Lost in “So long a Letter”
Mariama Ba, the great Senegalese writer in her books, “ so long a letter” and “the scarlet song” focuses majorly on the plight of women, their place in society, love, life, politics and in marriage.
Her main character Ramatoulaye in so long a letter is in a polygamous marriage, with a co-wife who is the age of her daughter. She suffers the loss of a husband and endures the ridicule of society who visit her home after his death in the spirit of togetherness and leave it worse than they found. She is allowed to wash on Fridays and wear the accepted mourning regalia. Despite the fact that she is a modern woman, she is unable to escape the traditions or avoid the critical eye of the society. Ramatoulaye recalls her dedication to her husband, thirty years of marriage and twelve children. Yet when the opportunity arises, her husband blinks not an eye at the opportunity to marry a much younger wife and squander their hard earned money on her. Rama, looks on. She does not protest.
Her best friend Aissatou protests the possibility of a co-wife and leaves her husband. With a steel will to succeed, she takes her sons and leaves Mawdo, her husband. Mariama Ba, shows, in her letter, two parallel decisions, made by women who are so alike. Who are in similar circumstances. One choses the path of domination. The other of independence. Meddling in-laws, cause Mawdo to marry a younger wife. Mawdo’s mother, believing herself to descend from a royal clan cannot stand her son’s marriage to a blacksmith’s daughter (Aissatou). She sets out on her own and grooms her own choice, from her own lineage, to take Aissatou’s place and restore favour to the family. Mawdo, accepts, not out of love, but out of deference to his mother and his community. The girl he marries becomes a lamb slaughtered at the altar of affluence. Rama fails to understand how a man like Mawdo swears his love for his wife Aissatou, yet every year, his younger wife’s womb fills up with a child. She does not understand this complexity in men. To claim love for one and sleep with another to fulfill honour, to bow to society and to gain respect. Rama worries about a society that cares too much of family and does too little to keep it safe and sanctified. She writes to Aissatou;
“The success of the family is born of a couple’s harmony, as the harmony of multiple instruments creates a pleasant symphony. The nation is made up of all the families, rich or poor, united or separated, aware or unaware. The success of a nation therefore depends inevitably on the family”.
Her daughter, Aissatou’s namesake gets pregnant. She sees the pain of the little girl, holds her and swears as a mother to protect her. Mariama Ba in Rama’s letter takes us into the world of a school going boy, who is the father to the unborn child. He swears to stick to his unborn baby’s mother. Suddenly, he understands more about his girlfriend than her own mother. This revelation adds to the characters in life and the unique personalities of men, who are largely portrayed as the traitors in relationships but in this young girl’s life, he takes part in her battle, as her victor and her strength to go through her pregnancy. Rama’s eldest daughter disengages with the father and does not know how to treat him. Her husband is another supportive character in this book. But she is also aggressive and outgoing. Her mother worries that this trait may come to do her harm. Alas! She saves the day.
This book delves into the harsh realities of every day life. Love, relationships, death and family. In-laws who do not think you are good enough. A society that calls for docility as a woman, a virtue that is taught by Mawdo’s mother to Mawdo’s younger wife. Strength in a woman’s character is spat upon. Women are born to support their husbands, not themselves is what the society in this book teaches. It also takes us to the lives of women who are liberated but who, like Rama, make harsh decisions to keep intact the institution of marriage. A belief too deeply etched it cannot make sense to a woman as strong as Rama. Her strength as a working mother and her struggle as a single parent, born of desertion by her husband reflects the lives of most women in a society foolish enough to disregard its women.
She touches a little on parliament and calls it the “house of men”…..it shows the disparities. Rama declines the hand of a member of parliament, her first boyfriend in her youth, on the account of his wife. She declines to allow his wife feel her pain of polygamy. She refuses to marry for duty. She still believes in love. She reveals that she stayed with Modou, the husband who deserted her, for love. She indicates that “love is the flavour of life, and that the salt of life is also love”.Love pushes her to stay in a polygamous marriage, to honour her husband in life and in death. Love also makes her suffer. But that she has hope within her, is how she concludes.
Mariama Ba, in her brilliant epistolary style of narration, meaning that the entire narration is through a letter also connects the depths of friendship. Disconnected by the fastness of life, and still supporting each other through thick situations. Aissatou and Rama are of one blood through friendship. Rama notes that; “friendship has splendours that love knows not. It grows stronger when crossed whereas obstacles kill love. Friendship resists time, which wearies & severe couples. It has heights to unknown love”.
This novel does not speak of any one society. It speaks, in various contexts of the plight of women in all societies. It moves beyond the blue skies of Senegal into the green horizons of Kenya. It connects experiences in a beautiful way. It is harsh. But it is real. It speaks to those who have shared a husband or a boyfriend with another woman, those who have been rejected by their in-laws before being given a chance, those who are used by men to satisfy their need to feel younger, those who got pregnant at a time other than their intended and made it through, those covered by traditions that take them 1000 years back, those who have friends who give them splendor, those who use charms to fight the straying traits of their men, those who are aggressive but forced to hold their thoughts for fear of single-hood, those in marriages that do not work but stay on, those who at the end of their time will lament, “ I have lived, so long a life!”
“How many modern women have suffered in silence without daring to acknowledge to themselves the regret of having never lived these moments? Like me! To have come from a place, to have grown in that place, and not having gone through the rituals and practices such as the ascending values which govern a whole life or a whole death ” pg 75-76.
This book is a MUST read….buy a copy, like the “Voice of Women Initiative” on facebook and be the first to write your own summary on that page, leave a name and address on our inbox and I shall send you a copy of her next book, “Scarlet Song”