This month’s Trailblazer in Translation pays tribute to Mariama Bâ, the iconic Senegalese novelist, essayist and educator. Known as one of the first writers to advocate for women’s rights in Senegal, Bâ championed the importance of politicized literature for confronting oppressive social systems throughout her life’s work. Her two novels, So Long a Letter (Une si longue lettre, 1979) and Scarlet Song (Un chant écarlate, 1981), are considered landmarks of Francophone African literature and revered for showcasing aspects of women’s experiences that had been largely invisible until then.
Mariama Bâ was born in 1929 in Dakar when Senegal was under French colonial rule. Following her mother’s early death, she was raised by maternal relatives in an affluent yet conservative household with a polygamic family structure. She spent the school holidays studying with imams at a mosque inside the family compound, while her traditional grandparents intended to limit opportunities for her education beyond primary school, according to the gender norms of the time which valued a higher education for men only and a primarily domestic role for women.
Luckily, Amadou Bâ, Mariama’s progressive politician father, stepped in to insist that his daughter continue to attend French school in addition to the Koranic studies in her native Wolof. While her father was largely absent from Dakar for work, she credited him entirely for her education: “A man of finance, but also a man of letters, my father taught me to read. A flood of books accompanied his homecomings. It is from him that I learned how to express myself orally. He would have me recite in French what I had learned, and never tired of correcting me.” Indeed, it was also thanks to her father’s intervention that Bâ was able to continue her formal education past the standard age of fourteen.
With the support of her primary school teacher at the French school, she completed the entrance exam for the École normale des jeunes filles de Rufisque, a teacher training school in the suburb of Dakar for female students from French-occupied territories in West Africa. About her primary school teacher, she said: “[Mrs. Berthe Mauberthad] had the lonely task of overcoming the resistance of my [extended] family who had had enough of ‘all this coming and going on the road to nowhere.’” Bâ proved to be a brilliant student from the outset, receiving one of the highest scores on an entrance exam in the school’s history. She graduated as a schoolteacher in 1947 at the age of eighteen.
“I am not, in fact, the only one to insist on changing the rules of the game and injecting new life into it. Women should no longer be decorative accessories, objects to be moved about, companions to be flattered or calmed with promises. Women are the nation’s primary, fundamental root, from which all else grows and blossoms. Women must be encouraged to take a keener interest in the destiny of the country.”
— from So Long A Letter, p. 62
Bâ’s early experiences growing up in a restrictive environment would greatly influence her writing and advocacy on political issues and for women’s right to an education. In fact, some of her first politicized works include essays that she wrote at École normale, one of which explained a method for rejection of the “so-called French assimilation policy.” It was at the École normale that Bâ would meet her next mentor, Mrs. Germaine Le Goff, who “taught me to know myself. I cherish the memory of rich communions with her, which have made me a better person.”
Between 1947 and 1959, Bâ worked as a teacher and then as an academic inspector, continuing to work throughout three different marriages, all of which ended of Bâ’s own vuolition. She had a total of nine children, six of whom she had during her third and longest marriage, to Obeye Diop, a Senegalese journalist and politician. When she and Diop divorced after twenty-five years of marriage, Bâ continued raising all of her nine children as a single parent, which was highly unconventional for Senegalese society in the seventies.
In addition to her advocacy for women’s rights, Bâ was politically vocal in her criticism of the neocolonial system present in the newly independent Senegal. While Senegal and the surrounding region was officially liberated from colonial rule in 1960, the new state struggled throughout the sixties and seventies to implement its own political and cultural identity with its first constitution instituted in 1963 and the nation’s first three-party system introduced in 1976. Bâ maintained a skeptical stance of the status of Senegal as an independent state as long as French influence persisted, especially through economic control.
As her children grew up, Bâ began to devote more and more time to her political and social activism. She became involved, often holding high positions, in feminist organizations like the global women’s rights organisation Soroptimist International. She became particularly vocal on issues such as the mistreatment of women in polygamous family structures, violence against women and lack of education opportunities for women in Senegal.
“Wrinkling my brow, I commented: ‘But we are not incendiaries; rather, we are stimulants!’ And I pressed on: ‘In many fields, and without skirmishes, we have taken advantage of the notable achievements that have reached us from elsewhere, the gains wrested from the lessons of history.”
— from So Long a Letter, p. 61
It was also around this time, soon after the end of her marriage, that Bâ’s friends encouraged her to write a novel. Fellow author Annette Mbaye d’Erneville even went so far as to tell the publisher Nouvelles Éditions Africaines to be on the lookout for her manuscript. Just as planned, Bâ couldn’t bear the thought of the men at the publishing house patronizing her for not delivering on the manuscript, and committed to writing So Long a Letter.
