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“Aïssatou, I received your note. In response, I open this notebook, a point of support in my dismay: our long practice has taught me that confidence drowns pain. “ It is with these words, like a whisper, that the first novel by Senegalese writer Mariama Bâ begins. Such a long letter, published in Dakar in 1979 by Nouvelles Editions Africaines, has become, more than forty years later, the most famous epistolary novel on the African continent.
Republished several times in France (ed. Le Serpent à Plumes), translated in many countries, the work has acquired the status of “Classic”, completed by its inclusion on the list of the 100 best African books of the XXe century.
The apparent simplicity of its narrative framework is undoubtedly one of the keys to its success. Ramatoulaye, a woman obliged to observe the mourning of her husband, uses her quarantine to take stock of her life by addressing a letter to Aïssatou, her friend. Throughout her story, the memories of her married years follow those of her youth, before the time of solitude, when her husband turns away from her to take a second wife. From the outset the calm tone, the accuracy of the words, captivate.
By immersing us in the intimacy of the narrator, her joys, her sufferings and her frustrations, the novelist questions the female condition: the codes governing relations with men, the importance of castes and, above all, polygamy. Ramatoulaye’s letter unfolds like the painful testimony of a literate and idealistic woman, taken in reverse by the society in which she nevertheless grew up.
So she will discover, incredulous, the remarriage of her husband, like her friend before her: ” I knew. Modou knew. The city knew. You, Aïssatou, did not suspect anything and were still beaming. “ she writes. If Aïssatou divorces while Ramatoulaye prefers to step aside, both of them will pay a heavy price for their humiliation: a chosen loneliness, but that those around them make it difficult to assume.
By evoking Senegalese society in this way, it is more broadly to female emancipation that Mariama Bâ echoes, at the end of the 1970s when the demands of women are being heard more than ever throughout the world.
“All choked voices”
If the writer is in her first novel, Such a long letter is not however his first text. She has already distinguished herself by the pen many times, since her formative years. Born in 1929 in Dakar, she was entrusted at a very young age to her grandparents who passed on traditional values to her and brought her up in the Muslim faith. Her father, a civil servant who went through the colonial school, insisted that his daughter go to school.
Mariama continued her studies by entering by competitive examination the famous Normal School of Rufisque, an establishment founded in 1938, where young girls from all over French West Africa (AOF) are trained as teachers. In the rigorous setting of the boarding school, the young girl reads and begins to write with passion.
She was 18 years old in 1947, when one of her compositions relating her childhood, noticed, appeared in the French review Esprit. The text, quoted by Maurice Genevoix, earned him a start to fame. Having become a teacher, Mariama Bâ activates alongside her teaching. Having come into the world in a Senegal under colonial influence, she wants to take advantage of the hope of the years of independence. But in this context of liberation and the construction of new societies, women find themselves in the background, behind the men and the founding fathers. Mariama Bâ refuses this marginalization.
The major international conferences of the World Decade of Women – decreed by the United Nations and started in Mexico City in 1975 – will serve his purpose. Within associations, she campaigns in particular for the education of young girls and expresses herself whenever she can, through articles and speeches.
Few of the women in Senegal then have the courage to openly oppose the new order established. Her demands are often disturbing, like on March 25, 1979 when she spoke to the National Assembly, on the occasion of Senegalese National Women’s Day: “I would like to echo without anger, but in resounding echoes, all the strangled voices, the voices of the oppressed sisters, kept in outdated molds of evolution”, she assailed then.
It is suspected of being influenced by ideologies from abroad. ” If being a feminist means exposing a society’s flaws, then I am! “, she replies to critics. His private life bears witness to the same struggle for a free life, in accordance with his ideas. Married for the first time, she divorces, remarries, divorces again.
In all phases of its existence, its place remains undeniably on the side of women. And it is his voice that we hear when his narrator, Ramatoulaye, writes with passion: “Almost twenty years of independence! When will we see the first woman minister associated with the decisions that guide the future of our country? And yet the activism and capacity of women, their selfless commitment is no longer to be demonstrated. “
Summary of our series “Discovering African classics”