Mariama B (April 17, 1929–August 17, 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. She later married a Senegalese member of Parliament, Obye 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.
she 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.
The historian Nzegwu has contended that B’s life was rich in events. she 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, B 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.
B 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. B’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 cole 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 B’s intellect and capacity. She taught from 1947 to 1959, before transferring to the Regional Inspectorate of teaching as an educational inspector.
B was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. B’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parents’ 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. B’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.
Mariama felt the failure of African liberation struggles and movements. Her earliest works were essays she wrote while at the cole 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”.
She 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.
As a divorcee and “a modern Muslim woman” as she characterized herself, she 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, her contribution is significant because she explained and described the disadvantaged position of women in general and especially married women.
She 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 her to believe in her mission to expose and critique the rationalisations employed to justify established power structures.
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”.
B wrote many books openly sharing her thoughts and feelings, including: So Long a Letter (1981), Scarlet Songs (1986), and La fonction politique des littratures Africaines crites (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 B�, 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, B 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 B, 1981)
As a Senegalese figure, Mariama B represents a kind of female 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. B is actually calling on women to take responsibility for their lives throughout the novel.
Through her character Ramatoulaye, Mariama B 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 B, 1981).
According to her: “The power of books, this marvelous invention of astute human intelligence. 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…”