THE POWER OF BOOKS AND TRADITION: AN EXPLORATION OF EDUCATION AS A MEANS OF WOMEN LIBERATION IN MARIAMA BÂ’S SO LONG A LETTER
By Su’eddie Agema
Female education seems to have taken a better turn with more girls being enrolled into schools these days. This is not always the case. In some developing countries, girl education is not so popular and even when it is implemented, it is only up to high (secondary) level. The notion of ladies not meant to know much is still maintained particularly in rural and semi-rural areas of these nations. This can be adduced to several reasons such as tradition and religion. An example can be found in Northern Nigeria. In Govt Day Senior Secondary School, Bantaje, Taraba State where I was a teacher till October 2010, the ratio of girls to boys in the school was 20 to 60. This paper examines the essence of education in Mariama Bâ’s So Long a letter. In addition to showing the opportunities that Western education has afforded the women portrayed in the book, this paper also touches on the role of oral education in making complete a woman as shown in the book. I humbly advise a patient read of the work to the end for a full understanding of all the points.
WESTERN EDUCATION: A KEY/VEHICLE TO BETTER OPTIONS
Education as a means of liberation is the main thrust of Mariama Bâ’s So Long a letter. In several situations, the concept of education is shown to give women options out of whatever predicament they find themselves. Education acts as a key or vehicle given to women. The door she opens, or which direction she drives to becomes her choice. The more educated a woman is, the more options she has: the more keys, the more options of places to drive to. What decisions she takes then, is totally up to her.
She might decide to leave a marriage that is no longer favourable to her. This is evidenced by Aissatou, Ramatoulaye’s friend (to whom the letter of the book is addressed to). She is married to Mawdo Bâ, her love. He marries another woman, Young Nabou. Aissatou considers this a betrayal of trust and love by the man who she has loved from youth. His excuse that he marries as a result of obligation and pressure by his mother is not considered by Aissatou. She writes him a letter and lets him know, in her words: “I am stripping myself of your love, your name. Clothed in my dignity, the only worthy garment, I go my way” (32). She leaves without anything but her sons and rents a house. She starts her life afresh which surprises her friend, Ramatoulaye, who admires this feat. This is something that would have seemed impossible before considering several factors: a dependence on a husband; lack of a will to leave; and that all encompassing holder – tradition. However, with her education, Aissatou leaves:
“…books saved you. Having become your refuge, they sustained you.” (32)
To buttress that more education provides more options, we are told that:
The power of books, this marvellous invention of astute human intelligence. Various signs associated with sound: different sounds that form the word. Juxtaposition of words from which springs the idea. Though, History, Science, Life, Sole instrument of interrelationships and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress. They enabled you to better yourself. What society refused you, they granted: examination sat and passed took you also to France. The School of Interpreters, from which you graduated, led to your appointment into the Senegalese Embassy in the United States. You make a very good living. You are developing in peace, as your letters tell me, your back resolutely turned on those seeking light enjoyment and easy relationships (32)
Ramatoulaye renders this beautiful poem on books but adds their power in uplifting more.
We are made to understand that education enables women to be ‘uplifters’ of their fellow ladies too. Later, Aissatou comes to Ramatoulaye’s aid by giving her the option of picking any Fiat car of her choice. Thus, we get to notice that Aissatou, with her high education gets a lot for herself. She has enough to even spare and lend a helping hand to her friend.
It is instructive to note that before Aunty Nabou (Mawdo’s mother) presents the Young Nabou to Mawdo for marriage, she ensures that the girl goes to school. She recognises the values of education and makes sure that Young Nabou goes to secondary school – and does not stop there. The girl reads mid-wifery which Aunty Nabou had advised her to read considering it noble. This might also have been in recognition of Mawdo being a Doctor. Young Nabou’s profession would make it easier for both her and her new husband to adapt. It also means that Mawdo wouldn’t have to marry an illiterate which many would frown at.
However, it is not all educated women who leave their husbands when they are faced with a challenge of other women. There is Jacqueline, an Ivorian who married a Senegalese husband, Samba Diack. He becomes promiscuous up to the knowledge of his Jacqueline. Instead of living him, she stays back as her depression eats her. Some others decide to respect religion and tradition, or maybe, just the love of their youth. A classical example of such, Ramatoulaye decides not to divorce her husband, Modou Fall when he brings in a new wife, Binetou – the mate and friend of her daughter, Daba. Even when he does not come back to her, she stays put. He misbehaves and treats her wrong but she does not go anywhere. With her education and profession, she fends for herself and her family. He passes away and she mourns him as tradition would specify. Immediately after this, Tamsir – her husband’s elder brother who has several wives and children came to claim her hand as an addition, in accordance with tradition. Her education gave her the right to say ‘No.’ He goes away in shame. Now, without her education, Ramatoulaye would have been forced to marry him and join the long queue of his dependents. Her education quelled this. Next comes Daouda Dieng, who has loved her from her youth. Daouda is a rich man who is a politician and Doctor. Ramatoulaye considers his wife and their respective children, “Wife and children placed by this dutiful man on a pedestal of respectability” (69). She would be the intruder and so, despite the charm, comfort and glamour that the marriage would bring including her children getting a father she declines.
