Book Number 14: So Long A Letter, by Mariama Ba
So Long A Letter was recommended to me by a friend’s mother. I found it in the library the other day as part of the new influx of African literature, and I swooped upon it eagerly and began reading. It is the most powerful book I have ever read.
Ramatoulaye is a Muslim school teacher in Senegal. After many years of marriage, her life is turned upside down, the story of which she relates in a long letter to her friend. She begins with a story of young love and devotion; she met her husband while they were at school and fell in love with him at first sight. After years of marriage, Ramatoulaye’s love and respect for her husband is as strong as ever. One day, without warning, an Imam, a friend of her husband’s and her brother-in-law pay her a visit. The three men tell her “There is nothing one can do when Allah the almighty puts two people side by side…all your husband has done today is to marry a second wife.” From that moment on, Ramatoulaye and her children are on their own as her husband abandons them completely in favour of his new wife and her family. She struggles to understand her husband’s action and the laws that subject a woman to such pain on a whim, and tries to work out what she should do. Following the death of her husband some time later, Ramatoulaye is approached by her brother-in-law as Muslim law states that a man may inherit his brother’s wife. She angrily rejects him and the Muslim ideals that give so much weight to man’s whims, stating “You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You don’t know what marriage means to me; it is an act of faith and of love, the total surrender of onself to a person one has chosen and who has chosen you.” Ramatoulaye’s story continues to recount her personal battles, with life, love and her family.
As I read Ramatoulaye’s letter, I felt as though she was my soul sister. Everything she says and thinks about what it means to be a woman is everything I think, everything she says is true in the deepest sense of true, everything she goes through is what millions of women live every day. It doesn’t matter that we live in different countries and cultures, that she believes in God and I don’t, that she is black and I am white. This book speaks to me exactly; it is hard to articulate precisely what I mean, but if everything I am and everything I believe about the way human relationships, especially those between women, should be was written down, it would closely resemble this book. Mariama Ba speaks for million of women through the character of Ramatoulaye. Through everything, depsite her rejection of Muslim laws that give men power over women, Ramatoulaye always “sought refuge in God, as at every moment of crisis in my life.” That is the only thing in her character that I cannot grasp, for as firmly as she believes, I reject. I hope I’m not making this book seem as if it is some ultra feminist lecture, because it isn’t; it is simply a story of one woman’s life lived.
I honestly cannot recommend this book highly enough. You know how a popular question seems to be which one book would you take to a desert island? I would always take this one. I would be happy to read it over and over forever, because it is real and true and has real meaning. Everyone, go out and find it and read it and tell me what you think!