on the dawn of independence. Neither a polemic nor an advice manual, Bâ explores the complex difficulties facing two Muslim women as they wrestle with their husbands’ second marriages. A subtle and thought-provoking novel, it not only exposes the human cost of polygamy but the very real hopes and betrayals of those standing on the threshold of change.
Upon the death of her husband and during her 40day customary period of mourning, Ramatoulaye begins a diary-letter to her close friend Aissatou. Reflecting on the past, she weaves together their life histories. They grew up in a French school as two of ‘the first pioneers of the promotion of African women’, choosing their husbands against the disapproval of their parents, they represented the huge social change sweeping acrossAfrica. At first their marriages express the hope of a new generation, only to see it soured by practices of the old.
First it’s Assiatou’s husband, Mawdo. Born of noble descent, his scheming mother who was against marriage to the plain daughter of a goldsmith orchestrates a second, noble marriage. Aissatou leaves, ‘clothed in my dignity, the only worthy garment, I go my way’ and survives and succeeds on her own. For Ramatoulaye, her own misfortunes follow shortly after when her husband, Modou, becomes the ‘sugar-daddy’ to her daughter’s best friend and they marry.
Bâ pauses on Ramatoulaye’s quandary: she can leave with the hope of a new beginning, but, she reflects, ‘can I bear alone the weight of this responsibility?’ She acquiesces to the second marriage but does not submit. While her husband increasingly ignores her she learns to become stronger and more independent, going to the cinema alone and learning to drive. This self-respect and independence puts her in good stead to deal with the suitors after the death of Modou. She publicly humiliates her father-in-law’s proposal to marry and, despite much encouragement, refuses her admirer, Daouda, for she cannot love him. With wisdom and power she settles for the love of her friends and children.
What makes So Long a Letter a classic is not only its brave and honest account of the challenge of polygamy for women but its subtly elucidated message calling for women’s self-reliance. Bâ reveals through Ramatoulaye the inner strength demanded of a woman but also, poignantly, the challenges and fears that she faces. The much broader message that any reader will take away is the sense of hope and disappointment, clarity and confusion, of those caught in the bewildering social change of twentieth-century Africa.