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Friday, June 21, 2024

As the Pendulum Swings: A Tribute To Mariama Ba

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With Rohey Samba

No writer has had greater influence on events in my head and inspired my writings than Mariama Ba, the author of Une Si Longue Lettre. Mariama Ba wrote one book, which received the much-accredited Noma Prize for Publishing in Africa in 1980 and died the following year before the release of her second. But that was it.

The impact of her literary genius amplified by the rough honesty of the book, touching on every aspect of Senegalese society, from marriage, to death, to inheritance, to polygamy, polyamory, jealousy of in-laws and so forth, was a work of lasting prodigy. The skillful narrative of the author set a style that called the truth to the lie, magnifying the fact that polygamy indeed has no place in modern day society and that the men in polygamous relationships suffer by no mean feat from the consequences of having two or more homes.
They may be hard words, but at least, they were not pretentious or doctrinaire, as indeed the end justifies the means: the ends of Modou and Mawdo following their marriages to second wives being anything else but enviable. These revelations, upsetting the balance of the new order of educated and so-called enlightened Senegalese in the context of a Muslim society in 1980, made Mariama Ba among the diminishing tribe of committed writers/sociologists who society had not coerced into the ranks of the complacent/stoic, accepting of their fate as second class citizens of the world by virtue of their being born female.

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The fight back written in Une Si longue Lettre, which I cling onto vicariously by my fingernails preferring it to the mundane translation in English of So Long A Letter, quells the groundswell of mistrust that allows the meanings conveyed in the original language to get lost in translation. Mariama Ba’s ghost, if she were hovering around would understand my leanings – I, an Anglophile, much enamoured to French, as the most beautiful language, after Arabic, ever.

From the very beginning of the book:
“Aissatou, J’ai recu ton mot.” To the very end, there seems to be no worthy translation of the original French version of the book. In effect, I had no cravings to decipher the words in English, only the yearnings to perfect my French and better understand the meaning of the book in its first language. And that is what I did. In March 2016, I finally enrolled in the Advanced French class, B1, at Alliance Française after doggedly studying the subject privately for many years. Among my classmates at Alliance was Mohammed Ndow, the elected MP of Banjul Central in the 2017 NAM elections, an assiduous young man whom I am very proud of. I sat for the exams as a self-sponsored student, passed with flying colours and bham! I ran to buy the book in Timbookto Bookshop.

Oh, the literary juices that exercised the brains of a chauvinistic society in that era. The book was written with such apt precision that even today, you begin to wonder each time you read it whether it was completed just a few months ago rather than three decades earlier. But most of all, the book exuded sincerity, clearly personifying the desperation and the personal ambitions of women, in their marriages, in the work-life balance and so forth, against the dissenting voices of moun nyal, “be patient” that have haunted them and served as their biggest deterrent for generations.

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Here, one can at least make out the headings of societal harm wrought by moun nyal, such as the encouragement of men to philander without consequence, the familial outright endorsements of wanton bad behaviours of men, the vindictive responses of women on their fellow women or co-spouses (crimes of passion), the dreadful effects of visits to charlatans, voyageurs, marabouts and so forth, the effects on children in polygamous marriages where they are pitted one against the other, and so forth…

Overall, Mariama Ba wrote with a pace and passion that was both unrehearsed and effortless. One would find oneself unable to put the book down, once started. She was no less a poet and definitely a sage on love, betrayal and the self-discovery that ensues from a heartbreak. And as you go through the emotional journeys of her main character, Ramatoulaye, you will certainly get yourself lost in the emotional extremes of her flagrant and evocative prose. Little wonder it is one of the most unforgettable books in my head.

At home, in the privacy of her living room, Mariama Ba was not without her own issues. In effect, Une Si Longue Lettre was semi-autobiographical. In all, the divorced mother of nine must have gone through hell on earth in order to attain her ideal crowned in Une Si Longue Lettre. The gift of this book to the world, was her ultimate bequest to society. Thus reminding us that life is not about how long we live or how much we make, but what impact we are able to make in our lives- whether long or short.

Yet more than that, the way she transformed her grief into triumph by narrating her own story has set the bar for women writers of all generations after her in this Senegambian region. She won a prize for the book, but above all else, she won our hearts by it. Moreover, Senegal, her country of birth, continues to recognise her work, in fact naming the most prestigious girls school in the country after her, “Maison d’Education Mariama Bâ”.

These are all added benefits that she never dreamed of, when she first put pen to paper. I am quite sure that in the recesses of her mind, she was just doing what she knew best how to do by writing her own story as a form of therapy to overcome her pain and disappointment in the aftermath of a messy divorce with a prominent politician who was Member of Parliament in the Senegalese National Assembly at that time.
Raised by her grandparents in a traditional Muslim society in Senegal in the 1930s, the strictures of society in those times frowned upon women who were deemed outspoken. By writing down her own feelings, nobody could accuse her of such indiscretions. Still, sincerity has no costs but has many proceeds. Thus by virtue of her sincerity, she was able to achieve all that she achieved both in her lifetime and long after she passed away. For me, I can only claim an atavistic pull to her craft by writing here and there once in a while…

If my memory serves me, I have been trying to follow into her footsteps since I was first given the opportunity to write my own column in The Independent newspaper in 2000 called Heart Songs, and later in 2001 in the Daily Observer newspaper called Lullaby. My desire had always been to find my own voice and write about societal issues that are brushed under the carpet. I was neither old enough to master the skill of writing, for I was barely out of high school at that time, nor was I experienced enough to shimmer with meaning.
With writing, all it takes is practice, experience and an evocative voice. And of course, a lot of reading. Thanks to my fellow brothers of the pen, Mohammed Hassan Loum and Talib Gibran for the mentions in your columns in the past weeks. This is proof that I am a better reader than I am a writer. Qudos on your good works! Writing is not a competition. It is a way of expression caught in a thousand senses to evoke meaning in different voices. Each voice is different. Therein lies its beauty.

Each Friday after work, I lie supine on my bed, with The Standard newspaper in hand to catch up with all of its writers as they bring in critical and personal perspectives on the events that we are living through at the moment. In a way, this collection of stories from some of The Gambia’s greatest writers is a kind of biography of a new period in our collective consciousness as Gambians. The Jammeh era held our generation hostage with censorship and fear. Now is our time to write. And write we must for our own good.

That said, I could not start a series on broken hearts without reflecting on a literary great such as Mariama Ba. My friends, mainly guys, would call to my bias for focusing on women issues in my writings. One particular guy, a veteran in the tourism industry, who would definitely sue me if I mention his name, and on whom I depended on conversations to guide the script I wrote on Sexual Harassment in Workplaces in The Gambia, would sometimes raise his hands in exasperation and say, “Women are not saints!”
Fact of the matter is, there are no saints walking on this earth. We are human. We are fallible… and so on and so forth. The series on broken hearts would not focus the lens on women only, as indeed the evils that men perpetrate in marriages can be sheeted to some women too. Instead, it seeks to shift through the gauze of people’s experiences to search for and examine the true meaning of life, and enjoy it more.

Mariama Ba by her story has taught us without stint to stargaze. In the series continuum, I will let us stargaze together and hopefully look into a brighter tomorrow in our relationships and in our lives. Hearts don’t get broken…people allow situations to control the rest of their lives. That should not be the case, as was manifested by both Aissatou and Ramatoulaye in Une Si Longue Letter albeit differently.
Life is too short to be bitter, too long to be despondent and too spontaneous to be inhibited. You are the author of your own destiny. Write your perfect story, so that you will smile when death overtakes you. For indeed death will overtake us all, sooner or later.
That’s the only truth there is to know!

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