Mariama Bâ

Mariama Bâ

Mariama Bâ (1929–1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Born in Dakar, she was raised a Muslim, but at an early age came to criticise what she perceived as inequalities between the sexes resulting from [African] traditions. Raised by her traditional grandparents, she had to struggle even to gain an education, because they did not believe that girls should be taught. Bâ later married a Senegalese member of Parliament, Obèye Diop, but divorced him and was left to care for their nine children.

Her frustration with the fate of African women—as well as her ultimate acceptance of it—is expressed in her first novel, So Long a Letter. In it she depicts the sorrow and resignation of a woman who must share the mourning for her late husband with his second, younger wife. Abiola Irele called it "the most deeply felt presentation of the female condition in African fiction". This short book was awarded the first Noma Prize for Publishing in Africa in 1980.[1]

Bâ died a year later after a protracted illness, before her second novel, Scarlet Song, which describes the hardships a woman faces when her husband abandons her for a younger woman he knew at youth, was published.


Early life


The historian Nzegwu has contended that Bâ’s life was rich in events. Bâ was born in Dakar, Senegal in 1929, into an educated and well-to-do Senegalese family where she grew up. Her father was a career civil servant who became one of the first ministers of state. He was the Minister of Health in 1956 while her grand father was an interpreter in the French occupation regime.

After her mother’s death, Bâ was largely raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents. She received her early education in French, while at the same time attending Koranic school.


Bâ was a prominent law student at school. During the colonial revolution period and later, girls faced numerous obstacles when they wanted to have a higher education. Bâ’s grandparents did not plan to educate her beyond primary school. However, her father’s insistence on giving her an opportunity to continue her studies eventually persuaded them.

In a teacher training college based in Rufisque (a suburb in Dakar), she won the first prize in the entrance examination and entered the Ecole Normale. In this institution, she was prepared for later career as a school teacher. The school’s principal began to prepare her for the 1943 entrance examination to a teaching career after he noticed Bâ’s intellect and capacity. She taught from 1947 to 1959, before transferring to the Regional Inspectorate of teaching as an educational inspector.


Bâ was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parent’s life and her schooling. Indeed, her contribution is of absolute importance in modern African studies since she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. Bâ's work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they all deserve the title “mother of Africa”, and how important they are for the society.

African liberation struggles

Mariama Bâ felt the failure of African liberation struggles and movements. Her earliest works were essays she wrote while at the Ecole Normale. Some of her works have now been published. Her first work constitutes essentially a useful method of rejection of the “so-called French assimilationist policy”.

Gender and reparation

Bâ advocated urgent consideration and reinvigoration of African life.

This consideration and reinvigoration is essentially founded on the social construct of the relationship between man and woman. Indeed, there is an unequal and unbalanced power in the male/female relationship. According to her, these facts can help us become aware of Africa's needs for societal change, a change more political than merely making speeches.[2]


As a divorcee and “a modern Muslim woman” as she characterized herself, Bâ was active in women’s associations. She also ardently promoted education. She defended women’s rights, delivered speeches, and wrote articles in local newspapers. Thus, Mariama’s contribution is significant because she explained and described the disadvantaged position of women in general and especially married women.

Vision and commitment

She had also had vision and determined commitment. She felt African people should reduce the deleterious impact of their culture. Women are plunged both psychologically and financially in a sensual indulgence and complete lack of regard for the consequences of men’s actions on families. They are completely blind. These facts led Bâ to believe in her mission to expose and critique the rationalisations employed to justify established power structures.

Distortions of cultural thought and institutions

She thought that distortions of cultural thought and institutions are made to demonstrate masquerades as “tradition” and “culture”. Men and Women have been seduced into accepting the continuation of these “customs”. People should be “persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman”.


Mariama wrote many books openly sharing her thoughts and feelings, including: So Long a Letter (1981), Scarlet Songs (1986), and La fonction politique des littératures Africaines écrites (The Political Function of African Written Literatures) (1981).

