Tracing the Development of Feminist Ideas Through Four Senegalese Women Writers’ Novels: Toward an Intergenerational Dialogue


Mariama Bâ and the Emergence of Feminist Consciousness in Senegalese Literature

Choosing Mariama Bâ (1929–1981) as an entry point into the discussion of intergenerational feminism in Senegal is neither fortuitous nor coincidental. She not only “distinguishes herself from her contemporaries in her choice of genre” (a letter novel, which is not common)1, she sets the tone for the feminist debate by problematising “the treatment of women in Africa”2 with much poise and depth. No wonder that the groundbreaking work of Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Grave Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, was both prompted by and dedicated to Bâ’s “commitment and African feminism”.3

Woman reading Une si longue lettre, Mariama Bâ’s award-wining 1979 feminist novel. Photo courtesy of Tenin Samake.

Hence, any study of intergenerational feminism in Senegal should start with Bâ’s award-wining 1979 novel, Une si longue lettre (translated as So Long a Letter in 1989)4: “the first feminist novel in Senegal”5 and “the classical feminist statement by a sub-Saharan African woman”6. In 1980, it won the inaugural Noma Award for Publishing in Africa7 for its “testimony of the female condition in Africa while at the same time giving that testimony true imaginative depth”8. Although Une si longue lettre was not the first novel written by a Senegalese woman9, it provides the measure by which Senegalese women’s literature has been evaluated and judged. This pivotal novel foregrounds women’s experiences of multiple forms of oppression while giving rise to a genuine feminist voice in Senegalese women’s narratives. Moreover, probing sensitive issues like “polygyny, Islam, and urban lifestyles in contemporary Senegal”, it “adds one more female voice to the all too male-centred corpus of historical and anthropological texts in Africa”10. The novel also provides “a unique and intimate portrait of rapid social transformation” undergone by women in postcolonial Senegalese society.11

If feminism is “a political movement for the emancipation of women”12, this novel’s engagement with women’s subservient position, oppression and marginalisation in patriarchal Senegalese societies makes it feminist. The plot revolves around the reminiscences of the main character Ramatoulaye during her widowhood, and she writes a letter to Aissatou, her childhood friend. These characters were “the first pioneers of the promotion of African women”13, whose ideals were incompatible with the social norms of a community where a married woman “gives up her personality, her dignity” to become “a thing in the service of the man who has married her”14. It is a woman-centred narrative that makes space for women to voice their sufferings and yearnings and to devise alternatives and avenues for escape and empowerment. Bâ’s letter form allows an intimate disclosure of what it means to be a woman, a wife and a mother in a Senegalese society where Islam intersects with gender and culture and conspires in some way or another to undermine women’s assertiveness and emancipation.

If feminist mobilisation in Senegal culminated in the 1970s–80s, when Yewwu-Yewwi, under the leadership of Marie-Angelique Savané, provided a platform for women to challenge ingrained patriarchal ideologies15, then it was Mariama Bâ’s novel that paved the way for the younger generation to engage in feminist debates on gender inequality and women’s inferior status with boldness and more confidence16. Subverting long-held myths and stereotypes about the African woman’s victimisation and disempowerment, its self-reflexive structure and diary format “engages in dialogic contestation“ with its predecessors, while creating “an open-endedness that encourages further innovation”17 in the struggle for women’s emancipation and well-being. Ramatoulaye’s last words, “I have not given up wanting to refashion my life. The word ‘happiness’ does indeed have a meaning”18, prefigures the “happy feminist“ proposed by the Nigerian novelist and short-story writer Chimamanda Adichie, and adopted by Ndèye Fatou Kane, the new Senegalese woman author who – unlike Bâ – publicly embraces the feminist label.19 Forty years after its publication, So Long a Letter continues to attract feminist critical attention as the issues it addresses, such as girls’ education, polygamy, gender-based violence and women subjugating women20, are still fraught with tension in African women’s narratives.

Woman reading Une si longue lettre, Mariama Bâ’s award-wining 1979 feminist novel. Photo courtesy of Tenin Samake.
Woman reading Une si longue lettre, Mariama Bâ’s award-wining 1979 feminist novel. Photo courtesy of Tenin Samake.

