So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas

An excellent Sunday afternoon read and pertinent to much that is being written and read in the media under the banner of the silencing of women today.

This short, articulate novella is a conversation, in the form of a lengthy letter from a widow to her best friend, whom she hasn’t seen for some years, but who is arriving tomorrow. It is set in Senegal, was originally written and published in French in 1980 and in English in 1981, the year in which the author died tragically of a long illness.

Our recent widow is reflecting on the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, how she is unable to detach from memories of better times in the past, during those 25 years where she was happily married and the only wife of her husband, thoughts interrupted by the more bitter, heart-breaking recent years where she was abandoned by him for the best friend of her daughter, a young woman, who traded the magic of youth for the allure of shiny things (with the exception of his silver-grey streaks, which he in turn trades in for the black dye of those in denial of the ageing process).

With his death, she must sit beside this young wife, have her inside her home for the funeral, in accordance with tradition. She is irritated by this necessity.

Was it madness, weakness, irresistible love? What inner confusion led Modou Fall to marry Binetou?
To overcome my bitterness, I think of human destiny. Each life has its share of heroism, an obscure heroism, born of abdication, of renunciation and acceptance under the merciless whip of fate.

By turn she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children; to those who have supported her, her friends; including this endearing one about to arrive; she thinks too of the burden of responsibility of all women.

And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disavowal.
And yet, what didn’t he do to make me his wife!

It is a lament, a paradox of feelings, a resentment of tradition, a wonder at those like her more liberated and courageous friend, who in protest at her own unfair treatment (a disapproving mother-in-law interferes – reminding me of Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay with Me), took the road less travelled, taking her four sons, arming herself with renewed higher education and an enviable career abroad.

It is a testament to the plight of women everywhere, who live in sufferance to the old ways of patriarchy, whose articulate social conscience has little outlet except through their children, whose ability to contribute so much more is worn down by the age-old roles they  continue to play, which render other qualities less effective when under utilised.

I am not indifferent to the irreversible currents of the women’s liberation that are lashing the world. This commotion that is shaking up every aspect of our lives reveals and illustrates our abilities.
My heart rejoices every time a woman emerges from the shadows. I know that the field of our gains is unstable, the retention of conquests difficult: social constraints are ever-present, and male egoism resists.
Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.

Ultimately, she posits, it is only love that can heal, that can engender peace and harmony and the success of family is born of the couple’s harmony, as the nation depends inevitably on the family.

I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman.
Love, imperfect as it may be in its content and expression, remains the natural link between these two beings.

Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Born in Dakar to an educated and well-off family, her father was Minister of Health, her grandfather a translator in the occupying French regime. After the premature death of her mother, she was largely raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents.

She was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parents’ life, her schooling and subsequent experiences as a wife, mother and friend.

Her contribution is considered important in modern African studies as she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. She believed in her mission to expose and critique the rationalisations employed to justify established power structures. Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they deserve the title “mother of Africa”, and how important they are for  society.

It’s an excellent short read and an excellent account from the inside of a polygamous society, highlighting the important role women already have and the greater one they could embrace if men and women were to give greater respect to the couple, the family, or at least to exit it with greater respect than this model implies.


20 thoughts on “So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas

    • Do you remember what you thought of it when you read it? I would imagine it was quite a unique read, to be inside the mind of a first wife, not something novels in the English language tend to do, which I think is why I thought Stay With Me was also such an insightful read, and especially given this subject does touch the lives of people in the West today.


    • Yes, thanks for mentioning the African Writers Series, for those who are not aware, this book is part of that series, published by Heinemann Educational Books (HEB) in London and in various African cities, the idea originating from Alan Hill, who “recognised that the nascent post-colonial publishing industry was not supporting the growth of original African literature”.


  1. Sold! I love the sound of this! I’ve read a few books by feminists from Ghana and Nigeria, and my word, they make the struggles we had with the patriarchy in the 1970s look like a childhood squabble by comparison.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I was reminded in particular of the life and work of Wangari Maathai from Kenya, about whom we heard so little during her extraordinary life, though thanks to her having won a Nobel Peace prize, she was talked into writing a book about her life Unbowed and thankfully she did, as she sadly passed away not long after it was published. There are so many extraordinary lives and tales of incredible women that we hear too little of, though I hope the historical tide is turning as contemporary women are indeed still interested to hear of these heroines of the past and even domestic literature of the past is making a resurgence among readers and small presses picking up on those interests.

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    • Thank you for your kind words, it’s an excellent epistolary novella, a snapshot in time as she looks back over what was, reflects on what could be (for all men and women) and looks forward to continuing the conversation with the imminent arrival of the friend who she is so inspired by, even though she chose a different path when finding herself in similar circumstances.

      I think it also reflects something unsaid, but obvious, the importance of both having a close female friend, a sister in solidarity and also having a notebook and pen, that place to express oneself when the friend isn’t there, when there is a need to get things out of the mind and give them a kind of home, the journal, the unsent letters, things written without interruption.


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