Mariama Bâ, Senegalese Feminist Author and Poet

Perspectives on Mariama BA

Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese novelist, poet, teacher, and feminist. Her best-known works, So Long a Letter and Scarlet Song, both written from a woman’s perspective, explored themes of multiculturalism, polygamy, oppression, interpersonal relationships, and grief.

These two novels are among the most widely translated and studied African works of the twentieth century, according to Cambridge University Press.

 

Early life

Mariama Bâ was born in Dakar, Senegal to middle-class parents in 1929. Senegal was still controlled by colonial rules and laws. Her father was a civil servant, and later became the Minister of Health (1956). Her mother passed away when Mariama was still young.

Mariama was raised by her extended family, which included her father and grandparents. Her grandmother insisted that she assume a traditional household role; however, her father insisted that she attend school.

Mariama attended a girls’ boarding school, achieving the highest exam score for her area at age fourteen. She graduated from a teaching institution in 1947 and taught at École Normale de Rufisque until the school’s closure in the late fifties.

According to The Paris Review, Mariama first wanted to become a secretary. However, a teacher encouraged her to pursue teaching instead.

She was raised Muslim and studied the Quran extensively during her school holidays, something that is reflected throughout her works,

Mariama was married three times, which was considered unusual for a Muslim woman, and her experiences somewhat helped to shape her views on feminism and freedom.

Later, Mariama worked as a regional educational inspector, where her friends encouraged her writing. She was also part of several rights organizations, according to The Paris Review, which included Soroptimist International.

According to The Paris Review, Mariama critiqued traditional African-Islamic female roles. In an interview, she said:

“I had to know how to cook, do dishes, pound millet, make flour into couscous. I had to know how to wash clothes, iron ceremonial boubous [the colorful wide-sleeved robe worn by both sexes in West Africa], and when the right time came, with or without my consent, fall into another family — that of a husband.”

 

Two Novels by Mariama Bâ

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So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba

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So Long a Letter: Mariama Bâ published works of fiction that explored a woman’s traditional role, unique challenges, and interpersonal relationships. Her works have been translated into more than twenty languages from their original French, becoming part of worldwide curricula.

Her first work, Une si longue lettre, was translated into English as So Long a Letter in 1979. The work won the inaugural Noma Award (1980), a prize that has also gone to Marlene van Niekerk’s novel Triomf (1995) and Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime (2003).

Mariama gave a speech at the 1980 Frankfurt Book Fair, approximately one year before her death, when she said: “In all cultures, the woman who makes demands or protests is devalued.”

Une si longue lettre is written as a series of letters from a woman to her best friend. Ramatoulaye writes to her childhood friend, a girl named Aissatou, who now lives in the United States.

The letters unpack Ramatoulaye’s relationship with her husband, and her changing journey after his death. Aissatou relays her own story, which also involved her relationship with her husband.  Polygamy is one of the book’s strongest themes, explored through the characters’ different choices.

Many consider So Long a Letter semi-autobiographical; Mariama was married three times and had nine children. The novel also quotes from the Quran and identifies the narrator as Muslim, traits shared by the real-life author.

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Scarlet Song by Mariama Ba

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Scarlet Song: Un Chant écarlate (Scarlet Song) was Mariama’s second novel. It was published after her death in 1981, with an English translation appearing in 1986. Like Mariama’s prior novel, Scarlet Song explores interpersonal relationships from an African woman’s eyes.

The story introduces us to Mireille, whose father is a French diplomat: she marries Ousmane, who breaks off the relationship for Ouleymatou. In this story, the narrator struggles with her traditional values that clash against strict Christian, colonial morality.

Scarlet Song is believed to be more of a commentary and less autobiographical than Mariama’s first novel.

 

Other writings

Though Mariama was best known for the two novels above, she also wrote a widely translated essay, short story, and poem.

Her essay “The Political Functions of Written African Literatures, ” described the African author’s role as highly influential, having a position to speak up about injustice and misogyny.

The short story “Rejection” was published in several collections. It speaks out about abusive relationships and gender-based violence, using the story’s narrator.

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Mariama Bâ, Senegalese writer

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Later discovery

Recent studies by UC Davis have unearthed a rare, previously undiscovered poem by Mariama Bâ. The poem is titled “Memories of Lagos” and was originally published in the newspaper L’Ouest Africain (The West African).

The newspaper’s editorial team was run by Mariama’s husband Obèye Diop, a politician, and the father of five children. He also served as the Senegalese Minister of Information.

 

Legacy

Mariama’s daughter published a 2007 biography of her mother’s life, entitled Mariama Bâ ou les allées d’un destin (The Alleys of a Destiny) by Mame Coumba Ndiaye.

She was named for the Senegalese water goddess Mame Coumba Bang, who is strongly connected to Saint-Louis area. Mame Coumba Bang is associated with powerful female figures, comparable to Maman Brigitte.

An eponymous boarding school in Gorée was also named after Mariama Bâ. A 10-minute documentary for Women in African History explores her life and influence, and it can be found here.

Further reading and sources

Mariama Bâ is considered one of the most influential female authors from Africa, and certainly one of the most widely translated Senegalese female authors. Here is more information, links, and further reading:

Contributed by Alex Coyne, a journalist, author, and proofreader. He has written for a variety of publications and websites, with a radar calibrated for gothic, gonzo and the weird. His features, posts, articles and interviews have been published in People MagazineATKV Taalgenoot, LitNet, The Citizen, Funds for Writers, and The South African, among other publications.

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