Threads of Continuity Through Senegalese Women’s Writing

Any discussion of intergenerational feminism in Senegal should also pay attention to the history of feminism because “[m]ale violence must be theorised and interpreted within particular societies, in order to both understand it better and to effectively organise to change it”21. The emergence of feminism in Africa, and in Senegal, was marked by stereotypical representations of African women as hapless and passive victims of patriarchy22, an introduction that made feminism unpopular and problematic.23 Many African women were wary to embrace it, regarding it as a foreign and imported ideology.24 African feminism, however, takes into account the unique “social and historical realities of African women’s lives”25, delineates the causes of their oppression, and proffers strategies for their liberation26. The African American theorist Clenora Hudson-Weems coined “Africana womanism” for women of African descent to highlight “the unique experiences, struggles, needs and desires of Africana women”27. This view differs from Western feminism by not considering men as enemies but as counterparts in the fight against racism.28 Bâ’s fiction exhibits a strong womanist consciousness that also prompts her to celebrate the heteronormative family structure and motherhood. She paves the way for Ken Bugul, Fatou Diome and Ndèye Fatou Kane to “throw their own voices”29 and perpetuate her legacy.

Ken Bugul’s narratives show threads of ideological connection with Bâ’s writings regarding polygamy, women’s position in Islam, and mixed marriage. Born in 1948 as Mariétou Mbaye, her autobiographical 1982 novel, Le Baobab Fou30 (translated as Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman, 1991) was considered too daring for a Senegalese Muslim woman and she was advised to take a pseudonym.31 She began to write as Ken Bugul, “the one who is unwanted”. Cendres et braises (1994)32 and Riwan ou le chemin de sable (1999)33 complete the trilogy that traces her life from a Senegalese village to Belgium and her return, when she becomes the twenty-eighth wife of a marabout. While feminists in the West celebrated her path-breaking work, they were shocked to learn of her polygamous status.34

Ken Bugul takes the African feminist struggle to another level by departing from the radical feminism of her time and eschewing its epistemological dilemma toward polygamy. She also draws from her own experiences of discrimination as a Senegalese immigrant in Belgium. Rejected and disoriented, she indulges in drinking and prostitution. Her “feminist autobiographies”35 may be the most rebellious literary works ever written by a Senegalese woman.

Ken Bugul’s intimate and unflinching gaze on gender, migration, interracial and forbidden love is taken up by Fatou Diome’s 2003 Le Ventre de l’Atlantique (translated as The Belly of the Atlantic (2006)) and Ndèye Fatou Kane’s Le Malheur de vivre (2018). These two authors belong to the third and fourth generations of Senegalese writers, taking their place among the children of the post-colony36 in France as well. The French literary critic Odile Cazenave describes this generation of francophone African writers in Paris as probing the lives of African immigrants in France and negotiating identity and belonging in their work.37 Like Chimamanda Adichie, whose The Thing Around Your Neck (2009) and Americanah (2013) also zero in on displacement and its underlying emotional and psychological trauma, both Diome and Kane fit into Cazenave‘s category of “rebellious women”38. Their fiction casts an uncompromising gaze on racism, discrimination, gender-based violence and sexuality.

These writers also look to their literary foremothers, continuing the womanist struggle that draws its sustenance from a mother-to-daughter generational dialogue. Born in 1986, Ndèye Fatou Kane is a newcomer to the Senegalese literary scene. Her first novel, Le malheur de vivre,39 deals with migration and love that ends tragically. Unlike Bâ and Aminata Sow Fall, the first Senegalese woman to publish a novel, Kane embraces her feminism with more confidence and boldness. Kane says that Mariama Bâ has deeply influenced and shaped her literary career, along with Awa Thiam, another torchbearer of the feminist movement in Senegal.40 In Kane’s novel, the mother of the main character, Sakina, bears the name of Mariama Bâ, and So Long a Letter can be seen as a “progenitor” of her short story “Incertitude”, which is based on female friendship and empowerment.41 Kane also expresses her indebtedness to Simone de Beauvoir and Chimamanda Adichie for sharpening her feminist consciousness and knowledge.

