Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010
Ba, Mariama (1929-1981) Senegalese journalist and novelist
West African feminist orator and writer Mariama Ba promoted the empowerment of black women through affirmation and self-assertion. Born in French-controlled Dakar, Senegal, to a prominent family, she lived with maternal grandparents, Muslims who favored education for males only. Though indoctrinated with recitations of the KORAN, she began writing prose in French while enrolled at EEcole Normale for girls at Rufisque. Her essays rejected assimilation, perceiving it as a slow death for African culture and language. At her father's insistence, she completed a degree in education during a period of dissolution of the European colonial empire. In 1960, Senegal threw off French imperialism, combating chauvinistic colonialism. She married Member of Parliament Obeye Diop and bore nine children. After the collapse of her marriage, she taught primary grades while serving the district as educational inspector and supporting a family of 10. A lengthy bout with cancer ended her life at age 52.
Ba wrote of the disillusion of women with the coming of independence favoring men only. Critics praised Ba for her epistolary novella Une si longue letter (So Long a Letter, 1979), a semiautobiographi- cal hymn to woman-to-woman friendship and support. Dedicated to “all women and to men of good will,” the narrative adopts the style of a female griot (storyteller). Ba encourages black females to demand civil rights and to maintain their femaleness rather than imitate Western superficiality and materialism (Ba 1981, i). Set in modern Dakar, the first-person story dramatizes the misgivings of Ramatoulaye Fall, a widowed teacher who was married to Modou Fall, a technical consultant at the Ministry of Public Works. As though desperate for affection, she calls “My friend, my friend, my friend” to Aissatou, an immigrant to America, in a missive that is a “diary, my prop in my distress” (1). Because Aissatou abandoned a polygamous marriage to Mawdo, she is the only acquaintance who will listen without judging. Without self-pity, Ramatoulaye expresses her disillusion during an African Islamic funeral and a 40-day mourning period, a period of reflection of a 30-year marriage and 12 pregnancies: “If over the years … dreams die, I still keep intact my memories, the salt of remembrance” (1).
Ba's sympathetic novel spills the hidden shame of Islamic polygamy. Ramatoulaye regrets Modou's choice of another wife, Binetou, a contemporary of his daughter Daba. To justify his betrayal of Ramatoulaya, he claims that Allah wills that their home support two wives. Temporary solace, the womanly unbraiding of the widow's hair and settling her in a red mourning tent, is the work of sisters-in-law. To oust evil spirits, the women toss a fistful of coins on the tent's canopy. Contributing to Ramatoulaye's humiliation is the repossession of her worldly goods by Modou's family. She resents having to “[give] up her personality, her dignity, becoming a thing in the service of the man who has married her, his grandfather, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his brother, his sister, his uncle, his aunt, his male and female cousins, his friends” (4). After escapist trips to the cinema, she retreats into religious faith.
Ba espoused sisterhood as a way to unify and strengthen West African women, whom she honored as social pillars and victims of patriarchy and cultural imperialism. Her journalistic pieces advocated the expunging of colonial subjugation through “archaic practices, traditions, and customs that are not a real part of our precious cultural heritage” (Ba 1989, i). A posthumous novel, Un chant ecarlate (Scarlet Song, 1981), dramatizes a bicultural union that precipitates the madness and abandonment of Mireille, the white Parisian wife of Ousmane, a traditional African male. Ba expanded on spousal infidelity to include the French exploitation of its African colonies and the African politicians who succeeded them. “Noble sentiments have forsaken the African soul. Look how many of our African leaders, who were in the vanguard of the movements for national liberation, are unrecognisable now that they have their feet in the stirrups of power. Now they censure the very things they used to preach” (Ba, 1995, 45-46). She concludes that men are incapable of fidelity.
Ba, Mariama. Scarlet Song. Translated by Dorothy S.
Blair. London: Longman, 1995.
------- . So Long a Letter. Translated by Modupe Bode-
Thomas. Heinemann, 1989.
Ibnlfassi, Laila, and Nicki Hitchcott. African Francophone Writing: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Berg, 1996.