#100AfricanWomenWriters: 16. Mariama Bâ

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Mariama Ba around 25. Source: UNESCO

Yes, this is the first time that I wrote a serious novel. I have written before when I was a schoolgirl. I wrote essays for homework which were published. I wrote a dissertation which was published by the ‘Review Espirit’ a long time ago. I have written articles for newspapers, lots of them, but this book is my first serious effort to see the light. This is my first book.

So, said Senegalese writer Mariama in a 1981 interview with Barbara E. Harrell-Bond. The year before this interview, 1980, Mariama was awarded the first Noma Award - an annual prize of $3000 endowed by Japanese publisher Shiochi Noma to African writers published within Africa. The award was presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which in 1980 had a Black Africa theme.

Mariama Ba being awarded the Noma Prize in 1980. Source: AUFS Report, 1981.

This was for Bâ’s first novel, Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter) - one of the most widely read works of Francophone African literature. Published in 1979, it follows a Muslim, French-educated, middle-aged Senegalese school teacher, Ramatoulaye, during her iddat, the mourning period of four months and 10 days prescribed for Muslim widows. In this long ‘letter’ written to her best friend Aissatou, Ramatoulaye looks back on her life with Modou Fall, her husband of 30 years, providing readers with a specific insight into her own experiences as well as those of other women.

In her acceptance speech for the Noma, Bâ remarked that she was surprised at winning:

I was very surprised. Even more so because I did not know of the existence of the prize. And even more, I did not even know that my book was being considered for any prize … A friend came to my house to tell me I had won. I was unaware of it. I didn’t even realise that there was prize money … I was even more proud and happy because it was not only a prize for Francophone Africa, but a prize for black Africa. That is, all of French- and English-speaking Africa. There were many candidates, so it was a prize which obviously was important.

Bâ died a year after she received the Noma award after a long battle with cancer, and before her second novel, Un Chant Écarlate (Scarlet Song), was published. briefly spoke about her second novel during her 1981 interview, when asked if she was ‘working on another book’, and worked on the revisions in order to prepare it for publication after her death:

Yes, and it is finished. I do not know if it is going to receive the same reception as 'Une si longue lettre'. As a matter of fact, it is the reception of 'Une si longue lettre' which makes me more and more hesitant to deliver this work to publishers. This first reception was so good, the book has been so well liked, that I wonder what kind of reception will be given to this other book.

Scarlet Song, published posthumously in 1986, also received international attention. The book deals with an interracial relationship in Senegal and the struggle of women to overcome the traditional system of polygamy and gender discrimination. On the book, Bâ goes on to explain:

I have taken the white wife and the African husband as the theme. Here, if a black woman married to a white man, we can easily accept that, at least more easily accept it … The colonialists took black women as wives and it never was a tragedy, you see … Because here in Senegal, it is the woman who is given into marriage, and belongs to the husband’s family. It is not the same thing with a man. The man bears the family name. He is the root of the tree which flourishes to give fruit. The fruits contain the seed which will make the race live again and nourish the ground. Thus the problem of a white wife is more interesting from the point of view of the mentality of the man’s mother, and from the point of view of society. There are more possible situations. So my book is about a white wife and a black husband.

The book was also set in Senegal and not France because ‘otherwise it would not be interesting’.

If they were in France there would not be any problem. If the book was set in France, in Europe, anywhere else, there would not be a problem. They could isolate themselves from the parents and the others. It would not be the same thing.

Writer and teacher, Mariama Bâ was one of the pioneers of Senegalese literature. Born in Dakar, Senegal in 1929 to a Muslim Lebou family, her father, was a civil servant, 'a teller in the Treasury of French West Africa.'  He was also a politician and was the first Minister of Health after the decentralisation bill was passed in 1956. Her paternal grandfather 'Sarakhole (from Bakel) ... was an interpreter in Saint-Louis, then in Dakar where he died.'

lost her mother when she was very young - 'I only know her through photographs,' she remarked in a 1981 interview, and was raised a Muslim in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents on an extended family compound close to a mosque. She received her early education in French, while at the same time attending Koranic school with Dakar’s leading clerics. Bâ’s grandparents did not plan to educate her beyond primary school - they did not believe that girls should be taught beyond that. However, her father’s insistence on giving her an opportunity to continue her studies eventually persuaded them, and she attended French school.

I had the good fortune to attend the French school (which is now Berthe Maubert School on Avenue Albert Sarraut) thanks to the perseverance of my father who, whenever he had a holiday, would come to beg my grandparents to continue to grant him this favour.

During school holidays I continued my Koranic studies at the residence of the late Amadou Lamine Diene … He had become the Imam of the main mosque in Dakar, and his nephew, the current Imam, El Hadji Mawdo Sylla, was my teacher. The fact that I went to school didn’t relieve me from the domestic duties little girls had to do. I had my turn at cooking and washing up. I learned to do my own laundry and to wield the pestle because, it was feared, 'you never know what the future might bring!’

eventually obtained her school-leaving certificate, and won admission to the École Normale, a teacher training college for girls in Rufisque (a suburb in Dakar):

A year after the Primary School Certificate Examination in 1943, I had the joy of coming first in French West Africa at the competitive examination for entry to the École Normake in Rufique. My father was away in Niamey and Mrs. Berthe Maubert (primary school teacher) had the lonely task of overcoming the resistance of my family who had had enough of “all this coming and going on the road to nowhere.”

Her earliest works were essays she wrote (on nationalism) while at the École 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". École Normale is also where Bâ met Mrs. Germaine Le Goff who “taught me about myself” - “taught me to know myself. I cherish the memory of rich communions with her, which have made me a better person."

Bâ also credits her father with strengthening 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.

Bâ graduated as a schoolteacher in 1947, and taught from 1947 to 1959, before transferring to the Senegalese Regional Inspectorate of Teaching as an educational inspector due to her failing health. However, her teaching had been so exceptional that in 1977 President Leopold Senghor founded the Mariama Bâ  Boarding School to honour her legacy as an educator. Bâ later married a Senegalese journalist and member of Parliament, Obèye Diop, but divorced him and was left to care for their nine children on her own. By the late 1970s, after most of her children were adult, Ba became a vocal activist for women's rights and a critic of the neocolonial system that had evolved in most of the newly independent African nations.

In addition to So Long a Letter and Scarlet Song, Bâ also wrote La Fonction politique des littératures Africaines écrites (The Political Function of African Written Literatures) in 1981, arguing that Africans should embrace and feel pride in their culture and achievements. While Bâ’s activism was most prevalent in her literature, particularly with her focus on women’s experiences in a traditional Muslim and patriarchal society, Bâ also worked as a journalist where she wrote about women’s issues and participated in women’s organisations.

I end with ’s last words during her 1981 interview on her thoughts on the Noma prize:

Really, in some ways one can say that the Noma prize has rekindled the fire of hope … This Japanese publisher thinks of promoting African books, to give something so that African literature goes forward. That is the meaning of this gesture for me. The existence of all such prizes is always an encouragement. That is what it really shows. As I was saying earlier, books are an instrument for development and books must not die. We must encourage people to write, to allow the great flourishing of writing.

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