So Long a Letter: Feminism in Francophone West Africa
A book review by Nelly Ky
Even though I have read Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter multiple times, first at the age of 12 in middle school in Burkina Faso, then later before completing high school, I only started to grapple with the themes of this inspirational novel when I read it again the third time as a young woman. The book is written as a letter, and recounts the stories of a lifelong friendship between two married women, living in postcolonial Senegal. Ramatoulaye, the protagonist of the story, writes to her lifelong friend Aissatou, after losing her husband, Modou. In the letter, Ramatoulaye unfolds commonalities shared between her and Aissatou. The two women both fell in love when attending a French colonial’s teacher college. Despite their respective families’ disapproval , they nonetheless decided to marry the men their hearts were beating for.
Ramtoulaye’s husband, Modou, was a successful union advocate and Aissatou’s husband, Mawdo, a surgeon. The fairytale ended when both Modou and Mawdo took a second wife, an action that is permissible in Islam but that was considered a betrayal by their wives. In postcolonial Senegal, Bâ’s account cut across the clash between education and women’s autonomy and religion and tradition. Education brought changes to society but women encountered the same stumbling blocks: remaining submissive to their husbands yet yearning for independence and freedom.
In many ways, the novel represents the experiences of the educated Muslim woman in West Africa. The pressure of maintaining their domestic roles while working to contribute to the economic well-being of their families is coupled with the pressure of retaining their devout Muslim faith. Both Ramatoulaye and Aissatou have a hard time justifying polygamy under the rules of Islam. Their western education rejects the practice of polygamy, that breaks the marital bonds that hold a family together. So Long a Letter is one of the most engaging books on African Feminism and is a beautiful reminder of the importance of intersectionality when discussing women’s experiences in our societies. Bâ delivers a genuine message about the impossibility of separating women experiences from post-colonial discourses and points out to the necessity of unity and solidarity between the two sexes by speaking about forgiveness. For instance, at the end of the book, Ramatoulaye writes a letter to her deceased husband Modou and forgives him from hurting her with his deeds, a difficult action that relieves her from her grievance and resentment.
The impact of this book is timeless because 50 years after it was written, I can still relate to the themes discussed with my own experiences growing up in West Africa. Women’s experiences in different parts of Africa may be different but they center around the same theme: reconciling our traditional and religious values to the changes brought by western education and modernity. The novel loses some of its luster when translated from French to English but it retains its beautiful prose. It is also an excellent reminder that the experiences of African women differ in many ways from Western feminist discourse and it is important for Western feminism to acknowledge and include African experiences for us all to keep speaking about the barriers that patriarchy still causes in our societies.
Hailing from Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, Nelly Ky is currently in her last year of undergraduate studies, completing a double major in Political Science and International Relations. She is passionate about African countries’ political economies and has recently developed a keen interest in the African Union and its projects towards sustainable development in Africa, especially targeting women social economic development.