It is not every day that someone can make a significant impact and leave a lasting legacy in the literary sphere in a short career, yet Mariama Bâ did just that. Some novelists often find themselves having to create, in excess, works for years to make a name of their own that can stand the test of time. With only three books to her name, Mariama Bâ has become synonymous with challenging the status quo. When women were to be seen and never heard, Bâ used her words as a megaphone. However, not one pleased with regarding herself as a feminist, Bâ believed the importance of her presence as a woman writer for others of her kind.
Senegalese author Mariama Bâ was born in Dakar on 17 April 1929 and was raised in a Muslim household by a family of Lebu ethnicity. Following her mother's passing, she was raised primarily by her maternal grandparents.
During her time in the French School, Bâ exhibited traits of impressive intelligence. However, she grew up when tradition did not afford girls equal opportunities to further their studies, and her grandparent's traditional stance was an obstacle. Bâ was one of the more privileged ones as her father insisted that she study beyond primary school. As a result, Bâ attended the École Normale, a teacher training institute for women in Rufisque, Senegal, where she studied and prepared for her teaching career. She received her qualification in 1947 and worked as a teacher for twelve years. Yet, due to her declining health, she stepped away from teaching and took up a position at the Senegalese Regional Inspectorate of Teaching.
Her personal life heavily influenced Bâ's writing. From childhood, she realized how her gender served as an obstacle and a point of discrimination and used this as inspiration for her work later on. Her marriage to Senegalese politician Obeye Diop, with whom she had nine children and eventually divorced, led to her first novel, 'So Long a Letter.'
Une Si Longe Lettre, translated to 'So Long a Letter,' was Bâ's first novel published in 1981. The semi-biographical book addressed her frustrations with the fate of African women. In a series of heart-baring letters to a lifelong friend Aissatou, a widow named Ramatoulaye recounts the events that led to her husband and father of her twelve children leaving her for a younger woman and his death. The book similarly but differently mirrors Bâ 's own life and marriage and is often used as a study in literature classes. In the novel, Bâ tackles themes of feminism in the face of Islamic and African traditions, including the refusal to participate in polygamy, divorce, and the choice to live independent of a man. The book was praised for its activism and received the Noma Prize for Publishing in Africa and translated into fifteen languages.
Her second book, 'Scarlet Song' was published in 1986 and tells the story of a marriage between a European woman. Mireille comes from an affluent French family and an African man, Ousmane, from a poorer Senegalese home. In this book, Bâ continues to criticize the legacy of traditions and their ability to oppress women. Mireille faces her husband taking a second wife upon moving back to Senegal from Paris. The novel addresses how cross-cultural marriages tend to suffer under the thumb of culture, religion, and tradition and highlights the importance of empowering women through creating spaces meant explicitly for that. 'Scarlet Song' like 'So Long a Letter' garnered international attention through its candid recounts of the circumstances women in Senegal face.
Bâ’s unrelenting pursuit of advocating for womanism in an African landscape has stood the test of time. Her work rings just as accurate now as it did decades ago. Through the face of adversity, she was able to rise above it and create work that all African women could see themselves in, especially during a time where female oppression had no tangible opposition. Her art will continue to teach generations of young girls to come that they are not the 'weaker gender' but that they deserve to be seen and primarily heard.