Book Review: So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba

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Title: So Long a Letter

Author: Mariama Bâ

Translator: Modupé Bodé-Thomas

Original Language: French

Country: Senegal

Pages: 96

Publisher: Heinemann, imprint of Pearson Africa

Blurb from the Cover:

So Long a letter is a sequence of reminiscences- some wistful, some bitter-recounted by Senegalese schoolteacher Ramatoulye, who has recently been widowed. The letter addressed to a friend is a record of Ramatoulye’s emotional struggle for survival after her husband’s abrupt decision to take a second wife.

My views:

At the  heart of this novel, the author addresses the issues of tradition and culture  viz a viz  westernization.   She begins buy giving vivid descriptions of burial rites with a mix of African and Islamic traditions. I resonated with her critique of people’s behavior during funerals. In her words: “A disturbing display of inner feeling that cannot be evaluated now measured in Francs! And again I think of how many of the dead would have survived if before organizing these festival funeral ceremonies the relative or friend has brought the life-saving prescription or paid for hospitalization.”  It is a pity that we only appreciate people only after they are gone. Worse still,  we do not respect the solemnity of funerals by driving our own agendas (Yes, I am looking at you, Mr/Ms. Politician!).

Ms. Bâ captures the female mind grappling with polygamy and the seemingly subservient role of women  in society. She puts men to task by addressing their role in accepting second or  third wives without even talking to their first wives just because culture and religion  accommodates it.  Aside from fulfilling their natural desires, they forget to consider the feelings of their first wives and  whether they will be able to comfortably cater for the needs of their increasing  family  including their additional relatives.

By writing this letter, Ramatoulye highlights issues facing newly independent African countries and still grapple with in 2016. Unlike the majority of the African authors, Ms. Bâ is a bit more apologetic in her criticism towards colonization because she does highlight at least of the few benefits of the Western education system. This is seen through Ramatoulye’s fond memories of her Caucasian headmistress: “To lift us out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom, to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own, to raise our visions of the world, cultivate our personalities, strengthen our qualities, to make up for our inadequacies, to develop universal moral values in us; these were the aims of our admirable headmistress. The word ‘love’ has a particular resonance in her. She has a particular resonance in her. She loved us without patronizing us, with our plaits, either standing on end or bent down, with our loose blouses, out wrappers, she knew how to discover and appreciate our qualities.”

Given her teaching background, the author projects her love for learning through the main protagonist by talking about the importance of reading:

“..You have set yourself a difficult task; and more than just my presence and my encouragements, books saved you. Having become your refuge, they sustained you.

The power of books, this marvelous invention of astute human intelligence. Various signs associated with sound; different sound that for the word. Juxtaposition of words from which springs an idea Though, History, Science, Life. Sole Instrument of interrelationships and f culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knot generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress. They enabled you to better yourself. What society refused you, they granted…”

Still on the subject of formal education, she highlights the neglect of trades in favor of university education which contributed to further social stratification and the neglect of industrial jobs as they were deemed menial which in the long run contributes to national poverty and other social ills.  As she puts it “The dream is to be become a clerk. The trowel is spurned. The horde of the jobless swells the flood of delinquency.”

If I could describe this book with one phrase, I would say “Dynamite comes in small packages”. Being a history junkie, reading this book was a pure delight as I was forced to recall the bit of Western African history that I had learned in primary and secondary school (Well at the time, it was no fun trying to memorize cram all the tribes and kingdoms, 8-4-4 anyone?). This book would be good for anyone interested in African feminism and Africa’s “coming-of-age” process.

You can also  read another good review of the same by Under the Neem Tree.

I borrowed my copy from a good friend but you can purchase a copy from Text Book Centre Kenya (non-affiliate link)

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About Lillian

I am a proud student of the human experience which provides me with the perfect excuse for being a bibliophile (read: book hoarder) and the unofficial patron of Nairobi Inama bookshops. But in my past life, I was a recorder player. You can also find me on Medium (@lillianyamongo) where I discuss sustainable finance.
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