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Biography of Mariama Bâ

Senegal > Literature : Mariama Bâ

Mariama Bâ
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Born on 17/04/1929 (format : day/month/year)

Biography :

Mariama Bâ,born April 17, 1929- Died August 17,1981 was a  Senegalese  novelist,teacher, and activist

Senegalese novelist Mariama Bâ (1929 - 1981) was catapulted to international prominence with the publication of her first novel, "Une si longue lettre"" So long letter" , which appeared in 1980 when the author was 51 years old. At the time, the novel was a rarity in that it had been written by an African woman, and it was especially noteworthy because of Bâ's origins in the predominantly Islamic country of Senegal.
Viewed from a wider perspective, Bâ was a writer who made valuable explorations of the terrain where African traditional cultures met influences brought by European colonialism. As a so-called "postcolonial" writer with a feminist orientation, Bâ gained wide attention from Western critics and students of literature, and the influence of her work increased following her death. Bâ wrote only two novels, but they stand as vivid portraits of the difficult situations faced by women in African societies, and they remain relevant beyond a purely Senegalese context.

Descended from Civil Servants

Mariama Bâ was born in 1929 in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, on Africa's Atlantic coast. Senegal at the time was a department of French West Africa; it had been under French control for several centuries, and the area in which Dakar now stands was a major port for the shipment of slaves to the Western hemisphere. Bâ's family had been well placed in French colonial circles for several generations; her father's father, named Sarakholé, worked as an interpreter for French officials in the colonial city of Saint-Louis and then came to Dakar. Bâ's father was also employed by the colonial government; he was a treasury teller in the French West African government. As the French set up independent Senegalese institutions prior to pulling out of the country, he became the first Senegalese minister of health in 1956.

Bâ's mother died when Bâ was very young, and she was raised mostly by her maternal grandparents. Her upbringing was in many ways a traditional one. She grew up surrounded by the members of a large extended family, with cousins, aunts, uncles, and the spouses of all of these living at various times in the family compound overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The generosity of Bâ's grandfather meant that the blind and the handicapped often took refuge in Bâ's yard, and Bâ's house was one of a group that surrounded a neighborhood mosque. One aspect of her traditional family life was that Bâ's grandparents did not believe that, as a girl, she should receive a formal education. Bâ's father, however, continued to take an interest in her welfare and became her advocate. He taught her to read, gave her books and asked her to recite in French, and took her with him when he worked for a time in the neighboring country of Dahomey (now Benin). He had the power to see to it that Bâ received the best education available in Senegal at the time. She was enrolled in a French-language school in Dakar to study with a woman named Berthe Maubert, after whom the school was later named.

At the same time, Bâ had to do the work expected of a young Senegalese woman. "The fact that I went to school didn't dispense me from the domestic duties little girls had to do," she told the African Book Publishing Record (ABPR). "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!'" She also studied the Koran with one of Dakar's leading Islamic clerics. Even with these conflicting demands, Bâ managed to notch the highest score in all of West Africa in a competition that won her admission to a top French language teacher-training school, the Ecole Normale de Rufisque. Since her father was out of town, it was left to Bâ's schoolmistress Berthe Maubert to take her side against the wishes of her family, who, she told the ABPR, "had had enough of 'all this coming and going on the road to nowhere.'"

At this new school, Bâ encountered another helpful teacher, a Mrs. Germaine Le Goff, who "taught me about myself, taught me to know myself," Bâ told the APBR. At the time, much French language education in Africa was devoted to training students to assimilate into European ways, but, Bâ said, "She preached for planting roots into the land and maintaining its value…. A fervent patriot herself, she developed our love for Africa and made available to us the means to seek enrichment. I cherish the memory of rich communions with her…. Her discourse outlined the new Africa." Bâ began to write. She credited, in addition to her teachers, the moral strength of her grandmother as an influence on her writing, and as a writer she would combine mastery of the European forms of the novel and the essay with a moral fortitude that had roots in her traditional belief system.

Taught High School

Bâ wrote a book about the colonial educational system and a widely discussed nationalist essay while she was still in school. She received her teaching certificate in 1947 and worked as a teacher, starting at a medical high school in Dakar, for 12 years. Bâ married Senegalese politician Obeye Diop, and the two had nine children. Life became difficult for Bâ after she and Diop divorced and she had to raise her large family alone. She began to suffer from health problems that would plague her for the rest of her life, and she had to resign from her teaching job. Later she became a regional school inspector and worked as a secretary.