The novel was published in 1979 in French and translated into English ten years later by Modupé Bodé-Thomas. Bâ won the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa for the work in 1980. The epistolary novel, set in liberated Senegal, follows the recently-widowed woman Ramatoulaye through the letters she writes to her childhood friend Aissatou, who lives in the United States. Throughout the traditional forty days of mourning after her husband’s death, Ramatoulaye reflects on her marital relationship, the complicated feelings towards her co-wife to whom her husband devoted most of his time and resources, and the offers of remarriage that come soon after the expected period of mourning.
“My worries pale when I recall my grandmother, who found in popular wisdom an appropriate dictum for each event. She liked to repeat: ‘The mother of a family has no time to travel. But she has time to die.'”
— from So Long A Letter, p. 76
Through Ramatoulaye’s letters and reflections on Aissatou’s stories, Bâ identifies the dichotomy that she also experienced between the traditional cultural and religious values of home life versus the modern expectations of women introduced through the French school system. Similar to Bâ herself, Aissatou chooses divorce and her own independence over conventional cultural values while Ramatoulaye outwardly ascribes to the cultural expectations placed on Senegalese women. Through her characters’ perspectives, Bâ’s work brought international attention to Senegalese women’s experiences and encouraged wider recognition of the need for strengthened gender equality in Senegal as well as other African countries.
Bâ died on August 17, 1981 in Paris, France at the age of 52 after battling cancer, just a few months before the publication of her second novel Scarlet Song (Un chant écarlate). Her final oeuvre, it was published posthumously that same year, first translated into English in 1986 by Dorothy S. Blair.
The story follows the marital relationship between Ousmane, a black Senegalese Muslim man and Mireille, a white French Christian woman. The couple faces opposition from their families and larger communities while they themselves struggle to accept their European and African cultural differences, especially when Ousmane takes a second wife. As with her first novel, Bâ emphasizes the importance of gender equality in marital relationships and of empowerment through female solidarity and interpersonal relationships.
This book which has so often been described as a “cry from the heart,” this cry is coming from the heart of all women everywhere. It is first a cry from the heart of Senegalese women, because it talks about the problems of Senegalese women, of Muslim women, of the women with the constraints of religion … as well as other social constraints. But it is also a cry which can symbolize the cry of women everywhere…there is everywhere a cry, everywhere in the world, a women’s cry is being uttered.”
— Mariana Ba, upon receiving the Noma award for So Long A Letter in 1980
In honor of her devotion as a teacher and advocate for women’s educational opportunities, the Maison d’Éducation Mariama Bâ was founded in 1977 on the Senegalese island Gorée “to honor her work has a teacher, her writings, and her activism for women’s educational opportunities”. Each year, the boarding school recognizes around 25 female students who have achieved the highest entrance exam scores across the country, giving them the opportunity to continue their secondary education.
Today, Bâ’s works are considered pioneering examples of feminist literature; however, like many of her contemporaries, she did not formally identify as a feminist herself. She worried that the goals of the wider feminism movement, especially for white European women, were to separate the sexes and place women above men in a social structure and thus she rejected the label. Instead, she focused on her own goals of paving the way for other aspiring African women writers, advocating for African women’s voices through her writing, drawing attention to the gender inequalities that women face in polygamous and conservative social structures, and making the higher level of education that she experienced available to all girls and women.
“We have a right, just as you have, to education, which we ought to be able to pursue to the furthest limits of our intellectual capacities. We have a right to equal well-paid employment, to equal opportunities. The right to vote is an important weapon. And now the Family Code has been passed, restoring to the most humble of women the dignity that has so often been trampled upon.”
— from So Long a Letter, p. 61
Since their publication, her novels have become hallmarks of Francophone African literature. Bâ’s work has served as an inspiration to later generations of Senegalese women writers and promoted a greater awareness of the importance of gender equality across the region. Exploring the complicated relationship between traditional customs and modern conventions, Bâ’s writing calls for the preservation of traditional African culture while providing men and women with equal treatment and opportunities.
In one of her final essays, “The Political Functions of Written African Literatures” (“La Fonction politique des littératures africaines écrites”, 1981), Bâ argues her belief that writers should be political in their work and always remain critical of societal conventions and standards. Above all, her legacy continues to underpin the power of words and dissenting voices to institute lasting change towards a more equal society.
Text by Cassandra Bertolini