Fatou Diome also follows in the steps of Bâ and Ken Bugul. Born in 1968, she migrated to France in the 1990s. Her first novel, Le Ventre de l’Atlantique , like Le Baobab Fou, is inspired by her experience as an immigrant African woman in France and dramatizes “home” as “a place of alienation and displacement.”42 In her second novel, Kétala (2006), homosexuality and the queer subject contest heteronormative social representations.43 The father of Kétala is unable to comprehend his son’s homosexuality and sends him to the army, hoping to ‘save his manhood’.44 Extending the space provided by the first and the second generation of Senegalese women writers, the work of Diome and Kane take issue with gender stereotypes and with women's ambivalence towards confronting social norms that hinder their emancipation and empowerment.

A close reading of these four women’s texts reveals a certain continuity and dialogue across generations that enriches the feminist debate in Senegal while also addressing global feminist concerns. Mariama Bâ, Ken Bugul, Fatou Diome and Ndèye Fatou Kane find their rightful place in womanist and intersectional feminist theories that take into account the overlapping forms of oppression that women face. Their narratives are not bound only by their being Senegalese, but also by their illumination of “transitional stages of human development in societies constantly evolving”.45 They and their female protagonists “yearn for a society in which they can assert their innate resourcefulness by rejecting the fetters of tradition and any aspects of socialisation that puts them at a disadvantage”46. Bâ has largely helped to “destroy the emptiness of silence” that “represents the historical muting of women under the formidable institution known as patriarchy”47. She paved the way for Ken Bugul, Diome and Kane to write African women into history.48 Their narratives encourage dialogue on social issues like gender and racial violence that need be challenged for the social, economic and political empowerment of Senegalese women. Resonating across generations and continents, their storytelling becomes a way to share experiences and strategies, to reinforce women’s resilience and fortitude, to confront all forms of oppression and domination, and to explore global issues that are relevant to Senegalese women’s lives.

  1.  Ann McElaney-Johnson, “Epistolary Friendship: ‘La prise de parole’ in Mariama Bâ’s Une si longue lettre,” Research in African Literatures 30, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 110–121, 111.

  2.  Gibreel M. Kamara, “The Feminist Struggle in the Senegalese Novel: Mariama Ba and Sembene Ousmane,” Journal of Black Studies 32, no. 2 (2001): 212–228,, 214. 

  3.  Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves (eds), Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1986).

  4.  Mariama Bâ, Une Si Longue Lettre (Dakar: Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1979); So Long a Letter, trans. by Modupé Bodé-Thomas (Oxford: Heinemann, 1989).

  5.  Laurie Edson, “Mariama Bâ and the Politics of the Family” Studies in 20th Century Literature 17, no. 1 (1993): 1–13,, 1.

  6.  Marame Gueye, “Stuck on So Long a Letter: Senegalese Women’s Writings and the Specter of Mariama Bâ” (Paper presented at the 20th Anniversary Summit of the African Educational Research Network, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, 19 May 2012),

  7.  The Noma award (1979–2009) was established by Shoichi Noma, the president of Kodansha Ltd, the largest publishing house in Japan, to encourage the publication of works by African writers.

  8.  Florence Stratton, Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender (Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2020), 133.

  9.  Nafissatou Niang Diallo’s De Tilène au Plateau (1975) was the first published autobiographical work by a Senegalese woman, followed by Aminata Sow Fall’s novel Revenant in 1976.

  10.  James Pritchett, “Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter,” in African Novels in the Classroom, ed. Margaret Jean Hay (Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000), 49–62, 50.

  11.  Pritchett, “Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter,” 49.

  12.  Mary E. Modupe Kolawole, Womanism and African Consciousness (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1997), 17.

  13.  Kolawole, Womanism, 14–15.

  14.  Kolawole, Womanism, 4.

  15.  Oumar Kane and Hawa Kane, “The Origins of the Feminist Movement in Senegal: A Social History of the Pioneering Yewwu-Yewwi,” African Sociological Review 22 no. 1 (2018): 19–30, 21.