All these point out that though Ramatoulaye decision to stay with Modou was well thought out and in respect to love and tradition – not stupidity. Her opting not to marry Tamsir and Daouda (and all the other numerous suitors that come later) points out the strength of reasoning and thought plus options that education has given her. Education here, not being western alone but traditional too as she recollects in the knowledge of her grandmother from time to time. She takes the better but more stressful option – staying alone in honour. This might be hard to understand but there are several women today who have made similar decisions might have an answer. May God bless such great ladies for their sacrifice.
It is not just Western education that makes a woman complete. A compliment of the West with traditional education or oral education makes a woman far better. This is what Aunty Nabou instils into her niece, the young Nabou
especially while telling folktales… And slowly but surely, through the sheer force of repetition, the virtues and greatness of a race took root in this child.
This kind of oral education easily assimilated, full of charm, has the power to bring out the best in the adult mind, developed in its contact with it. (47)
This is the reason why young Nabou takes care of her people – up to their finding full satisfaction in her. Aunty Nabou is pleased, and her house restored.
Thus, while showing how young Nabou is made whole in the extract above, Mariama Bâ also tells us subtly the power of oral education that brings out the best not just in a woman, but “the adult”! We are made to understand that though Western education gives options and offers liberation, it is oral education that brings out the best. The white man’s education would get you your daily bread but it is the black one – yes, African black education of tradition that would make you whole. This is what helps Ramatoulaye several times. This is shown in her opining to take decisions based on what her grandmother told her in the past. The wisdom of her grandmother comes to bare as a lot of things begin to make sense to her. She confirms this when she says that “Courageous grandmother, I drew from your teaching and example the courage that galvanises one at the times when difficult choices have to be made” (76)
SUMMARISING EDUCATIONAL BENEFITS TO WOMEN
We come to discover that education is a tool to a better life. A person would make choices based on personal decisions not due to the seeming ‘corruption’ that most of us would want to associate with education. It was the same education that Ramatoulaye went through that Aissatou went through (they were even mates!). The decision to stay or not stay, respectively, was based on their own thoughts in the end. There is no doubt that it is their education that gave them a greater reasoning power and the chance to have options – to leave, or not to leave. Yet, with their education, they become excellent – but not perfect, single mothers who sustain themselves and their children. It is through this tool that young Nabou is able to sustain herself and not depend totally on her husband. It is the same thing that gave Daba, Ramatoulaye’s daughter, the power of choice in what she does with her fiancé as she lets her mother know. Ha! Let us not forget that it was from school that Binetou was able to get connected to her future husband, her mate (Daba)’s father.
It is the lack of education that leaves Binetou and her mother stranded after the death of Modou Fall, her and Ramatoulaye’s husband. If Binetou had not have left her school, she would have reached greater heights and perhaps gotten a better husband and future than she was finally settled with. But, “She was already dead inside…ever since her marriage to Modou” (71). Through her, the author tells us that the offer of temporary happiness or quick marriage should not thwart the educational dreams of a lady as material things would fade but the stuff of the head lasts.
For the educated, it is not a one-sided education alone that counts. Ramatoulaye’s one-sided Western educated children have problems – the trio, Dieynaba, Arame and Yacine, are found to be smokers. Aissatou becomes pregnant while in school, though she is fortunate enough to have a man who cares for her wellbeing. There is also the French woman who is Jacqueline’s hospital roommate. She is described as someone who must have had her education as her only recreation. She turns out to be an old unmarried and unhappy woman.
Through education, it is the women who triumph and stand tall in their several experiences. It is education that helps Aissatou to leave her husband, tower high and be a big source of support for her friend, Ramatoulaye. It is with education, that Ramatoulaye though opting to stay married, takes care of her children. It is this education that gives her the option of refusing to marry Tamsir, her husband’s elder brother. It is what gives her the audacity to refuse the handsome offer of Daouda Dieng. It is education that gives young Nabou the chance to develop a better thinking capacity and to be a lady of purpose. Her combination – oral and western (which gives her a profession) it is that makes sure that she has “no time to worry about her ‘state of mind’ […] In the midst of life, in the midst of poverty, in the midst of ugliness, young Nabou would often triumph with her knowledge and experience…” (47).
Thus, a total education brings about an upliftment of the woman and is a plus to every family and society. For an educated woman, can stand on her own and lift hers to far greater heights. This is what a lot of us miss thinking that education would spoil our children.
May that day come when we would have a society with more educated women than not. May that education be a true combination of our black and the ‘white.’ Then, a lot more progress would be our lot and miracles a more common sight. Let the right to their liberation and choice reign, Amen.
Bâ, Mariama. So Long a letter. Trans. Modupe Bode-Thomas. Oxford: Heinemann Educational
Publishers, 1981. Rpt.1989