Mariama Bâ

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Mariama Bâ
Mariama Bâ.jpg
Born(1929-04-17)17 April 1929
Dakar, Senegal
Died17 August 1981(1981-08-17) (aged 52)
Paris, France
Notable worksScarlet Song So Long a Letter

Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Born in Dakar, she was raised a Muslim. At an early age she came to criticize what she perceived as inequalities between the sexes resulting from African traditions. Raised by her traditional grandparents, she had to struggle even to gain an education, because they did not believe that girls should be taught. Bâ later married a Senegalese member of Parliament, Obèye Diop-Tall, but divorced him and was left to care for their nine children.

Her frustration with the fate of African women—as well as her ultimate acceptance of it—is expressed in her first novel, Une si longue lettre (1979; translated as So Long a Letter). In this semi-autobiographical epistolary work Bâ depicts the sorrow and resignation of a woman who must share the mourning for her late husband with his second, younger wife.[1] Literary scholar Abiola Irele called it "the most deeply felt presentation of the female condition in African fiction".[2] This short book was awarded the first Noma Prize for Publishing in Africa in 1980.

Bâ died a year later after a protracted illness, before the publication of her second novel, Un Chant écarlate (Scarlet Song),[3] which is a love story between two star-crossed lovers from different ethical backgrounds fighting the tyranny of tradition.[4]

Early life[edit]


The historian Nzegwu has contended that Bâ's life was rich in events of honour. Bâ was born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1929, into an educated and well-to-do Senegalese family where she grew up. Her father was a career civil servant who became one of the first ministers of state. He was the Minister of Health in 1956 while her grand father was an interpreter in the French occupation regime.[4]

After her mother's death, Bâ was largely raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents. She received her early education in French, while at the same time attending Koranic school.[4]


Bâ was a prominent law student at school. During the colonial revolution period and later, girls faced numerous obstacles when they wanted to have a higher education. Bâ's grandparents did not plan to educate her beyond primary school. However, her father's insistence on giving her an opportunity to continue her studies eventually persuaded them.[4]

In a teacher training college based in Rufisque (a suburb in Dakar), she won the first prize in the entrance examination and entered the École Normale. In this institution, she was prepared for later career as a school teacher. The school's principal began to prepare her for the 1943 entrance examination to a teaching career after he noticed Bâ's intellect and capacity. She taught from 1947 to 1959, before transferring to the Regional Inspectorate of teaching as an educational inspector.[4]


Bâ was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. Her source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parents' life and her schooling. Indeed, her contribution is of absolute importance in modern African studies since she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. Bâ's work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they all deserve the title "mother of Africa", and how important they are for the society.[4]

African liberation struggles[edit]

Mariama Bâ felt the failure of African liberation struggles and movements. Her earliest works were essays she wrote while at the École Normale. Some of her works have now been published. Her first work constitutes essentially a useful method of rejection of the "so-called French assimilationist policy".[4]

Gender and reparation[edit]

Bâ advocated urgent consideration and re-invigoration of African life.[4]

This consideration and re-invigoration is essentially founded on the social construct of the relationship between man and woman. Indeed, there is an unequal and unbalanced power in the male/female relationship. According to her, these facts can help us become aware of Africa's needs for societal change, a change more political than merely making speeches.[3][4]


As a divorcée and "a modern Muslim woman" as she characterized herself, Bâ was active in women's associations. She also ardently promoted education. She defended women's rights, delivered speeches, and wrote articles in local newspapers. Thus, her contribution is significant because she explained and described the disadvantaged position of women in general and especially married women.[4]

Vision and commitment[edit]

Bâ also had vision and determined commitment. She felt African people should reduce the deleterious impact of their culture. Women are plunged both psychologically and financially in a sensual indulgence and complete lack of regard for the consequences of men's actions on families. They are completely blind. These facts led Bâ to believe in her mission to expose and critique the rationalizations employed to justify established power structures.[4]

Distortions of cultural thought and institutions[edit]