So Long a Letter

In 1981, So Long a Letter was awarded the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. In this book, the author recognized the immense contributions African women have made and continue to make in the building of their societies. This book has already been published in more than a dozen languages and is about to appear in more.

The book is written in the form of a letter, or a diary, from a widow, Ramatoulaye, to her childhood girlfriend, Aissatou, who lives in the United States. Nafissatou Diallo (1941–1982), who started her works in the 1970s, was a mirror for Mariama whose leading role was a strong-minded character. Moreover, she found support, friendship and values from female confidence, unity and harmony. The discriminatory use of power forces Ramatoulaye to deal with its consequences. This discriminatory power is what is in the novel a form of male domination coming from society's construction of a patriarchal ideology. Because Ramatoulaye is a woman, she seemingly has no right determining her destiny. Aissatou rejects this notion and chooses her own life without being denied a life of her own by her husband Mawdo.

This strong exploration of feminism is perhaps what makes the novel a strong voice for the oppressed woman in Africa. The woman is oppressed by culture and by virtue of her position. Aissatou rejects this and slowly Ramatoulaye realises she cannot look to her culture for much.

To demonstrate how males are instinctive, Bâ uses female rationality and responsibility. She also portrays men’s irresponsibility by using their sexual instincts. Mawdo, Aissatou’s husband, differs from her. He emphasizes the bestiality of men’s instincts, while she urges her daughter against them. She argues that a man’s instinct is “through his self-control, his ability, to reason, to choose his power to attachment, that individual distinguishes himself from animal.”(Mariama Bâ, 1981)

As a Senegalese figure, Mariama Bâ represents a kind of feminine Leopold Sedar Senghor. She shows that not only men are important in this world. She also shows that to succeed in this life, women should identify themselves and also trust in themselves to overcome these multiple darknesses that compose life. In showing the importance of women, their role in bringing up families and keeping them together in time of calamity is clearly brought out in the novel. This still is a powerful expression of the unheeded voice of the previously silent woman in Africa. Bâ is actually calling on women to take responsibility for their lives throughout the novel.

Through her character Ramatoulaye, Mariama Bâ has expressed herself. This includes the statement that she: “has not given up waiting to refashion her life. Despite everything (disappointment and humiliations) hope still lives within her… the success of a nation depends inevitably on just such families." She also shows that books can be a weapon, “a peaceful weapon perhaps, but they are weapon.”(Mariama Bâ, 1981). According to her: “The power of books, this marvelous invention of astute human intelligent. Various signs associated with sound: different sounds that form the word. Juxtaposition of words from which springs the idea, Thought, History, Science, Life. Sole instrument of interrelationship and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress. They enabled you to better yourself. What society refused you, they granted…”[3]


The protagonist, Ramatoulaye, is inspired by her friendship with Aissatou and by her resolute behaviour in the face of adversity. At the beginning of the story, Ramatoulaye was stressed. She writes to her friend to relieve this stress. As a Muslim, she refers to God when her husband Modou Fall died. She also refers to him and to Sharia law concerning polygamy, when her husband, after twenty five years of marriage, marries her daughter’s friend Binetou. Even though Modou abandoned her and spends their money on Binetou, Ramatoulaye decided to stay with him because of her faith. Having any choice, because life goes on, Ramatoulaye has done everything which is needed in the house. Taking care of her family and paying duties and bills and finding food, Ramatoulaye was lonely and she misses her “warm” husband. To overcome these shyness or shame, she used to go to the cinema to change her mind, but alone. She finds peace and warmth in religion, friends, books, writings and cinema. Ramatoulaye allows trousers and occidental clothes to her daughter.

In talking to Aissatou about the hardships in her life, Ramatoulaye is actually reflecting on her own experiences. Because the two have reacted to their husbands' polygamous states differently, Ramatoulaye wants to know if it was worth it staying in this marriage. Aissatou's decision in the end is far more radical than that made by Ramatoulaye; she is a clear representation of a woman aching to free herself from the bondages of tradition. Whether the decisions each woman made for herself were correct may be left up to the reader, but the book nonetheless as a whole serves to communicate common experiences women around the world see firsthand on a daily basis.


