So Long a Letter

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
So Long a Letter
MariamaBa SoLongALetter.jpg
Author Mariama Bâ
Original title Une si longue lettre.
Country Senegal
Language French
Genre Novel
Published 1981 Heinemann
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 90 pp (hardback edition)
ISBN 978-2266-02-7 (hardback edition)
OCLC 9668743

So Long a Letter (French: Une si longue lettre) is a semi-autobiographical[1] epistolary novel originally written in French by the Senegalese writer Mariama Bâ. Its theme is the condition of women in Western African society.

So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ's first novel, is literally written as a long letter. As the novel begins, Ramatoulaye Fall is beginning a letter to her lifelong friend Aissatou Bâ. The occasion for writing is Ramatoulaye's recent widowhood. As she gives her friend the details of her husband's death, she recounts the major events in their lives.

The novel is often used in literature classes focusing on women's roles in post-colonial Africa. It won the first Noma Prize for Publishing in Africa in 1980.[1]

Plot Summary[edit]

So Long a Letter is written as a series of letters between the main character Ramatoulaye Fall and her best friend Aissatou. Her letters begin after the death of her husband, Modou Fall, who died suddenly of a heart attack. She writes these letters during a four month and ten day mourning process known as 'iddah that is accustom to Muslim Senegalese culture. Her letters reminisce over past experiences and life events. She begins by describing to her friend the emotions that flood her during the first few days after her husband's death and speaks in detail about how he lost his life. She then continues on throughout the letters discussing the life she had with her husband which led up to betrayal after he took a second wife without her knowledge after 25 years of marriage. She talks about how she has dealt emotionally with the betrayal of her husband and how she grew throughout each life event that had happened to her.[2]

Throughout the book there is also an underlying theme of feminism in Senegalese women. Romatoulaye was a school teacher and a well educated woman that strongly believed in women's ability to be forerunners in Senegal's society. Feminism fights strongly against religion and ways of a male dominated society that encapsulates Senegalese culture and gender roles. The character of Romatoulaye fights back against the normalcy of culture to push toward equity between genders.

Cultural History[edit]

Senegal was home to many indigenous peoples during precolonial times. Around the 9th century AD Islamization spread throughout Senegal due to the expansive trade routes thoughout Western Africa. Today, roughly 90 percent of Senegalese society follows Muslim religion while the remaining 10 percent follows forms of Christianity or mixed religions. Although many people follow Muslim religion, Arabic culture is not practiced in Senegal nor is Arabic spoken as the language. Much of their legal codes are from translated passages of the Qu'ran. French colonialism came to Senegal in the 1800s and enforced a separation of church and state. However many still abide by the Qu'ran's laws which shape ideas of gender roles, family life, marriage, and the patrilineal male dominated society.[3]

Major Themes[edit]

Women in Senegal[edit]

So Long a Letter focuses on women in Senegal during the 1970s and 1980s. Women in Senegal have had equal rights in society such as the ability to vote since 1945. However, strong ties to Muslim religion and a male dominated society has still left gender inequality, especially affecting women in more rural areas. Women in business are still considered to be less than men and often hold lower positions or rankings. Although men and women are also given the same rights to education, many women are held back from pursuing higher education because of the social norms put on women.[4] Women are expected to take care of the household, rear children, and even provide financially by taking on jobs at young ages. The gender norms placed on women has left many unable to advance in society.

Mariama Bâ seeks to capture the difference between men and women in Senegal. The main characters (Ramatoulaye and Aissatou) both suffered within their marriages. Ramatoulaye stayed married to her husband and faced heartbreak when her husband married his daughter’s childhood friend. Living in a hegemonic male dominated society, women are a product of men; therefore women do not have the same independence as men in society. When women go against the social norm, they are usually exiled from the community. For example, Assiatou went against the norm and moved to the United States therefore creating a new journey and destiny for herself.  

Gender and sex play a major role in African culture. The role of women differs among the vast cultures and societies throughout African countries.  In So Long a Letter, women in Senegal are portrayed to be more submissive; the women should obey the men whether it be father, brother, or husband. Ramatoulaye is a Muslim widow and she begins to write letters to Aissatou. In these letters, the readers can see Ramatoulaye journey to independence and break the social norms of Senegalese society. 

Family and Community Life[edit]

The average age of marriage in Senegal is between 20 and 29. Women are allowed to choose their own partners, however arranged marriage is still practiced in some areas. Men have the ability to seek higher education and earn higher wages than women. Only men are able to buy and own property leaving marriage as the only option for women to have their own homes. Many women in Senegal only go through primary education before dropping out to find jobs to provide for their household.[4]

Islam and Polygamy[edit]

Some Muslim men exploit Islamic teachings to justify their sexual desires and practice polygyny, which interprets that the current wife stays happily married to her husband even after he marries another woman. Islam is not only misinterpreted by men but by some greedy mothers as well—mothers who use their daughters as leverages to escape their state of poverty for material gains from wealthy suitors and in-laws. Unfortunately, the girls are unaware that they are seducing them into a state of passivity, silence, and acceptance of the failing common practice of polygamy. The Qu'ran suggests that men were allowed to marry up to four wives; it also says in the very same verse that one wife is best to be able to satisfy and prevent abandonment of their first wife.[5]  Mariama Bâ used her realization of women’s rights proclaimed in the Qu'ran to write an important cultural critique of the mistreatment that degrades women using the very sacred texts written to provide and protect orphans and widows in the case of death to the man of the house.