She thought that distortions of cultural thought and institutions are made to demonstrate masquerades as "tradition" and "culture". Men and Women have been seduced into accepting the continuation of these "customs". People should be "persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman".[4]


Bâ wrote many books openly sharing her thoughts and feelings, including: So Long a Letter (1981), Scarlet Songs (1986), and La fonction politique des littératures Africaines écrites (The Political Function of African Written Literatures) (1981).[4]

So Long a Letter[edit]

In 1981, Une si longue lettre, translated as So Long a Letter, was awarded the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. In this book, the author recognized the immense contributions African women have made and continue to make in the building of their societies. This book has already been published in more than a dozen languages and is about to appear in more.[4]

The book is written in the form of a letter, or a diary, from a widow, Ramatoulaye, to her childhood girlfriend, Aissatou, who lives in the United States. Nafissatou Niang Diallo (1941–1982), who started her works in the 1970s, was a mirror for Mariama Bâ, whose leading role was a strong-minded character. Moreover, she found support, friendship and values from female confidence, unity and harmony. The discriminatory use of power forces Ramatoulaye to deal with its consequences. This discriminatory power is what is in the novel a form of male domination coming from society's construction of a patriarchal ideology. Because Ramatoulaye is a woman, she seemingly has no right determining her destiny. Aissatou rejects this notion and chooses her own life without being denied a life of her own by her husband Mawdo.[4]

This strong exploration of feminism is perhaps what makes the novel a strong voice for the oppressed woman in Africa. The woman is oppressed by culture and by virtue of her position. Aissatou rejects this and slowly Ramatoulaye realises she cannot look to her culture for much.[4]

To demonstrate how males are instinctive, Bâ uses female rationality and responsibility. She also portrays men's irresponsibility by using their sexual instincts. Mawdo, Aissatou's husband, differs from her. He emphasizes the bestiality of men's instincts, while she urges her daughter against them. She argues that a man's instinct is "through his self-control, his ability, to reason, to choose his power to attachment, that individual distinguishes himself from animal."(Mariama Bâ, 1981)[4]

As a Senegalese figure, Mariama Bâ represents a kind of female Leopold Sedar Senghor. She shows that not only men are important in this world. She also shows that to succeed in this life, women should identify themselves and also trust in themselves to overcome these multiple darknesses that compose life. In showing the importance of women, their role in bringing up families and keeping them together in time of calamity is clearly brought out in the novel. This still is a powerful expression of the unheeded voice of the previously silent woman in Africa. Bâ is actually calling on women to take responsibility for their lives throughout the novel.[4]

Through her character Ramatoulaye, Mariama Bâ has expressed herself. This includes the statement that she: "has not given up waiting to refashion her life. Despite everything (disappointment and humiliations) hope still lives within her… the success of a nation depends inevitably on just such families." She also shows that books can be a weapon, "a peaceful weapon perhaps, but they are weapon."(Mariama Bâ, 1981).[4] According to her: "The power of books, this marvelous invention of astute human intelligent. Various signs associated with sound: different sounds that form the word. Juxtaposition of words from which springs the idea, Thought, History, Science, Life. Sole instrument of interrelationship and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress. They enabled you to better yourself. What society refused you, they granted…"[5][4]


The protagonist, Ramatoulaye, is inspired by her friendship with Aissatou and by her resolute behaviour in the face of adversity. At the beginning of the story, Ramatoulaye was stressed. She writes to her friend to relieve this stress. As a Muslim, she refers to God when her husband Modou Fall died. She also refers to him and to Sharia law concerning polygamy, when her husband, after twenty-five years of marriage, marries her daughter's friend Binetou. Even though Modou abandoned her and spends their money on Binetou, Ramatoulaye decided to stay with him because of her faith. Ramatoulaye is portrayed as a politically-engaged feminist living in a Senegal that gains independence from French colonization.[6]


The recipient of the letter. She now lives in America and is also a feminist. She is Ramatoulaye's old childhood friend. [7]

Scarlet Song[edit]

