The Biography of Mariama Ba;
Mame Coumba Ndiaye
So long a letter by Senegalese writer Mariama Bâ belongs among the most influential novels of contemporary African literature. Published in 1979, winner of the inaugural NOMA Award and translated into seventeen languages, this title embodies the first resounding literary success of a Black African women writer. It tells the life-story of Ramatoulaye and is often compared to the author's own life, in spite of the latter's averment that "she had neither Ramatoulaye's qualities, nor her nobility of soul". Up until now, it has been difficult to distinguish between fiction and the novel's biographical elements for want of reliable details of the author's life. The recent publication of a biography of Mariama Bâ by her daughter Mame Coumba Ndiaye is an eye-opener.
Mariama Bâ was born in 1929 in Dakar and her life was indeed eventful. Her mother died when she was just a child and she was raised by her maternal grandparents, especially her grand-mother who became her beloved and influential surrogate mother. This powerful woman, of noble origin, was very much attached to traditional values and ideals, thus very wary of the French way of life, influences and individualism. Mariama Bâ's father, in contrast, was a progressive man. Born in 1892, he was enrolled as a Tirailleur1 in the French Army in World War I, became Dakar's Deputy Mayor and eventually Health Minister. It was he, against the advice of his in-laws, who insisted on sending Mariama to a "French" school and followed her progress throughout her schooling days.
The confidence of Mariama Bâ's father in his daughter's ability was well placed as she came first in the qualifying examination for entry to the then prestigious Women Teachers' College. However the diverging perception of success held by her father and her grandmother was never more conspicuous than on this occasion. As her father, friends and neighbours were rejoicing and celebrating her unprecedented success, her grandparents were wary of all the publicity surrounding their grand-daughter's scholastic achievement and very keen to end her schooling there and then. As Mariama Bâ puts it : "In the absence of my father who was posted to Niamey, it fell to Berthe Maubert (the headmistress of her school) to break the resistance of my family who felt that I had travelled long enough on this road that led nowhere." (p.36)
As one may guess, Mariama Bâ continued to be a high achiever during her four years of study at Teachers' College. She was thus fully versed in all the intricacies of French etiquette, values, language, social conventions and ways of thinking before she ever put foot on French soil. But by the same token, she remained uncompromisingly attached to her family, religious beliefs, fundamental values and ancestry. As she wrote in a short and fascinating piece of creative writing produced in her late teens: "Then one day my father sent me to school and my life of freedom and simplicity was gone. My reason was whitened although my head remained black: but my blood, immune, remained pure, like the sun, pure, unaffected by exposure. My blood remained pagan in my civilized veins."2 (p.188) This dual attachment to tradition and modernity would be a main feature of her personality throughout her life and, as she suggests, that can explain at least in part her rocky relationship with successive husbands.
Fresh out of school, she first met a man who "surprised her" (p.46) and she fell in love with him. She was dreaming of dignity and self-fulfilment and the young Bassirou shared similar ideals. I very much admired him, Mariama Bâ said; we were on the same progressive wavelength. Unfortunately, there was a great divide between talk and action and Bassirou settled into their relationship as the heir apparent to traditional privilege. Mariama's longing for true partnership soon disappeared in the face of her husband's unwillingness to challenge the old order that maintained women in a state of servitude. The marriage came to an end. "It was not wedlock I wanted to leave behind, Mariama Bâ said, but the asphyxiating tie that pushed me away from my real self ... in taking the decision to leave, I had chosen the right to exist". (p.47) Her second marriage to Ablaye Ndiaye, a quiet and well-read medical practitioner did not last either. It was only on her third attempt in matrimony that she managed to establish a lasting partnership, though not without major arguments, rifts and temporary separations, as both spouses were of very different temperament.
When they first met, Obèye Diop was a young and passionate separatist, brimming with ideas and very much impressed by Mariama Bâ's free spirit and intelligence. "Intellectual fervour brought us together and that gave us the desire to go one step further" (p.54) she said, and so they did. In a letter to Mame Coumba Ndiaye, Obèye Diop wrote that for his part: "I married Mariama Bâ on the basis of a misunderstanding." Friendly, intense, passionate, intellectual, affectionate and stormy, the 'misunderstanding' lasted for a quarter of a century... The encounter of two antithetical personalities, of two minds boiling over, of two pundits feeding off intellectual challenges, of two different philosophies, is not easy to manage. But we had strong common ground: we both had the same sympathetic outlook toward life." (pp.140-141)
Mariama Bâ's militancy in local women's organisations came during the late 1960s. As she wrote in a note, her nine children requiring less of her time as they were growing up and teaching becoming somewhat monotonous, she felt it was the right time to shift her struggle for women's rights from an ideological pursuit to a practical and personal involvement. She then took the helm of a popular Tontine3, became a member of the Federation of Senegal Women's Associations and between 1979 and 1981, General Secretary of the Dakar Soroptimist Club. Her venture into literature dates from the 1970s and took root from the same desire to put forward women's points of view and desire for change. Mame Coumba Ndiaye's biography provides a useful complement to the sketchy information available about her mother; the pages dealing with Mariama Bâ's illness and eventual death from lung cancer deserve special mention as they are heartfelt, especially a moving piece written by Mariama Bâ shortly before she passed away. (pp.88-93)
Useful for its biographical content, Mariama Bâ ou les allées d'un destin is also invaluable in providing, in extenso, a number of documents lost to the literary community. Beside the charming Petite patrie dating back to the late 1940s, readers will also find a transcript of the speech Mariama Bâ delivered in 1976 in honour of Germaine Le Goff (the Founding Headmistress of Rufisque Women Teachers' College), the report of activity delivered to the Soroptimist Club in 1980, the planetary address to the Senegalese National Assembly in 1979 on the occasion of Women's Day, an essay written for the1979 International Year of the Child, an essay on polygamy (pp.158-163) and her intervention on the relation between politics and African literature at the 1980 Frankfurt Book Fair (during which she was presented with the NOMA Award).
All in all, Mame Coumba Ndiaye's book offers a fascinating, considerate and enlightening picture of her celebrated mother that all the aficionados of Mariama Bâ's prose will take pleasure in reading.