Bâ's experiences provided her with raw material for two novels, which she wrote at the very end of her life. The international feminist movement added another layer to her writer's consciousness. As her children grew, Bâ joined international women's organizations that were forming African chapters, and she began to write op-ed columns for African newspapers and to lecture on such subjects as education. One of her central concerns was the institution of polygamy, which often left married women with few legal rights. Well ahead of other feminist activists, she also took on the issue of female genital mutilation, a subject that gained in prominence only toward the end of the twentieth century.

Bâ worked for some time on her first novel, Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter). After it was issued in late 1979 by the Editions Nouvelles Africaines publishing house in Dakar, it quickly gained acclaim from African and French critics. Bâ wrote in French, and translations of the book into English, Dutch, German, Japanese, Russian, and Swedish soon appeared. Une si longue lettre won the inaugural Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, a prize funded by a Japanese publisher. As the title indicated, the book was written in the form of a long letter - a medium that allowed Bâ to bridge the gap between African forms of spoken storytelling and the traditional structure of a novel. The central figure in the novel is Ramatoulaye, a woman whose husband, Moudou Fall, has died of a heart attack. She reflects in her letter on her own life, that of the letter's recipient, and those of other women in her circle.

Addressed Polygamy Issue

Ramatoulaye's story includes elements of Bâ's own. She is a teacher, she has 12 children, and she has combined European-style education with a traditional life. The letter recounts a crisis in Ramatoulaye's life that develops after her husband takes a second wife, a 17-year-old friend of one of his daughters. At the young woman's insistence, Ramatoulaye's husband deserts his first family. Ramatoulaye decides to stay married, but she introduces the reader to another woman, Aissatou, who has chosen the difficult path of divorce in the same situation and has begun working for the Senegalese embassy in the United States. Aissatou is the addressee of Ramatoulaye's long letter, and her situation is somewhat different from her friend's; she has married for love, but her husband has been forced by family pressures to take a second wife.

Bâ's novel also focuses on several polygamous male characters and their various motivations. Une si longue lettre is a keen portrait of a society in transition, several strands of which comes together at Moudou Fall's funeral. Ramatoulaye's letter recounts the funeral's aftermath, as well as the events leading up to her husband's departure and his death. One of his brothers, according to tradition, offers to make her part of his own contingent of wives, but Ramatoulaye feels that his intention is to take control of her money and property and to bring another wage-earning wife into the family, and she refuses his proposal. Ramatoulaye's own daughter, representing another stage in the development of African women's consciousness, enters the novel at the end.

Reaction to Une si longue lettre was not uniformly positive; some Islamic critics charged that Bâ had unfairly implied that Islam as a religion endorsed polygamy. Nevertheless, Bâ's second novel, Un chant éclarate (A Scarlet Song), was quickly readied for publication by Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines. Un chant éclarate deals with the theme of interracial marriage and again touches on polygamy and the deeper distortions of African tradition that have resulted from European colonialism. At the novel's center is a white French woman, Mireille, the daughter of a French diplomat serving in Dakar. Mireille falls in love with and marries a black Senegalese student, Ousmane, while both are studying at a university in Dakar. Her family cuts off ties with her as a result of her decision. Ousmane takes a second wife, a traditional Senegalese woman, and Mireille begins to suffer symptoms of mental illness; she finally kills the couple's only child.

In poor health for many years, Bâ died in 1981, before Un chant éclarate could be published. She did not live to enjoy the rewards of her own growing reputation. Her two novels were seen as representative of the growing social consciousness of African women, and Bâ became the focus of numerous studies in American and European journals. By the late 1990s Un si longue lettre, especially, frequently showed up around the world in college and university curricula in the fields of literature, women's studies, black studies, and the French language.

Selected works:

Une si longue lettre, 1980 - So Long a Letter (trans. by Modupe Thomas) - Pitkä kirje (suom. Annikki Suni)
'La fonction politique des littératures africaines écrites', 1981 (in Écriture Française)
Un chant écarlate, 1981 - Scarlet Song (trans. by Dorothy Blair)

Last update : 05/05/2012

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