I opened this book with very high expectations and I am pleased to say that it exceeded my expectations. In fact, I was disappointed that no one thought to point me towards this book earlier. This beautiful classic was written in 1979 by a Senegalese woman, Mariama Ba. The novel, as the title suggests, is a letter from the protagonist, Ramatoulaye, to her longtime friend Aissatou.
Ramatoulaye’s husband, Modou, has passed away. She has been forced into seclusion to mourn the death of her husband according to Muslim tradition. This is despite the fact that Modou had gone behind her back and taken their daughter’s friend as a second wife and abandoned her and her 12 children. Meanwhile, he showers his second wife and his new mother-in-law with gifts, and trips abroad and has bought for them lavish houses.
In the letters, she explains to Aissatou the turmoil she has faced while trying to take care of her family alone and dealing with loneliness. She also deals with the bitterness of losing her husband to another woman and the decision not to break the marriage due to her religious faith and the fear of what breaking the marriage would do to her.
Mariama Ba addresses the complexity of being a woman in post-colonial Africa. Ramatoulaye and Aissatou are both educated, Muslim women living in Senegal who have to contend with long-standing traditions that they are still expected to respect and observe.
The author also shows the strength of the woman. Aissatou is described as strong and opinionated. She also leaves her husband once he marries a new wife because she does not believe in polygamy. She manages to rebuild her life and create a better life for herself and her sons and she is even able to help her friend. Ramatoulaye also goes through her journey of strength. At the beginning of the book, you can tell that she is stressed but towards the end, she is able to stand up for herself and even seems hopeful.
There is also a strong theme of friendship. The fact that Ramatoulaye confides her deepest feelings and her problems with Aissatou who is consistently there for her is a beautiful show of friendship. Their friendship began when they were children and endures when Aissatou moves away. Aissatou also helps Ramatoulaye to take care of her children after Modou abandoned them.
Despite the fact that the story was written in 1979 it is still possible to identify with this story. In this age of the liberated independent woman, we are still expected to keep our African traditions even those that were designed to subjugate women.
The book was originally written in French under the title “Une si longue lettre” and was later translated into English. If you can read and understand French I would recommend reading the original as a lot gets lost in translation. The book is only 90 pages long and you will not want to put it down. The book is being sold by Kwani Trust for Kshs. 1,800.
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