Book Review Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter


Farah Udegbunam


I chose this story is because I have been married to a Nigerian for the past fourteen years, and I can remember all the horrible stories I was told of why I should not marry him. One that stuck in my mind is the total disregard for women that these men are said to possess. Needless to say this type of behavior did not occur in my relationship, since after fourteen years we are still married. But the treatment of Third World women did fascinate me, and being a Muslim woman myself, I wanted to get a feel of what Muslim women of other cultures had to endure.


"So Long a Letter" is a sequence of reminiscences, some wistful, some bitter, recounted by Senegalese school teacher Ramatoulaye, who has recently been widowed. In a letter to her friend, Aissatou, Ramatoulaye wrote of her emotional struggle to regain her life after her husband's, Modou, abrupt decision to take a second wife. Although sanctioned by the laws of Islam, Modou's action is a calculated betrayal of her trust and abrupt rejection of their life together.

In the novel the act of polygamy and its aftermath was the main focus. The main character's, Ramatoulaye, husband decided to take on a second wife without her knowledge. Ramatoulaye was a school teacher in her fifties trying to cope with pressures of dealing with a husband and twelve children. Aissautou knew all too well what Ramatoulaye was experiencing; she also had to deal with this heartbreaking ordeal when her husband decided to take on a second wife. But unlike Ramatoulaye, this did not sit well with Aissatou. Despite her Islamic background, she decided to leave the village and her problem behind.

Ramatoulaye, witnessing the suffering of her good friend, never thought it would happen to her, until that fateful day when she received a visit from some of her husband's friends and family informing her that Modou had taken on a second wife. This completely devastated Ramatoulaye, who thought that her life had fallen apart. In the letter to Aissautou she wrote how she'd given Modou twenty-two years of her life along with twelve children and he just decided that he wanted something new and younger. Not only was the new wife younger, but a classmate of their oldest daughter, which was another stab in the heart. Ramatoulaye wrote of how his neglect for her feeling and the feeling of their children almost destroyed their lives. She wrote of how she wished she had the strength of her friend to just walk away, but she felt that the sanctions of her religion, Islam, were too strong to allow her to that, not to mention having twelve children to raise alone.

Through all of her pain, Ramatoulaye's heart went out to Modou's new bride, Binetou, who she felt would suffer more in the long run. In Binetou, Ramatoulaye could see herself as a young girl starting out in life with the pressure of poverty and seeking desperately to find a way out. But unlike Ramatoulaye, Binetou was a young girl of nineteen who was almost forced into the decision of marriage to a man twice her age by a mother who thought it was best she married a man who could guarantee her a good start.

Ramatoulaye wrote of how Modou had completely forgotten his first family and spend all of his time with Binetou. She wrote of her struggles to encourage her children to continue to respect their father regardless of circumstances. This was a very hard struggle for her older children who'd grown up with Binetou. Although Ramatoulaye was heart-broken with how Modou and Binetou had no regard for her feelings when they decided to venture into their cohabitation, her most hurtful moment was when she received a message that Modou had passed away from a heart attack. At that time she'd forgotten her problems and her heart went out to Binetou. Ramatoulaye wrote to her dear friend Aissatou that her problems that seemed at the time to be greater than the tallest mountains were really only ant hills. Binetou was now and always was the one with the true problems. A woman then trapped into a marriage to a man twice her age was now a woman who has lost her security blanket and needing to start over at only nineteen years of age.


The Holy Quran states in Chapter 4 verse 54, "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard in (the husband's)absence what Allah would have them guard". What one must understand is that although Islam did impact the social structure of many African societies, many of these societies had strong cultural and traditional ways that influenced how one viewed or understood the religion of Islam. A husband coming home and announcing "Honey I've taken on a new wife," without any indication that the thought lingered in his mind is tough enough, but for a husband to send a messenger to give the message is totally insensitive in the eyes of most western countries. But to the women of the Third World, this act is as common as the sunrise.

In an attempt to understand polygamy, it is wise to understand that this practice was around for years before Islam was introduced to African culture, therefore, it should not be mistaken as an act known only to the Islamic faith. Although the Holy Quran states that men are allowed up to four wives, it also says in the very same verse that one wife is best! Modou took this statement to mean what was convenient to him, the way this would affect the women involve. Although this lack of concern affected each wife equally, I feel Binetou was the one who the bulk of the pressure was against.

I draw reference to another book that caught my interest, Daphne Ntiri's "One's not a Woman one Becomes...", which talks about "Female Power and the Family Cycle." "The early years of marriage and patrilocal residence are stressful for the young bride who is subject to the authority of the homes elders". Binetou had no father at home so her mother thought it best that she married for security, not only for Binetou but for the entire family. Binetou was pressured into a marriage to a man twice her age for the benefit of security for family, not love. This act destroyed Binetou's life before she could begin to live it.

The Holy Quran admonishes the man that he must be a maintainer and protector of the woman and children. The husband is expected to provide for the wife and children, whereas the wife is to assume the role of a housewife and mother to their children. In the story Modou seemed to have forgotten his role as a protector of his family after marriage to Binetou. He simply gave up on his twenty two year marriage to Ramatoulaye and commitment to his children and moved on with his life with Binetou. Modou took the part of the religion that spoke of having more than one wife, which was an already existing cultural tradition, but what he did not draw from his understanding of his religion is the part where each of his wives has to be treated as equal. Ramatoulaye was left alone to provide for twelve children while her husband who was sworn by the laws of his religion to take care of them was trying to recapture his youth at the expense of an innocent young girl, Binetou.

In many Islamic cultures women are considered a curse to their families from adolescence to adulthood. She does not receive the same type of respect that her male counterparts receive. Her only purpose, if any, is to reproduce and if for some reason she can't she is rendered useless. Although the novel did not touch on the subject of treatment of male and female children, it can be assumed from the treatment of the adult female that this type of separation took place early on in their lives. Most women in these types of societies are looked upon as second rate citizens in the eyes of their male counterparts. Their existence is mainly for the gratification of the male.

I chose to look at the Islamic aspect of the novel to show how the men of the story interpreted their own meaning of the Islamic laws to satisfy their own selfish needs. A prime example of this is when Ramatoulaye was told about her husband's second wife. Although all the messengers were influential men in the village, they showed no tact in their explanation. They simply passed it off as something God wished; as something that Ramatoulaye should accept it with no questions asked. As I stated earlier, many African societies had strong cultural and traditional ways that influenced how one viewed or understood the religion of Islam. Therefore the acts of cultural traditions are often mistaken for Islam.