Senegalese author and feminist, Mariama Bâ, was born on the 29th of April 1929. Mariama’s early life encompasses the struggle to get educated in an atmosphere where females were denied access to equal opportunities as their male counterparts. It is however ironic that young Mariama was born into a home of highly educated parents in Dakar, where she lived with her family. Her father was a civil servant who later became one of the first ministers of the State – Health Minister, in 1956. Her grandfather at that period interpreted for the French Occupation Regime.
However, Mariama’s privileged upbringing was cut short when her mother died. So she had to be groomed by her maternal grandparents who were steeped in the cultural and traditional way of living. All of these experiences restricted her exposure, little wonder she only spent her early years in the French school, combining Quranic studies with the French studies. But through these times, Bâ‘s father never left her. He became her second teacher. He made sure she was able to read French fluently, and took her on tour while he worked for sometimes in Dahomey, now the Benin Republic.
Despite the countering forces of Bâ‘s maternal grandparents, her father ensured he gave his best to see her presentable and fulfilled through education, the best legacy. Berthe Maubert, Mariama’s French teacher, proved helpful too. She taught her the basics, the reading and writing, and was supportive throughout that period.
Throughout her Arabic school, Bâ was focused and determined to succeed despite apparent challenges. She excelled as the best student with the highest score in a West African competition, automatically gaining admission into one of the best French training schools – the Ecole Normale de Rufisque.
After her secondary studies, Mariama trained as a teacher. She taught for 12 years (1947 – 1959) before she was transferred to the Regional Inspectorate of teaching as an educational inspector. There her writing muse was born. In her early works, she acknowledged the efforts of her teachers and grandmother; all were great influence to her writing prowess.
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Une si Longue Lettre, translated, as So Long a Letter, was Bâ‘s first novel published in 1979. The novella expresses Mariama’s empathy for African women as they go through the unnecessary, overwhelming exercise of traditional superstitions. She depicts the sorrow a widow (Ramatoulaye), faces at the death of her husband (Moudou Fall) which forces her to resign and resume mourning with his younger wife. So Long a Letter, like twilight, became popular and widely accepted especially Africa women. Written in French, the novella was translated into English, Dutch, German, Japanese, Russian, and Swedish within a short time. Abiola Irele described the piece as “the most deeply felt presentation of the female condition in African fiction.” In addition, the work also won the first prize in Noma for African Publishing in 1980.
Mariama Bâ was said to have strongly opposed feminism and supported women’s empowerment instead. She wrote and spoke in local and international newspapers about this. Her immense contributions were felt in the nooks and crannies of the African continent as issues treated in the novella resonated with an unimaginable number of people, mostly married women.
Apart from So Long a Letter, Mariama also came up with Political Function of African Literature in 1981. She states firmly in it the strength of a woman in the development of Africa. She believes every woman contributes to the growth and welfare of the nation. Mariama would not have stopped at that, however, a prolonged health condition terminated her progress shortly before her second novel, The Scarlet Song, was published in 1986. At the time, she was a mother of nine, married to Obeye Diop, a member of the parliament in Senegal whom she later divorced. So up till her death, she was a dogged and focused single parent.
To recognise Mariama Bâ’s immense contributions to Senegalese literature, a school founded in 1977 by Leopold Sedar Senghor, first president of Senegal, was named after her. The school stood as a learning centre for selected Senegalese students who did excellently well in their entry examinations. Students from a11 regions of Senegal had the opportunity to attend the school all their remaining years.
Mariama Bâ, who died on August 17, 1981, was an epitome of courage and steadfastness, not only in her personal life, but also in her strategic contributions to Africa and particularly women’s world.