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So Long a Letter is a story about Ramatoulaye, a school teacher who writes a letter to her friend Aissatou. In the letter, she describes the suffering she has undergone in a largely patriarchal society. Ramatoulaye expresses how her husband Modou decided to marry a second wife, Binetou, who was her daughter's classmate. Ramatoulaye had twelve children with Modou. Since they are Muslims, Modou's second marriage is sanctioned by Islam. Modou doesn't inform Ramatoulaye about his intentions to get married. Instead, he sends Imam and his brother to break the news to Ramatoulaye after he is already married to Binetou. Gradually, he stops supporting his family and abandons them as he pays more attention to Binetou. Binetou's parents agree to let her get married to an older man due to their self-interest as Modou promised them many gifts. This betrayal becomes one of the central plot points and is the main area of confrontation between Ramatoulaye and her husband. Male domination is another issue that affects women in Africa and the social construction of culture which to the characters is not really justifiable. From another perspective lies her friend Aissatou who has had similar experiences of treachery in her marriage to Mawdo. She rises up above her position and proves that as a woman she can do things that were least expected of her. Aissatou and her friend Ramatoulaye therefore share similar experiences, yet they react to them differently. Mariama Ba therefore leaves it for the reader to decide who is right in her actions and who is not. Through the progression from traditional to modern ways, So Long a Letter tells the story of how Ramatoulaye becomes more independent and breaks away from tradition over the course of the novel through her experiences and her struggles to regain her life following a heartbreaking battle with gender inequality.
In So Long a Letter, Ramatoulaye is coming to terms with the hardships placed upon her when her husband takes on a second wife. In Ramatoulaye's case, we see her conflicting emotions because she considers herself a feminist or a modern woman but, is still somewhat compliant to the ways of tradition. She considers the alternatives of divorcing her husband or marrying another man, yet she comes to one conclusion, to stay with her husband. At this point Ramatoulaye sticks with tradition because it is hard for her to break away from in this case. If she were to go with her modern feministic side she would have to divorce her husband of thirty years and try to support twelve children on her own. Her marriage parallels that of her good friend's Aissatou, however Aissatou was able to move ahead with a new life that did not involve polygamy. Armed with her education and her strong will, Aissatou did not let tradition or fear sustain her in a relationship that she deemed degrading. Aissatou is the embodiment of all the hopes that Ramatoulaye and Aissatou had when they were young, to become strong independent women who would hold their heads up high in times of hardship. Ramatoulaye is envious of her friend Aissatou who is able to cut all strings of love, attachment, and fear and move onto a new life (one that is not tainted with betrayal or deceit by one's husband). In Ramatoulaye's letters, we wonder if there is a hint of jealousy or resentment at the fact that Aissatou was able to move on and Ramatoulaye wasn't. Some type of underlying issue is conveyed when Ramatoulaye mentions to Aissatou that she knew her friend's husband had acquired a second wife when Aissatou herself didn't. Ironically, Ramatoulaye will soon find herself in the same predicament as her friend. She cannot move on, because this second marriage pains her and she remains lonely while reminiscing of what love their used to be. Ramatoulaye's education and liberal mind is supposed to prevent the abuses of the old traditions but when she is placed in the same situation, she feels helpless because she can't divorce her husband. She is bond by her Islamic values, insecurities, and the conditions of her family consisting of 12 children. Her liberal attitude is defeated by that of tradition; she will reluctantly stay with her man. Ramatoulaye is going through many pragmatic challenges such as raising children and supporting them financially. These challenges are overwhelming her liberal feminist attitude which is why she chooses to stay with her husband. She believes that her husband will continue to support them and her children will be able to go on and have an educated normal lifestyle. Ramatoulaye writes, "to think I loved this man passionately, to think that I have 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 dared commit such an act of disavowal."(12) and her bitterness is everlasting.
