I first read Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter as a law undergraduate at the University of Lagos. Ten years on and now a lawyer, I still have not fully recovered from it. Mariama Ba transformed something within me and helped me refine my outlook to life. Whenever I go back to her book, I find new motivation to trace my entire journey in the direction I believe it ought to go and I find new inspiration to pursue my life’s ultimate goal which is limitless happiness unimpeded by the vicissitudes of life.
So Long a Letter is anchored on the marital travails of two main female characters, Ramatoulaiye and Aissatou. But the novel is also about finding happiness, as exemplified by the simple story of the two women who, despite their marital travails, defined their own happiness and destiny.
There is hardly anyone who doesn’t desire happiness – it is the end of all our aspirations and endeavours. And Mariama encourages this pursuit:
“Brace oneself to check despair and get it into proportion. A nervous breakdown waits around the corner for anyone who allows himself to wallow in bitterness. Little by little, it takes over your whole being.”
Mariama drove home this salient message through her character, Jacqueline, a young lady who followed Depression to the bridge of death:
“She [Jacqueline] waited for it [death], frightened and tormented, her hands on her chest, where the tenacious, invisible lump foiled all the ruses, scoffed maliciously at all the tranquilizers.”
Blood tests after blood tests, electrocardiograms after electrocardiograms, X-rays upon X-rays, electro-encephalogram to gaseous electro-encephalographyall. Yet nothing could diagnose Jacqueline’s true affliction. But she eventually regained life with these apt words of an insightful Doctor:
“Madame Diack, I assure you that there is nothing at all wrong with your head. The X-rays have shown nothing and neither have the blood tests. The problem is that you are depressed, that is . . not happy. You wish the conditions of life were different from what they are in reality and this is what is torturing you . . . You must react, go out, and give yourself a reason for living. Take courage. Slowly, you will overcome.”
Daily, many people experience breakdowns and complications which no medical test will confirm and which is purely attributable to vexations suffered through the disappointments and frustrations of life. Mariam gently reminds us about the need to forge our happiness despite constraints.
Mariama did not just espouse the goal of happiness; she also teaches us the means to it. Through her main character, Ramatoulaiye, she beautifully sums up the unparalleled significance of reflective gratitude as a key to lasting happiness:
“To overcome my bitterness . . . I think of all the blind the world over, moving in darkness. I think of all the paralysed the world over, dragging themselves about. I think of all the lepers the world over, wasted by their diseases. Victims of a sad fate which they did not choose, compared with my lamentations, what is my quarrel . . . ”
Mariama teaches endurance in the face of gruesome trials. When life comes with its unforeseen challenges; then, one has to endure rather than give in.
The rapport between Ramatoulaye and Aissatou also reminds one of the vitality of relationships to happiness. Copious studies have shown that healthy personal relationships are a vital component of health and general well-being; they contribute to a long, healthy, wealthy and happy life, while low social support, isolation, and loneliness can conversely lead to depression, decreased immune function, and higher blood pressure. In essence, relationships are vital while isolation is fatal. Simplifying this point, Ramatoulaiye told Aissatou:
“Our long association has taught me that confiding in others allays pain . . . our communion with deep, bottomless and unlimited nature refreshed our souls. Depression and sadness would disappear, suddenly to be replaced by feelings of plenitude and expansiveness.”
Mariama also has lessons for us on courage and non-compromise of our happiness. Refusing to be just a victim of society, refusing to accept a destiny that oppresses her and refusing to accept a compromise in place of the happiness she once had, Aissatou, instead, chose to be a courageous pioneer of a new life. Ramatoulaiye praised Aissatou:
“You had the surprising courage to take your life into your own hands . . . instead of looking backwards, you looked resolutely towards the future. You set yourself a difficult task; and more than just my presence and my encouragements, books saved you. Having become your refuge, they sustained you.”
So aside personal relationships, books, too, are vital for personal development and general happiness. That I’m here making a case for a writer because of her book absolutely buttresses that point. Read Mariama, again:
“The power of books, this marvelous invention of astute human intelligence . . . Unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing efforts that lead to progress. They enabled you to better yourself. What society refused you, they granted . . .”
Through her novel, Mariama ignited a new life in me. I now awake each day defining my own happiness, regardless of the weight of life’s vacillating conditions. ✚
Abdul is a co-editor at The Question Marker.