  16.  Shirin Edwin, “Expressing Islamic Feminism in Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter,” Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 16, no. 6 (2009), 723–740,

  17.  McElaney-Johnson, “Epistolary Friendship,” 112. 

  18.  Bâ, So Long a Letter, 89.

  19.  Viviane Forson, “Ndèye Fatou Kane: l’Afrique a compté des féministes avant l’heure”, Le Point Afrique, published 10 September 2018, modified 8 March 2019,

  20.  Sylvester Mutunda, “Women Subjugating Women: Re-reading Mariama Bâ‘s So Long a Letter and Scarlet Song,“ Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 33, no. 2–3 (2007): 90–125. 

  21.  Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism Mohanty, edited by Chandra T. Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres (Bloomington,IN: Indiana University Press, 1991): 51–80, 58.

  22.  Kolawole, Womanism, 3.

  23.  Adele King, “The Personal and the Political in the Work of Mariama Bâ,” Studies in 20th Century Literature 18, no. 2, (1994): 1–12,, 2.

  24.  Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie, quoted in Kolawole, Womanism, 9. 

  25.  Carole Boyce Davies, “Feminist Consciousness and African Literary Criticism,” in Davies and Graves, Ngambik, 1–23, 6.

  26.  Rosemarie Tong, Feminist Thought (San Francisco: Westview Press, 1989), 1.

  27.  Clenora Hudson-Weems, Africana Womanism (Troy, MI: Bedford Publishers, 1993), 22.

  28.  Hudson-Weems, Africana Womanism, 28.

  29.  Kolawole, Womanism, 6. To “throw one’s voice comes from the Wolof expression “Saani baat”. 

  30.  Ken Bugul. Le Baobab fou (Dakar: NEA, 1983).

  31.  Ken Bugul, Carine Bourget and Irène Assiba d’Almeida, “Entretien avec Ken Bugul,” The French Review 77, no. 2 (2003): 352–363),, 352.

  32.  Ken Bugul. Cendres et braises (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1994).

  33.  Ken Bugul. Riwan ou le chemin de sable (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1999).

  34.  Ken Bugul, Bourget and d’Almeida, “Entretien”, 352.

  35.  Amadou Falilou Ndiay and Moussa Sagna, “Le Baobab fou, Riwan ou le chemin de sable et De l‘autre côté du regard: Les Autobiographies féministes de Ken Bugul,“ Nouvelles Études Francophones, 32, no. 1 (2017), 57–69,

  36.  Abourahaman Waberi, “Les enfants de la postcolonie: Esquisse d‘une nouvelle génération d‘écrivains francophones d‘Afrique noire,“ Notre Librairie 135 (1998), 8–15.

  37.  Odile Cazenave, Une nouvelle génération de romanciers africains à Paris (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003), 297. 

  38.  Odile Cazenave, Femmes rebelles: Naissance d’un nouveau roman africain au féminin (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1996).

  39.  Ndèye Fatou Kane, Le Malheur de vivre (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2014).

  40.  Ndèye Fatou Kane, Vous avez dit féministe? Suivi de (In)certitudes (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2018).

  41.  Susan Z. Andrade, The Nation Writ Small: African Fictions and Feminism, 1958–1988 (Durham NC/London: Duke University Press, 2011), 72.

  42.  Carole Davies, Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migration of the Subjects (London: Routledge, 1994), 21.

  43.  Aminata Cécile Mbaye, “Performing Gender Identities in Fatou Diome‘s Novel Kétala,” Canadian Journal of African Studies/Revue Canadienne des études africaines 53, no. 2 (2019): 235–250,

  44.  Fatou Diome, Kétala (Paris: Flammarion, 2006), 99.

  45.  Dele Layiwola, “Women and the Colonial Struggle in Three West African Novels,” in Understanding Post-Colonial Identities: Africa, Ireland and the Pacific, edited by Dele Layiwola (Ibadan: Sefer, 2001): 122–140, 126.

  46.  Layiwola, “Women and the Colonial Struggle,” 130.

  47.  Irène Assiba d’Almeida, Francophone African Women: Destroying the Emptiness of Silence (Gainesville FL: University of Florida Press, 1994), 1.

  48.  Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of Medusa,” in New French Feminism: An Anthology, edited by Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Coutivon (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 245–264, 245.