Mariama Ba

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Being an oppressed, second-class citizen doesn't mean you don't have anything to say, and that what you do have to say won't resonate with people all over the world. It might even spur them to action and change lives for the better.

Introducing... Mariama Bâ.

Mariama Bâ was born in Dakar in 1929, the capital of what is now Senegal, then French West Africa. Mariama's mother died shortly after she was born. That's when her father, a very busy high-profile civil servant for the French government, sent Mariama to live with her maternal grandparents.

As conservative Muslims, Mariama's grandparents did not believe that girls should be educated. However, though largely absent through her childhood, Mariama's father insisted that his daughter learn to read and write. He made it possible for her to attend a private French-language school.

From a young age, Mariama divided her time between cooking and doing other chores for her extended family, while also keeping up with her school assignments and studying the Koran with an Imam. Even with all the extra work, Mariama aced her university entrance exams. She enrolled in a French boarding school with the goal of becoming a teacher.

Mariama struggled with the colonial school system, however. The curriculum denigrated African traditions and taught that European culture was superior to her own. A sympathetic teacher empathized with Mariama's observations and encouraged her to hold on to her heritage and religion even as West Africa continued to evolve and change. Mariama would cherish this friendship and advice for the rest of her life.

In 1947, Mariama began her career as a high school teacher. She married a West African politician, with whom she had nine children. But her husband divorced her after 12 years, forcing Mariama to quit teaching. There simply wasn't time enough each day to pursue a career and raise nine children on her own. Mariama eventually went back to work as a school inspector in the new nation of Senegal, which had gained independence in 1960. She was now in her thirties.


As her children left her nest, Mariama found time to join the first feminist organizations to open in Senegal. In the 1970s, she began to write about her experiences and struggles as an African woman and mother. She published articles advocating the social and economic benefits of educating women and girls; and she attacked the tradition of polygamy in Africa, which many men used to neglect and abandon their first wives.

Eventually, perhaps due to the success of these early publications, Mariama felt empowered to write a novel, drawing on her life's experience and her personal sense of identity. Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter) was published in 1979 when Mariama was 50 years old. 

The story of So Long a Letter unfolds within an extended personal correspondence between two middle-aged female friends, Ramatoulaye and Aissatou. Ramatoulaye, a teacher, is abandoned by her husband when he enters a polygamous marriage with a 17-year-old girl. Devastated, Ramatoulaye gradually works through her feelings of loss and abandonment and finds the strength to take control of her life, choosing not to remarry and to remain a teacher.

So Long a Letter caused a sensation in both Africa and West. While some Islamic clerics condemned the book, white and black feminists alike heralded its frank discussion of the injustices inherent in patriarchal societies as well as the everyday difficulties faced by women in West African marriages.

Soon after, Mariama published a second novel, A Scarlet Song, this time exploring how colonialism had distorted "traditional" African culture to the detriment of its people. This book, too, was a hit among women not just in Senegal but in Europe and beyond, in the United States as well.

Sadly, before A Scarlet Song had even hit the bookstores, Mariama fell ill and died. She had been sick for years. She was only 52. Her entire literary career had lasted less than three years.

Mariama Bâ likely never aimed for fame. But she gained far-reaching attention from literary critics and students of African culture long after her death. Today, her novels are taught in universities all over the world and have inspired countless African feminists to follow in her footsteps. Mariama's experience lives on in her words; her expression endures as a gift to all who struggle with oppression. That is why we are honored to call her a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero as we kick off Women's History Month 2018.

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