Aissatou rises out of her position to disprove oppressive culture. She is a radical woman and an inspiration for Ramatoulaye and her daughter Daba. Aissatou takes her life into her hands and chooses to walk out of a polygamous relationship. It is clear that she cannot be anywhere the same as young Nabou but the fact that she still has a life to hold on to, an integrity to move by and an enslaving culture to challenge is an apparent aspect developed through this woman. She therefore still acts as an inspiration for a woman suffocatng under the whims of culture.

Scarlet Song

Scarlet Song (1986, also gained international attention). This book deals with the critically urgent need for women to create "empowered" spaces for themselves, meaning, women need to create a space where they are not considered the "weaker sex". Scarlet Song is about a marriage between a European woman and an African man. As So Long a Letter, Scarlet Song gained international attention. Mireille, whose father is a French diplomat gets married to Ousmane, son of a poor Senegalese Muslim family. Moving back from Paris to Senegal, Ousmane once again adopts his traditions and customs. But, as an occidental, Mireille cannot handle this kind of life, especially when Ousmane takes a second wife. She severs the marriage. Most notably, the book criticizes the tyranny of tradition and expounds upon the despair of cross-cultural marriages.

La Fonction politique des littératures africaines écrites

La Fonction politique des littératures africaines écrites (1981). Mariama states that an African woman should be proud of her strength and accomplishments. She contributes to Africa’s development and effectively participates in Africa's growth. In other words, historically.[4]


Inspiration for African women

Mariama Bâ has established herself an inspiring figure for African women. She illustrates that traditions and customs are against modernity and against the “New world” and inspires people to revise them and take those steps that remain to be taken.[5]

Mariama Bâ Boarding School (Maison d'Education Mariama Bâ)

The Mariama Bâ Boarding School is a top boarding school on Goree, an island in Senegal. It was founded in 1977 by Leopold Sedar Senghor, first president of Senegal. The school was named after Mariama Bâ because of what this great author stood for, spoke and wrote about. It admits young women who obtained the highest scores during the national secondary school entry exam. Each year, about 25 female students from the 11 regions of Senegal, are given the opportunity to attend Mariama Bâ boarding school for the rest of their high school years. The curriculum is similar to secondary education in France in that it has seven levels, and students finish with their baccalaureat. Also, students get to school on Sunday evening, and spend the whole week there until Friday evening. To get to Goree, students take a ferry ride which lasts about 25 minutes. Family and friends are allowed to visit students on Wednesday afternoons only.

In 2009, Jana Films, a Spanish production company, filmed a documentary about the Maison d'Education Mariama Bâ directed by Ana Rodríguez Rosell. The documentary portrays the daily activities in the school and is conducted by Abdoul Diallo, a teacher at Mariama Bâ School, and Ramatoulaye Dieng, principal of the School.

Further reading

  • Ada Uzoamaka Azodo (ed.), Emerging Perspectives on Mariama Bâ: Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Postmodernism, Africa World Press (2003), ISBN 1592210287
  • George, Joseph, "African Literature" ch. 12 of Understanding Contemporary Africa, April A. Gordon and Donald L. Gordon, Lynne Rienner, London, 1996, ISBN 1555875475
  • Laura Charlotte Kempen, Mariama Bâ, Rigoberta Menchú, and Postcolonial Feminism, Peter Lang Publishing (2001), ISBN 0820449768


  1. ^ Africana Collection, University of Florida
  2. ^ The University of Western Australia/French (1995) Retrieved on March 25, 2006, From
  3. ^ Femi (2006); Center for Cross Cultural Studies Dakar, Retrieved on June 30, 2006 From
  4. ^ Plant, D. G. (Ed). (1996). Mythic Dimensions in the Novels of Mariama Bâ, Retrieved on March 25, 2006 From Research in African Literatures
  5. ^ D’Erneville, A. (1982), Femmes, Africaines. Retrieved on March 25, 2006 propos recueillis par Annette Mbaye D’Erneville sur les thèmes femmes et société.

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