Afrikult. on Mariama Ba

6th Apr 2016

Senegalese feminist and author Mariama Ba published just two novels, So Long a Letter and Scarlet Song, before her death in 1981. Here, Afrikult look at why she's had such lasting a influence on African literature...

Mariama Ba, a woman modest and rich in character,  was born in 1929 to a well-to-do family of civil servants. She came into international prominence upon winning the first Norma Prize Award for African Writing with the publication of her first novel Une Si Longue Lettre (So Long a Letter).

Growing up in a colonial world where education for the African child was nothing short of a luxury, Mariama Ba was fortunate to have found in her father a strong ally and advocate of female education.

She studied in one of the most prestigious colonial institutions in Dakar, Ecole Normale de Rufisque whilst undertaking koranic studies under one of Dakar’s leading Islamic clerics.

Ba’s first novel, So Long a Letter, stands as a significant landmark within African literature, to which subsequent and emerging generations of African women writers have and still pay homage.

In So Long a Letter, we are faced with the dialectical tensions within women resistance towards oppression. The novel examines the damaging impact of patriarchy through the allegory of polygamy.

Written in the epistolary tradition, we read from the letters exchanged between Ramatoulaye (central character) and her friend Assiastou- as the former reminisces about her radical student years to her present predicament – the differing responses towards challenging sexism.

Modou, Ramatoulaye’s husband, has abandoned her and their twelve children for a second wife. Nevertheless, she still remains legally married to him.

Even when Modou dies of a heart attack five years after walking out of his family, she abides the rigours of mourning for four months and ten days, as expected of a widow in accordance with Senegalese customs.

Assiatou, on the other hand, transgresses against all cultural and social expectation by separating from her husband Mawdo when he decides to take a second wife, and is rewarded with self-independence and happiness.

Ramatoulaye’s dissatisfaction and penitent tone – as opposed to Assiatou’s fruitfully liberating and radical stance – symbolise the oppressive reality of conformity on the one hand and the reward of resistance on the other.

Mariama Ba also understood that the oppression of women neither stemmed from a lack of self- empowerment nor a cultural phenomenon favourable to men.

In her second novel Scarlet Song (1981), Ousmane, a Senegalese boy from a noble family, and Mireille, the daughter of the French Ambassador, consummate their libertine vision of liberté, equalité and fraternité in a marital union that exposes the shortcomings of hollow ideological platitudes.

The love which once passionately beat in the womb of revolution slowly withers with time, as Ousmane hardens in judgement of his wife’s undesirable otherness, whilst Mireille grows rabidly intolerant of the cultural differences between her western upbringing and Senegalese social customs and traditions.

In a foul still birth of enlightenment, Ousmane awakens to reclaim his ‘soul’, divesting himself emotionally from the perversion of western ideals (symbolised in the form of Mereille) and reunite himself with his Africanity through his second marriage to Ouleymatou, a childhood friend who unlike Mireille earns the approval of his mother and father.

At this point, with both her family and that of her in laws against her, Soukeyna, Ousmane’s sister remains Mireille’s only form of support.

Certainly, Soukeyna expresses great solidarity and compassion towards Mireille as she goes against her family and chastises her brother for his ill treatment of his wife.

Coming to the end of the novel, Mireille finally falls prey to despair, attempting to kill her husband and successfully killing herself and their baby. Ousmane, however, survives with stab wounds, sounding a scarlet song of deep remorse.

Once again, Maraima Ba beautifully reveals the damaging schism, pain and suffering inflicted on humanity, by relating her understanding of the conflict and tension between race, gender and culture – herein explored through the institution of marriage- to the very nature of patriarchy.

The interracial drama offers a good illustration to the brutal effects of countercultural prejudice, double oppression and cultural alienation.

Working within a progressive womanist mode, she unravels the inherent conflicts associated to feminist self-expressions through exposing dialectical tensions that cut across race, gender and culture.

Maraima Ba views womanhood in a larger context of the damaging effect of patriarchy on the struggle for equality and fraternity amongst men and women in the consolidation of a common humanity – a oneness of being.

Ba at best seeks a Universalist form of humanity, undimmed or blighted by exclusive privilege to race, culture or gender wherein men and women of different races assume their position as allies in a common struggle for a better world.

Similar to Alice Walker, Ba considers feminism as part of a womanist struggle for liberation, wherein men constitute an integral part as partners and allies, fathers and uncles, husbands and brothers.

Mariama Ba died on the 17 August 1981 at the age of 51, from a prolonged illness. But her words live on!


In the month of July 2014, three friends came together to consummate their love for African literature. This auspicious encounter led to the birth of Afrikult. an online forum for people to connect, explore and expand knowledge on African literature and culture combined. Afrikult. aims to make African literature less exotic, less highbrow and more accessible. All materials on the site are cleverly presented in a simple language and in a bite-size format for easy readability. Check us atwww.afrikult.com or follow us on facebook.com/afrikult, Twitter and Instagram @afrikult.