Une si longue lettre


It is fitting to follow a reading of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Mariama Bâ's 1980 novella Une si longue lettre, because one thing that struck me about both works is the interrelation of feminism/female roles and the larger political scene in the country at large. In this regard the two works could also form a parallel with Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk: in all three pieces, whether they treat of the French Revolution or Senegal's independence from France, the struggle for greater freedom on a national scale is reflected and complicated by the oppression of women within the struggling culture. In Une si longue lettre, Bâ sketches a portrait of two female friends at the dawn of Senegalese independence, for whom the heady days of idealism and progress in the 1960s are disrupted forever when their husbands both decide to take second wives.

Whereas Vindication feels more like a snapshot, though—the product of a particular six-week period in its author's life—Une si longue lettre manages to encompass near thirty years in its brief span. The kind of youthful, idealistic exuberance that fills the pages of Wollstonecraft's treatise reaches us here filtered through the melancholy lens of time and the knowledge of compromise; Ramatoulaye and Aîssatou's youthful debates about equality for women and for all Senegalese are tempered by the events of their later lives. In this way, for example, Ramatoulaye has managed to have a career outside the home, but she has also been required to do everything that a stay-at-home housewife would have had to as well, in addition to raising her twelve children—which understandably leaves her exhausted and with little time or energy to spare. Likewise there are, twenty years after independence, a few women in the Senegalese parliament, but nothing like the equal representation or vast paradigm shift Ramatoulaye had once hoped for. Not only that, but when she brings up the issue with her friend and suitor the parliamentarian, he expresses the opinion that equal gender representation is hardly the most vital Senegalese dream that has failed to materialize:

Ce n'est pas simple de développer un pays. Plus on est responsable, plus on le sent; la misère vous serre le coeur et vous n'avez pas prise sur elle. Il s'agit de toutes les misères matérielles et morales. Un mieux-être nécessite routes, maisons décentes, puits, dispensaires, médicaments, semences. [...] Il faut de l'argent, une montagne d'argent, qu'il faut trouver chez les autres en acquérant leur confiance. Avec notre seule saison d'eau et notre unique plante de culture, le Sénégal n'irait pas bien loin, même si le courage l'anime.
It's not easy to develop a country. The more responsibility you have, the more you feel it; the misery closes your heart and you can't take it on your own shoulders. This is about all misery, material and moral. Better living requires roads, decent houses, wells, dispensaries, medicine, seed. [...] We need money, a mountain of money, that we must persuade out of others' pockets even while gaining their confidence. With our one rainy season and our single export crop Senegal won't go far, despite all our initiative.

Daouda Dieng, the speaker of these words, is written as an honest man, and one who genuinely cares about both his country and Ramatoulaye. He's not being glib with her; indeed, he himself has argued for the greater representation of women in the parliament. His points, therefore, are heartfelt, and one can sympathize with them: in a country working so hard just to establish its national identity, combating the worst kinds of poverty while simultaneously attempting to garner respect (and funding) on the international stage, is it realistic to prioritize changing the status of women, either in politics or in everyday life? On the other hand, these are exactly the arguments that have been used to squelch so many other feminist struggles worldwide; I'm reminded of the American suffragettes who participated in the abolition movement as part of a wide-reaching conception of civil rights for all, only to be told after the Civil War that the political landscape was too chaotic and Reconstruction too new for most of their male cohorts to aid in their own struggle for the vote. There is never an "ideal time" to work on gender or racial equality; however, for those in socially privileged positions, these problems often seem less pressing than those affecting them as well.

And indeed, even for progressive Senegalese women who desire to take their lives into their own hands, balancing tradition and progress is a difficult task. Even in their days of energetic youthful idealism, the two friends realize intellectually this difficulty, but the full emotional understanding doesn't come until they have experienced the desertion of their collaborators and the sustained difficulty of living their lives with one foot in the past and the other in the future. In this passage, adult Ramatoulaye remembers those early debates:

Fallait-il nous réjouir de la désertion des forges, ateliers, cordonneries? Fallait-il nous en réjouir sans ombrage? Ne commençions-nous pas à assister à la disparition d'une élite de travailleurs manuels traditionnels?
       Eternelles interrogations de nos éternels débats. Nous étions tous d'accord q'il fallait bien des craquements pour asseoir la modernité dans les traditions. Ecartelés entre le passé et le présent, nous déplorions les «suintements» qui ne manqueraient pas... Nous dénombrions les pertes possibles. Mais nous sentions que plus rien ne serait comme avant. Nous étions pleins de nostalgie, mas résolument progressistes.
Did we have to rejoice in the desertion of the forges, workshops, cobblers? Should our rejoicing have been so unshadowed? Were we not beginning to witness the disappearance of an elite class of traditional manual craftspeople?
       Eternal questions in our eternal debates. We were all in agreement that a good deal would need to be broken down in order to incorporate modernity in our traditions. Torn between the past and the present, we deplored the "sweats" that would be sure to come... We numbered the possible losses. But we felt that nothing would be as before. We were full of nostalgia, but resolutely progressive.

A little language note: I don't know how "suintements" is used in colloquial Senegalese French, but it's an interesting choice of word in this context given that it can mean "sweats" (suggesting the hard work involved in building the new Senegal) or "weeping" (connoting the heartbreak that will be involved), as well as "seeping" or "oozing," which both suggest the contamination of the future by the past and vice versa. Sweats and oozing also suggest an illness or fever, which makes sense as a metaphor for the crucible through which the country will have to pass. I think it's interesting how, in this construction, there is no clear equation of, for example, past equaling good and future equaling bad (or the other way around); both contaminate each other and each makes the other more complex. Ramatoulaye celebrates education, for example, as a force that brings disparate peers together, promotes tolerance and allows people greater flexibility in choosing their own destinies; at the same time, however, she points out that nobody with any book-learning wants to work as a manual craftsman anymore, which creates huge unemployment and a loss of traditional crafts, not to mention a lack of practical necessities like shoes and iron parts in the marketplace. The unemployment, in turn, increases poverty and crime, adding to the difficulties of establishing the new country.

