- Feminism and African Fiction:The Novels of Mariama Bâ
In Chinua Achebe's No Longer at Ease, Obi is asked the meaning of his name on the assumption that "all African names mean something." With a modesty and an incisiveness more characteristic of the author than of his fictional creation, Obi replies, "Well, I don't know about African names—Ibo names, yes" (27). Obi, although a Nigerian, doesn't feel able to make comments about Nigeria (much less Africa) but only about his own people, the Igbos. So too, one cannot speak about feminism and African literature, especially in a journal article, and hence the immediate limitation in the title above. The focus here will be on the contradictions and tensions in Mariama Bâ's novels. Africa is a vast and varied continent, and one can generalize only in glib fashion, as if regional, cultural, and class factors did not influence the position of women. For example, M. G. Marwick, in describing the matrilineal cewa, states that at marriage a man goes to live in his wife's village and that the maternal uncle has greater authority over a child than even the father. As Ramatoulaye, the first-person narrator of So Long A Letter reflects, Africa is diverse: even within a single country there are changes in attitudes as one moves from north to south and east to west (42). The cultural significance attached to the fact of a person being female changes not only from country to country, but, at any given time, within it. For example, in contemporary Africa, whether one lives in a town or in a remote village, whether one [End Page 453] belongs to the new elite or to the urban proletariat, little has changed since independence.
African writers such as Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiong'o have long enjoyed an international reputation, and Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize last year in recognition of his work as dramatist, poet, novelist, and critic. The works of Olive Schreiner, Doris Lessing, and Nadine Gordimer are also famous, but black women novelists have yet to gain an equal repute and readership—with the possible exception of the late Bessie Head.1 Mariama Bâ's So Long A Letter broke new ground and won the Noma award; even if one wished to, it would be difficult now to ignore the female condition and feminist black African writing. Growing critical attention is attested by the many conferences and discussions that are taking place both within and outside Africa and by the number of journals that devote attention to topics on women writers.2
Before proceeding to Mariama Bâ's work, we must mention certain facts about Senegal relevant to a discussion of these novels. The country was a French colony and subjected to its imperial policy of assimilation—the effort to turn Africans into (black) French men and women. In this endeavor, everything African was condemned as barbaric so that the African, being ashamed, would abandon the old and take to the new (French) ways. The whites projected themselves as powerful, wise, and good people who had brought peace to warring tribes, formal education to illiterates, and medical facilities and knowledge to those who didn't know the basics of hygiene. Nonwhites were made to feel it was both a misfortune and a humiliation that one was not white, and because skin color cannot be changed, the individual was condemned to life-long feelings of inferiority and unhappiness.3
Africa This rich granary Of taboos, customs, Traditions . . . Mother, mother, Why Why was I born Black?4
In practice, however, little attempt was made to educate the broad mass of Africans: the focus, instead, was on a small minority, an elite who, cutting itself off from the people, would collaborate with Western commercial interests. (The British adopted the policy of "indirect rule" through local chiefs, their excuse being that the natives were being prepared [End Page 454] for self-government although, of course, the "natives" had been governing themselves before the arrival of European technological and, therefore, military superiority.) The reaction to assimilation often came from the assimilated: partly because their education enabled...