Book a bold statement on gender

So Long a Letter

London, Heinemann, 1979, 96pp

Reviewed by Eddie Zvinonzwa

The epistolary style seems to bring the reader of the novel very close to the emotional experiences of Ramatoulaye given that she is writing to a person she confides in. So Long a Letter explores male-female relations in a patriarchal society. It also raises serious questions on the tradition of polygamy and its effects on the modern family. Somehow the book remains relevant today in that polygamy is one of the problems in today’s fight against HIV and Aids.

Mariama Ba was born into a well-to-do family in Dakar Senegal in 1929. Her father was one of the first ministers of state in independent Senegal. After her mother’s death, Ba had to be raised by her maternal grandparents. During her early education, she also attended Koranic school. Like elsewhere on the African continent at that time, the education of the girl-child was not a priority but she managed to go to high school following the insistence of her father, after which she joined a teacher’s training college. This was the same time that she published her first book. After graduation in 1947, Ba worked as an elementary school teacher. She married Obeye Diop, a politician and together they had nine children. She was forced to resign from her teaching job after twelve years owing to poor health and had to take up another post as a regional school inspector. Ba was forced to raise her children alone after the breakdown of her marriage.

During her lifetime Ba was active in women’s associations and women’s rights issues as evidenced by the speeches she gave and the articles she wrote in local newspapers. In 1981, Ba succumbed to cancer after a long battle against it. Her other book, Scarlet Song was published posthumously.

At one time, Mariama Ba said “Books are a weapon, a peaceful weapon perhaps but they are a weapon.” So Long a Letter seems to be a weapon with which the author fights the emotional struggle that she has to endure following the death of her husband.

Ramatoulaye, a Senegalese schoolteacher, like the author, reminisces on her marriage of 22 years as she struggles to raise her twelve children. The book traces her culture, her past, her hopes and dreams and this forces the reader to encounter face-to-face, the controversial traditions and religions in modern-day Africa. The emotional trauma of the protagonist is bared as the author makes us meet her in the process of writing a letter to her friend. This gives the reader an insight into Ramatoulaye’s psyche. The novel, which is rich in ideas and emotions, displays well the troubles of women. Although it focuses on the gender issues at hand, the novel seems to be a statement about the general oppression of women. After her husband decides to take a second wife without her knowledge, Ramatoulaye finds this as a betrayal of her trust and a rejection of their life together. But then the practice is sanctioned by the laws of Islam.

The main focus of the novel is polygamy and its consequences. Aissatou, the friend she is writing to, has gone through the same experience but decides to leave her husband despite her Islamic background, leaving the village and the problem behind her. What makes Ramatoulaye’s situation worse is that the husband’s second wife is a classmate of their eldest daughter. Somehow she feels restricted by her religion as she recounts how he has neglected her feelings and those of her children. In the face of this problem, Ramatoulaye, nevertheless, urges her children to continue respecting their father irrespective of the obtaining circumstances. . So Long a Letter then becomes a book that explores motherhood, marriage, religion, education and politics. It is a book about surviving loss and disappointment; about hope and personal growth. It deals with women’s relationships – with husbands, children, adult female relatives and friends.

It also provides fascinating explorations of the role of the “griot”, in the west African context, which is described in the book’s endnotes as “part-poet, part musician, part sorcerer”. In the aforesaid context, a “griot” was a very important member of the community. The practice of cowrie shell divination, which in today’s world would be viewed as outright superstition, is also examined in So Long a Letter.

The book therefore becomes a platform for the two Moslem African women who are pioneers in the promotion of their kind, just like the author, as they display courage in a society that is heavily entrenched in custom and tradition. The criticism of the practice of polygamy must be done in the context in which it took place.

The practice of polygamy was common in most African communities, which were agrarian during pre-colonial times. It was not considered immoral or sinful until the arrival of missionaries on the continent. Agricultural societies needed labour for the fields, which guaranteed them more food and produced wealth for the man and the whole group that he supported.

The practice of polygamy, though context-specific, presents a unique problem in a changing socio-economic climate. As a social concept, it more than approved sex with multiple partners and that alone would be a concern for anybody who cares to think about the HIV and Aids menace. Indeed this is one reason why the book is of relevance today. This makes So Long a Letter a very strong statement against a particular cultural practice that exposes not only the man but also the women involved in the polygamous relationship.

Outside the issue of exposure to disease also comes the pain that the family as a whole goes through following the father’s severing of ties and abandoned his children.

It has been stated that polygamy was sanctioned by Islam, it is a practice that existed well before the advent of Islam. The Holy Quran clearly states in Chapter 4 Verse 54; “men are protectors of and maintainers of women, because Allah has given them one more (strength) than the other and because they support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard.” In a way the Islamic faith seemed to suggest that the husband has more power in the household. In the same citation also is the idea that even though Islam may have given room to polygamy, it still leaves the man as the maintainer and protector of the woman and children.

In terms of style, So Long a Letter uses the epistolary technique, which in essence is a European genre. The letter is almost similar to a diary. For the reader, Ramatoulaye’s emotions are brought closer in both space and time as she can not be expected to be lying to her friend Aissatou. In the very long letter to her friend, Ramatoulaye also transcribes other letters as she looks at the past, present and the future in an attempt to find her place in the social order.

In Ramatoulaye and Aissatou, Mariama Ba has given readers epitomes of female endurance in the face of the challenges presented by men who take second wives and how these women interface with their families and community at large is the focus of the novel. The novel thus offers readers an opportunity to experience this with the protagonist and her friend. The problem is thus given some kind of currency and immediacy.

The reader is left to judge whether the women are right given that the society they live in is patriarchal and the practice of polygamy was sanctioned by Islam. For that reason So Long A Letter is a book worth reading in order to get a feel of its perspective of gender issues.

October 2006
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