Death Rituals[edit]

Almost all areas of Africa have rituals performed on or for the deceased, and are rooted deeply in cultural traditions or religions. These practices can range from ensuring that the dead are buried "correctly" so that their souls do not stay around to haunt the living, to loved ones shaving their hair off as a symbol of new beginnings. Even though there are thousands of tribal groups across the continent of Africa, the death rituals between groups usually show many similarities to one another.[6]


Ramatoulaye: The widowed Senegalese woman who, after 25 years of marriage and 12 children (frequently misstated as nine children, perhaps because that was how many children the author had), narrates the story of her psychological abandonment by her husband, who takes a second wife. Ramatoulaye physically distances herself from Modou who dies four years after this second marriage. Ramatoulaye turns down two other marriage proposals, including that of Daouda Dieng. She is well educated and teaches at a university. After her husband's second marriage, she must work a lot, since her husband cuts off family ties and financial support.

Modou: The husband of Ramatoulaye and of Binetou. He was well educated, handsome, and charming. For his own selfish desires, he marries Binetou and cuts ties with his 12 children and first wife, Ramatoulaye. He later dies of a heart attack.

Mawdo: Ex-husband of Aïssatou. After being pressured by his mother Nabou, Mawdo follows tradition of polygamy and marries a young girl also named Nabou, who is his first cousin. After his marriage with Nabou, Aïssatou (his first wife) divorces him. He is Modou's long-time friend and a doctor.

Aïssatou: Ramatoulaye's best friend, to whom the letters are addressed. She divorced Mawdo because she did not believe in polygamy; she left him a letter explaining her actions and never returned. She takes care of herself well and bought Ramatoulaye a car, which made life much easier for Ramatoulaye. Her divorce is symbolic because it represents a new life for her. She later leaves Senegal with her four sons and moves to the United States to start over. She succeeds in making a new life for herself.

Aïssatou: Ramatoulaye and Modou's daughter, who is named after her best friend. She enters into a relationship with a boy named Ibrahim Sall, whom she calls "Iba," a poor student who impregnates her. They claim to love each other and plan their marriage after their studies. Since she is still a high school student, Iba's mother will take care of the child until she graduates.

Ibrahima Sall: A student of law who impregnates Aissatou, Ramatoulaye's daughter. He is tall, respectful, well-dressed, and punctual. Aïssatou is his first and possibly only love, he says. He will marry Aïssatou if Ramatoulaye will allow it.

Binetou: A young girl around Daba's age who marries her 'sugar daddy' (Modou) because her mother, who was poor, wanted to live the high life and climb the social ladder. Binetou became an outcast who never quite fit in with the younger couples or the mature adults.

Daouda Dieng: A suitor of Ramatoulaye prior to her marriage with Modou who Proposes to Ramatoulaye after her husband dies, but is turned down.

Daba: Ramatoulaye's and Modou's daughter. She is married and the eldest child. She is disgusted by her father's choice to take a second wife especially one of her closest friends.

Arame, Yacine, and Dieynaba: Known as "the trio." They are Ramatoulaye's daughters. They smoke, drink, party, and wear pants instead of ladylike dresses. They represent the next modernized generation after liberation from France.

Alioune and Malick: Ramatoulaye's young boys who play ball in the streets because they claim to have no space to play in a compound. They get hit by a motorcyclist that they drag home with the intention of having their mother avenge them. They are disappointed to find that Ramatoulaye does not get mad at the cyclist, but at the boys because they were careless to play in the streets. This shows Ramatoulaye's wisdom in raising her children in the right way.

Ousmane and Oumar: Young sons of Ramatoulaye. They represent the idea that a father figure would be beneficial for Ramatoulaye's children since several of them are still so young.

Farmata: The griot woman who is Ramatoulaye's neighbor and childhood friend. She noses into Ramatoulaye's business and is the one to point out Aissatou's pregnancy to Ramatoulaye. She represents a 'Spirit of Wisdom', but doesn't always give the best advice. Ramatoylaye and her become friends despite caste barriers.

Jacqueline Diack: Protestant wife of Samba Diack, a fellow doctor like Mawdo Bâ. Her husband's openly treacherous tendencies lead her to depression.

Little Nabou: Raised by Mawdo's mother, Grande Nabou. She is brought up under very traditional Muslim customs and becomes a midwife. She later marries Mawdo Bâ to be his second wife. She is the niece of Grande Nabou and the first cousin of Mawdo Bâ.

Grande Nabou: Mawdo Bâ's mother, who influences him to marry Little Nabou. She dislikes Aïssatou since she comes from a working-class family and her father is a jewelry maker. Grande Nabou is a princess from a royal family in Senegal and is very conservative in her views and traditions.


  1. ^ a b Rizwana Habib Latha, "Feminisms in an African Context: Mariama Bâ'a so Long a Letter", Agenda 50, African Feminisms One (2001), 23.
  2. ^ Bå, Mariama (1981). Une si longue lettre. Senegal: Heinemann. pp. 1–90. ISBN 9782266027. 
  3. ^ Sow, Fatou (2003). "Fundamentalisms, Globalisation and Women's Human Rights in Senegal". Gender and Development, Vol. 11, No. 1, Women Reinventing Globalisation (May, 2003). 11: 69–76. JSTOR 4030697. 
  4. ^ a b Senegal Women in Culture, Business & Travel : A Profile of Senegalese Women in the Fabric of Society. World Trade Press. 2010. pp. 1–3. ISBN 9781607802488. 
  5. ^ Ali, Souad T. (2012-01-01). "Feminism in Islam: A Critique of Polygamy in Mariama Ba's Epistolary Novel So Long A Letter*". Hawwa. 10 (3): 179–199. doi:10.1163/15692086-12341236. ISSN 1569-2086. 
  6. ^ "Death Rituals in Africa". LoveToKnow. Retrieved 2017-04-02.