The Senegal depicted in So Long a Letter is a country on the threshold, passing between two historical eras. Ramatoulaye is born and educated under the French colonial regime, and she lives through Senegalese independence. Hers is the generation responsible for the slow process of Senegalese self-determination. They have taken on the enormous task imagining a new sociopolitical order, and with it a postcolonial future for their country.
Ramatoulaye is extremely politically engaged, and while she herself is not active in the political scene, she is surrounded by those who are—her husband, Modou, works as an adviser to the Ministry of Public Works, and her friend Daouda is a member of the National Assembly. She spends much of the book reflecting on the future of her country.
The people of Senegal have cast off the bonds of colonial rule. No longer beholden to colonial demands of assimilation, they can reimagine and/or reassert a national identity. Yet colonial rule has left an indelible mark on Senegalese society. Modernity, progress, self-determination, the very concept of “nationhood”—all these terms are central to the new Senegalese political discourse, yet in some sense they are also imports of the West and, by that same token, artifacts of a long history of oppression. Independence and liberation mean entrance into an increasingly global economy, participation which is perhaps just another form of assimilation, or, worse, acquiescence to colonial exploitation by another name.
But neither is there hope of returning to a pre-colonial past, nor does that seem like the right path forward. Ramatoulaye is nostalgic for certain Senegalese customs (she mourns the decline of traditional crafts and professions) while she remains skeptical of others (she is scornful of Aunty Nabou’s devotion to dusty social hierarchies and notions of nobility). Conversely, she is eager for progress and modernization while wary of the alienation it may bring. As she writes, “We all agreed that much dismantling was needed to introduce modernity within our traditions. Torn between the past and the present, we deplored the ‘hard sweat’ that would be inevitable. We counted the possible losses. But we knew that nothing would be as before. We were full of nostalgia but were resolutely progressive.”
While this ambiguity between nostalgia for custom and eagerness for modernization is never fully resolved by Ramatoulaye, she seems ultimately to advocate for a synthesis of the two: a steady march of progress tempered by an attentiveness to the past, and a reinvigorated sense of cultural identity.
Custom, Modernity, and Progress ThemeTracker
Custom, Modernity, and Progress Quotes in So Long a Letter
This is the moment dreaded by every Senegalese woman, the moment when she sacrifices her possessions as gifts to her family-in-law; and, worse still, beyond her possessions she gives up her personality, her dignity, becoming a thing in the service of the man who has married her, his grandfather, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his brother, his sister, his uncle, his aunt, his male and female cousins, his friends. Her behaviour is conditioned: no sister-in-law will touch the head of any wife who has been stingy, unfaithful or inhospitable.
Each group displays its own contribution to the costs. In former times this contribution was made in kind: millet, livestock, rice, flour, oil, sugar, milk. Today it is made conspicuously in banknotes, and no one wants to give less than the other. A disturbing display of inner feeling that cannot be evaluated, now measured in francs!
To lift us out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom, to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own, to raise our vision of the world, cultivate our personalities, strengthen our qualities, to make up for our inadequacies, to develop universal moral values in us: these were the aims of our admirable headmistress. The word 'love' had a particular resonance in her. She loved us without patronizing us, with our plaits either standing on end or bent down, with our loose blouses, our wrappers. She knew how to discover and appreciate our qualities.
Eternal questions of our eternal debates. We all agreed that much dismantling was needed to introduce modernity within our traditions. Torn between the past and the present, we deplored the 'hard sweat' that would be inevitable. We counted the possible losses. But we knew that nothing would be as before. We were full of nostalgia but were resolutely progressive.
The assimilationist dream of the colonist drew into its crucible our mode of thought and way of life. The sun helmet worn over the natural protection of our kinky hair, smoke-filled pipe in the mouth, white shorts just above the calves, very short dresses displaying shapely legs: a whole generation suddenly became aware of the ridiculous situation festering in our midst.
How many generations has this same unchanging countryside seen glide past! Aunty Nabou acknowledged man's vulnerability in the face of the eternity of nature. By its very duration, nature defies time and takes its revenge on man.
Daouda Dieng was savouring the warmth of the inner dream he was spinning around me. As for me, I was bolting like a horse that has long been tethered and is now free and revelling in space. Ah, the joy of having an interlocutor before you, especially an admirer!
Now our society is shaken to its very foundations, torn between the attraction of imported vices and the fierce resistance of old virtues.
‘Marriage is no chain. It is mutual agreement over a life's programme. So if one of the partners is no longer satisfied with the union, why should he remain? It may be Abou [her husband]; it may be me. Why not? The wife can take the initiative to make the break.’