It seems like a long time since I read something from Africa and 'So Long a Letter' by Mariama Bâ was recommended somewhere as a classic of African writing. In the form of a letter to her friend Aissatou written on the death of her husband Modou, Ramatoulaye recounts the betrayal she experienced at his taking a second wife and how she manages to continue with her life without him. She is expected to just accept the new situation, though her children are more angry even than her and expect her to divorce him.
The story is a picture of the cultural mores and expectations on women in particular, that so often controlled and confined their lives. Mariama Bâ was a pioneer in the women's rights movement in Senegal which led her to write the book, almost it might seem, as a protest against women's position within their society.
Here she describes her married life:
"Our lives developed in parallel. We experienced the tiffs and reconciliations of married life. In our different ways, we suffered the social constraints and heavy burden of custom. I loved Modou. I compromised with his people. I tolerated his sisters, who too often would desert their own homes to encumber my own. The allowed themselves to be fed and petted. They would look on without reaction as their children romped on my chairs. I tolerated their spitting, the phlegm expertly secreted under my carpets.
His mother would stop by again and again while on her outings, always flanked by different friends, just to show off her son's social success but particularly so that they might see, at close quarters, her supremacy in this beautiful house in which she did not live. I would receive her with all the respect due to a queen, and she would leave satisfied, especially if her hand closed over the banknote I had carefully placed there. But hardly would she be out than she would think go a new band of friends she would soon be dazzling.
Modou's father was more understanding. More often than not, he would visit us without sitting down. He would accept a glass of cold water and would leave, after repeating his prayers for the protection of the house.
I knew how to smile at them all, and consented to wasting useful time in futile chatter." (p.19-20)
But she does find that the life of an abandoned first wife does have some compensations. Ramatoulaye is not one to give up and sit at home crying:
"I survived. I overcame my shyness at going along to cinemas. I would take a seat with less and less embarrassment as the months went by. People stared at the middle-aged lady without a partner. I would feign indifference, while anger hammered against my nerves and the tears I held bak welled up behind my eyes.
From the surprised looks, I gauged the slender liberty granted to women." (p.54)
And her friend is there to help and provides her with a much needed boost:
"I survived. I experienced the inadequacy of public transport. My children laughed at themselves in making this harsh discovery. One day I heard Daba advise them: 'Above all, don't let mum know that it is stifling in those buses during the rush hours.'
I shed tears of joy and sadness together: joy in being loved by my children, the sanded of a mother who does not have the means to change the course of events.
I told you then, without any ulterior motive, of this painful aspect of our life, while Modou's car drove Lady Mother-in -Law to the fur corners of the town, and while Binetou streaked alone the roads in an Alfa Romeo, sometimes white, sometimes red.
I shall never forget your response, you, my sister, nor my joy and my surprise when i was called to the Fiat agency and was told to choose a car which you had paid for, in full. My children gave cries of joy when they learned of the approaching end of their tribulations, which remain the daily lot of a good many other students.
Friendship has splendours that love knows not. It grows stronger when crossed, whereas obstacles kill love. Friendship resists time, which wearies and severs couples. it has heights unknown to love." (p.56)
A tale of strength and resilience in the face of things she cannot alter, and as you read, you anticipate with her, the arrival of her friend Aissatou.