I've written almost nothing about the central plot of the novella, the two friends' disparate reactions to their husbands' decisions to take second wives, but it too involves this same kind of nuance regarding past and present, tradition and progress. Aîssatou's husband, for example, is egged on to marry again by his mother, who is offended that Aîssatou is of such low birth. Even though the book is in many ways a celebration of female friendship, Bâ doesn't shy away from depicting the ways in which women participate in each others' oppression.

There was one point on which I would have liked more clarification: in Ramatoulaye's own marriage, her husband's "second marriage" functions more like a total abandonment of her and her children. I know the Qur'an instructs that men should consider marrying multiple women only if they are capable of "dealing justly" with all of them, including providing for them financially, which Ramatoulaye's husband certainly doesn't do. What I don't know is whether there was ever a time in Senegal when this Quranic injunction was enforced; in other words, are Ramatoulaye's husband's actions another example of cross-contamination between the future and the past, in which he uses a bastardized version of a traditional custom in order to justify his shoddy treatment of his first wife? Or has this particularly shoddy custom always existed in Senegal, and would he have been able to get away with it equally well fifty or a hundred years previously? I just don't know enough about Senegalese history to say, but it's an interesting question.


Une si longue lettre is my second January readalong with the fine folks over at A Year of Feminist Classics; thanks again to Amy for organizing this month's discussions.

All English translations here are mine, but this book is available in English (as So Long a Letter) in a translation by Modupé Bodé-Thomas.


  • I'm not sure what you mean by "enforced," but it might be worthwhile to note that 100 years ago, almost everyone would have lived in the village. Social pressures or shame or whatever enforcement you have in mind would have been quite different.

    Still, you think a wealthy, powerful village leader couldn't trade in his wife for a younger model?

    My understanding is that this novel is the best-selling West African book in West African history, which I think means most assigned in schools. The injustice towards the wives is seen as a West African problem, not simply a Senegalese, or even Islamic, issue.

    Do you know about the Maison d'Education Mariama Bâ in Senegal? It's an elite, tuition-free boarding school, dedicated to training more women like Mariama Bâ. There's a "Museum of the Woman" close to it.

    • I meant socially enforced, as you suggest - would he have been shamed within the village, lost social status, faced any kind of negative repercussions? (Bâ's depiction implies that his behavior has no real social disincentive in 1980, although given that the story is told from Ramatoulaye's perspective that could be untrue.) The idea that he would have at one time appeals to me because it fits neatly into my tradition/progress cross-contamination analysis, although I suspect you're right that a rich man at any time anywhere pretty much does as he pleases. :-P

  • I have this on my list of things I'd like to read at some point, so I'm glad it gave you plenty of things to think about apart from the central plot you mention not mentioning. Loved your "melancholy lens of time" line, too, my poetic friend!

    • Haha, that was a funny trick I played, wasn't it - I still didn't really talk about the plot. Oh well. Glad you enjoyed that lens of time line, especially since that was one of my favorite aspects of the book.

  • I think you do this wonderful book justice in this response to it. I think Amateur Reader's comment similar to my thoughts -- that is, that this is a comment on not just a Sengalese issue but a West African one. I don't know much about Africa, but I can say I do really appreciate this book -- as a woman across the globe in a fairly different culture. That's a powerful book.

  • I love this one, and I love teaching it. I note that Aissatou's husband didn't want to deal with her the same way that Ramatoulaye's husband did -- no abandonment there -- but she wouldn't accept polygamy for ethical reasons. I also note that the question of polygamy, whether it's "trading up" or the injustice of considering wives as concubines, plays a strong role in Ousmane Sembene's work. Great review!

    • Thanks, Jenny! Yes, Aïssatou's story is in a way even more poignant than Ramatoulaye's, isn't it - the love between her and her husband isn't exactly lost, but she refuses to compromise her principles. I also thought it was interesting that she goes on to such impressive financial success; usually the decision to divorce one's spouse would mean a financial hardship, but it seemed like Aïssatou was better off almost immediately upon leaving her husband.

  • I've seen a few reviews of this around lately and while all of them had me thinking "oh sounds good" your thoughtful post has tipped me into thinking I should get around to reading this sometime.

  • I read this one a while back and thought it was very powerful. We have another Mariama Ba book on our shelves, and I should get to it! I enjoyed your review.

    • Thanks, lady! I know her output was pretty slight, but I'm curious to read more of her as well. The power of this little book was especially impressive given the long time span and short page count, which sometimes leaves the narrative too diluted for my taste.

  • An excellent post as always. I actually appreciate the fact that you focused more on the political context than on the main plot, because I felt that I didn't get as much out of that aspect of the book as I could have. Your post helped me with that, so thank you!

    • Glad you enjoyed the political focus, Ana - I don't think I would have noticed it as much had I not been thinking about Wollstonecraft, so in that way the Feminist Classics project set up a cool little one-two punch. :-)

  • What a fantastic wrap-up! You raise some interesting points, especially about how it never seems to be a good time, and how the cultural practice discussed in the book is so different from the religious injunctions!

    • Thanks, Amy! Yes, I liked the book's points about how both Daouda Dieng and Ramatoulaye have valid points vis-a-vis the political situation and roles of women. I really sympathized with them both.

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