Scarlet Song (1986) also gained international attention. This book deals with the critically urgent need for women to create "empowered" spaces for themselves, meaning, women need to create a space where they are not considered the "weaker sex". Scarlet Song is about a marriage between a European woman and an African man. As So Long a Letter, Scarlet Song gained international attention. Mireille, whose father is a French diplomat gets married to Ousmane, son of a poor Senegalese Muslim family. Moving back from Paris to Senegal, Ousmane once again adopts his traditions and customs. But, as an occidental, Mireille cannot handle this kind of life, especially when Ousmane takes a second wife. However, Africa is a polygamous society and in their religion it is acceptable but Mireille did not accept it. She suffers the marriage. Most notably, the book criticizes the tyranny of tradition and expounds upon the despair of cross-cultural marriages.

La Fonction politique des littératures africaines écrites[edit]

La Fonction politique des littératures africaines écrites (1981). Mariama Bâ states that every African woman should be proud of her strength and accomplishments. She believes that each woman contributes to Africa's development and participates in Africa's growth.[8]


Inspiration for African women[edit]

Mariama Bâ has established herself an inspiring figure for African women. She illustrates that traditions and customs are against modernity and against the "New world" and inspires people to revise them and take those steps that remain to be taken.[9]

Mariama Bâ Boarding School (Maison d'Education Mariama Bâ)[edit]

The Mariama Bâ Boarding School is a top boarding school on Gorée, an island in Senegal. It was founded in 1977 by Leopold Sedar Senghor, first president of Senegal. The school was named after Mariama Bâ because of what she stood for, spoke and wrote about. It admits young women who obtained the highest scores during the national secondary school entry exam. Each year, about 25 female students from the 11 regions of Senegal, are given the opportunity to attend Mariama Bâ boarding school for the rest of their high school years. The curriculum is similar to secondary education in France in that it has seven levels, and students finish with their baccalaureat.

Students get to school on Sunday evening, and spend the whole week there until Friday evening. To get to Gorée, students take a ferry ride that lasts about 25 minutes. Family and friends are allowed to visit students on Wednesday afternoons only.

In 2009, Jana Films, a Spanish production company, filmed a documentary about the Maison d'Education Mariama Bâ directed by Ana Rodríguez Rosell. The documentary portrays the daily activities in the school and is conducted by Abdoul Diallo, a teacher at Mariama Bâ School, and Ramatoulaye Dieng, principal of the School.


  • Une si longue lettre: Roman, Dakar: Les Nouvelles Éditions Africaines, 1979, ISBN 2-7236-0430-6.
  • Un Chant écarlate, Dakar: Les Nouvelles Éditions Africaines, 1981.

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Rizwana Habib Latha, "Feminisms in an African Context: Mariama Bâ's so Long a Letter", Agenda 50, African Feminisms One (2001), 23.
  2. ^ Irele Abiola. "Parallels of African Conditions: A Comparative Study of Three PostColonial Novels", Journal of African and Comparative Literature 1 (1981): 69–91. Print.
  3. ^ a b "Mariama Bâ", The University of Western Australia/French (1995). Retrieved March 25, 2006.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t "Profile: Senegalese Writer Mariama Ba". The Patriotic Vanguard. Retrieved January 20, 2016.
  5. ^ Femi (2006); Center for Cross Cultural Studies Dakar, Retrieved on June 30, 2006, From Archived September 28, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ "The character of Ramatoulaye in So Long a Letter from LitCharts | The creators of SparkNotes". LitCharts. Retrieved July 10, 2018.
  7. ^ "The character of Aissatou in So Long a Letter from LitCharts | The creators of SparkNotes". LitCharts. Retrieved 2018-07-10.
  8. ^ Plant, D. G. (ed.) (1996). "Mythic Dimensions in the Novels of Mariama Bâ", Research in African Literatures
  9. ^ D'Erneville, A. (1982), Femmes, Africaines. Retrieved on March 25, 2006, propos recueillis par Annette Mbaye d'Erneville sur les thèmes femmes et société.