Mariama Ba (1929-1981)
[My] book is often described as a ‘cry from the heart,’ and it is indeed a cry from the heart of all women everywhere. It is first a cry from the heart of Senegalese women, because it talks from the heart of Senegalese women, women constrained by religion and other social constraints that wear them down. But, it is also a cry that can symbolise the cry of women everywhere.
Mariama Bâ was an author from Senegal. She was one of the first to identify gendered disadvantage in African societies through a close focus upon women’s lives. Her works include the semi-autobiographical So Long a Letter, Scarlet Song, and La function politique des littératures Africanes écrit, all written originally in French.
She was born in 1929 in Dakkar from a Muslim Lebou family. Her grandfather Sarakholé served as an interpreter for the French colonialists at St Louis before moving to Dakkar. Her father, Niéle Bâ, was a career civil servant in the Ministry for Health. In 1956 he became Minister for Health, on the establishment of independent Senegalese institutions by the French before they ceded control of the country. Her father passed on to Mariama an egalitarian vision of gender relations, especially with regard to marriage. After her mother’s death, she was raised by her maternal grandparents on an extended family compound close to a mosque; poor and disabled people often sheltered in the compound’s yard due to her grandfather’s generosity.
Her grandparents were traditionalists, who did not believe that girls should be educated beyond primary level. Within the compound, she learned domestic skills, suited to the role of a wife and mother Her father, however, was determined to provide her with a full education and managed to convince his parents to agree. She received an early education in French under a teacher called Berthe Maubert (after whom the school was later named). She also studied the Qur’an with Dakkar’s leading clerics, and sought to enter higher education. Her father argued that she should be permitted to do so, and Bâ was enrolled in a teacher training college.
Germaine Le Goff, the principal of the college, recognised her intellectual potential – Mariama had won prizes for her French compositions; one of which was published in a journal. Le Goff worked with Mariama to prepare to take the entrance examination for a teaching career. Mariama took first place in the exam and entered the École Normale where she wrote significant essays on nationalism. She graduated as a schoolteacher in 1941, and taught for around 12 years before taking a position as a school inspector due to her failing health. The first president of Senegal founded the Mariama Bâ Boarding School to honour her legacy as an educator. She married Obèye Diop, a journalist and politician with whom she had nine children, including a pair of twins, whom she cared for alone after she divorced Diop.
From 1979, Bâ was active as a novelist and engaged in working with women’s organisations, including joining the African chapters of international women’s organisations. Her first novel, So Long a Letter was awarded the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. It tackles the subject of polygyny in the form of letters between two women dealing with the impacts of their husbands’ second marriages. It is considered to be the first ‘feminist’ novel written by an African woman. The novel also acknowledges the immense and under-recognised contributions that African women have made to their societies, the struggle to escape patriarchal expectations, and the power of female friendship.
Her later work, Scarlet Song, published five years after her death, deals with some of the tensions of gender and colonialism, depicted through the relationship between a European woman and an African man, again touching on the topic of polygyny. Shortly after her publication So Long a Letter was celebrated in Stockholm, Mariama was diagnosed with cancer. This was a devastating shock; nevertheless, she worked tirelessly on the revisions to her second novel in order to prepare it for publication after her death.
From the 1990s onward, her works have been considered part of the canon of African writing. She has been described as one of the first novelists to explore the experiences of African women, exploring gender-based oppression through the lens of marriage and relationships.