Although, Ramatoulaye sticks with tradition when it comes to her marriage she still remains a liberal and open-minded person when she comes across other frightening situations. She handles them with wisdom and sternness. When Ramatoulaye's daughter Aissatou becomes pregnant, she does not shun her like tradition would dictate. Ramatoulaye says after one of her sons gets back from the hospital with a broken arm, "this is my luck: once misfortune has me in its grip, it never lets go of me again. Aissatou, your namesake, is three months pregnant." (80) Here and throughout other parts in the novel, Ramatoulaye transcends above all that is petty and she seems to be like a wise woman, dignified, and independent. This scenario is different from the other times when she sticks to traditions because she is standing up for her daughter. Aissatou is pregnant and needs her mother's support during a transition from a traditional world to a modern world. Her self-assurance and confidences is shown when Modou's brother proclaims that he would like to take on Ramatoulaye as a wife. Ramatoulaye explodes and laments that she is "not like a piece of currency that can be exchanged." (74) Here she defiantly breaks tradition and holds her head up high, she will not marry Modou's brother because she does not love him nor does she approve of the way he treats his other wives. When another love from the past comes and proclaims his love to her, she also rejects the marriage proposal. She does not want to marry him and have his first wife feel the same hurt that she felt; though marrying him would mean security to her family of twelve. Ramatoulaye uses her liberal minded, feministic side to overcome her challenges with other men. She pushed past tradition even if that would have been the safest thing for her family and did what she believed in.
Ramatoulaye and Aissatou are educated women who promote gender equality. They both believe that women should have the same opportunities to get an education as men. Therefore, Ramatoulaye insisted that her children were to get an education before getting married and having their own children. The two women were some of the first African women who had an education because typically women did not need jobs and men supported their multiple wives and children. Men during this time period didn't believe that it was essential because a woman's job was to stay home with the children. Men also believed that if women did not have an education, men could possess women. However, Aissatou divorced her husband and ended up getting an education and a job to support herself. Ramatoulaye speaks about all her lost dreams, "How many dreams did we nourish hopelessly that could have been fulfilled as lasting happiness and that we abandoned to embrace others, those that have burst miserably like soap bubbles, leaving us empty-handed?" (15) In this quote we are able to see her regret and bitterness at having abandoned her personal dreams for a man who subsequently abandoned her and her children. Ramatoulaye, however, did not give up on one dream because she is a teacher who believes in the value of education. She believes that it should be accessible to all, no matter what gender, race, class or religion. She also recognizes the need for progress and modernity, but is also aware that it is not without limitations of its own traditions. The limitations are due to matters of gender, race, class and religion.
Another generation of friends that choose different paths is between Binetou and Ramatoulaye's daughter Daba. When Ramatoulaye hears about Binetou's "sugar daddy" she tells Daba to encourage her friend to continue her education to enlighten herself. Yet she does not know that this quiet girl would soon become her rival. Binetou is the tragic figure in this novel. Although the reader might have an instant dislike for Binetou, as the home wrecker, when one looks more closely at this situation, one cannot help but feel sorry for her. She is chained down by tradition, even though she has the opportunity to grasp the modern world and the freedom that comes with it through an education and self-reliance. Although she is educated, she falls victim to the conventional whims of her family. She is forced to give up most of the carelessness that accompanies youth because tradition holds that she has obligations to her mother to marry a wealthy man that will provide security to bring them out of their poverty. In exchange for the luxuries, which include a villa and a trip to Mecca for her parents that are the rewards for this marriage, she sacrifices her own dreams of finding a man that she really loves. When Binetou goes out with Modou, she can't help but notice the other younger couples that are actually in love. Her contempt for Modou is evident in the way that she daringly describes her new love to Daba by calling him "sugar daddy" and "pot belly". She is a victim of tradition and her own family's greed.
Daba is similar to her mother because she is inculcated with her mother's liberal beliefs. She holds the same liberal attitude and is thoroughly disgusted when her father takes on a second wife. It is through her, where Ramatoulaye can vicariously seek silent revenge although she might not outright approve of Daba's actions. Daba goes to the club where her father and new wife go and looks at them haughtily with disgust. When she becomes the heir of her father's villa, she tells Binetou and her family to move out without any pity, unmerciful at the fact that they were the family that broke her parents up. She finds a relationship that her mother yearns for. When Ramatoulaye tells Daba's husband "that he spoils his wife" (73), Daba's husband replies, "Daba is my wife. She is not my slave, nor my servant" (79). It is through her first daughter, where Ramatoulaye's hopes will go on, for she has the same idealist beliefs as her mother and tries to stay true to them. She represents another generation of woman who is strong willed and independent, revoking any traditions that they feel depreciate their own value.
Throughout this novel, there is a battle of the old and the new. This story is about how women affect each other's lives and how some are hindered to move forward because they are externally bound by traditions that devalue women. We're able to see the quandaries that women must face when modernity and old customs are challenged. Both of these women remain brave and to try to sustain their new found freedoms, despite any difficult encounters. It is these women with their fierce ideals that would make them pioneers for all women liberation movements. The novel is a good example of the change from traditional ways to modern ways has become a custom for most societies. Ramatoulaye and Aissatou overcome their personal challenges with gender inequality by joining the modern way of life.