An Africa-centred critique of Scarlet Song


IN my past installments, I once hinted that theory or ideology is critical in understanding any literary work.
Let me further clarify this point before I take you through this complex novel which deceives by its seemingly simple plot and language.
It is true that every individual’s perception of literally everything is determined by a set of ideas that constitute his or her sensibility.
This system of ideas is built over time through conscious socialisation and also through accumulated experience as one interacts with his immediate and vicarious worlds.
This system of ideas built over time becomes one’s operating system.
It shapes one’s character, attitudes and sensibilities.
It is unfortunate that we rarely ask ourselves whose ideas dominate the way we see reality; otherwise none of us is 100 percent original.
I have explained this with some detail because most Africans are victims of non-African ways of seeing and thinking as a result of the five and a half centuries of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism which has resulted in some form of permanent psychological disorder.
As such, a lot of analyses on Mariama Bâ’s novel, Scarlet Song, exhibit Western conditioned psyches.
This conversation aims to awaken you to African value systems that seem to be confused by the author and some critics.
Mariama Bâ (1929 – 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French.
She was born and bred in Dakar as a Muslim.
Her works focus on the plight of the woman who is often depicted as oppressed by both patriarchy and tradition.
She perceives inequalities between the sexes as resulting from African and to some extent, Western racist traditions.
Raised by her traditional grandparents, ‘she had to struggle even to gain an education’, because in her opinion, ‘they did not believe that girls should be taught’.
Such a conclusion arises from a misapprehension of the true nature and import of education.
She fails to realise that her grandparents are even better educated (though not schooled) and that their understanding of education differed from that of Western education.
Many people even today still think that there was no education in Africa until the whites came.
It is a result of the failure to appreciate that true education is the transmission of skills and values that are functional to the needs of every society thus making education vary from society to society according to their needs.
In Scarlet Song, Ba highlights the plight that a French girl faces in an attempt to find love and establish happy family with a local African boy.
Her concept of love is not even Western as evidenced by the resistance rendered by the racist parents of the girl.
Mireille is a French woman and daughter to a French diplomat while her husband Ousmane is a black Muslim from a poor family.
They fall in love in their childhood against the wise counsel of their families.
According to some sympathising critics, Mariama Ba exposes the ruthlessness of cultural and religious barriers that confront this couple.
To these critics, the two are victims of the tyranny of the two unaccommodating cultures.
But if they reject their cultures how else can they be human.
For all we know, all human beings are cultural animals.
It is natural to anyone of African sensibility that Ousmane gravitates to his cultural life and thus leaves Mireille lonely understandably because she fails to belong.
An important point has to be made here: that in Africa-centred philosophy, individuals do not marry as individuals.
Families marry.
In fact, marriage is not a self-service venture, but an obligation to society to perpetuate it.
People marry not just to enjoy sex, but principally to grow society.
According to Western thinking, Mireille has made a lot of sacrifices for her husband.
She has denounced her religion and become a Muslim so as to be accepted by Ousmane and his community.
She has gone against the wishes of her parents by agreeing to marry a black man and thus severed her relationship with them; yet all this does not seem to be enough.
She devotes her life to her husband and son and struggles to fit in with Ousmane’s family and friends who all hate her while at the same time maintaining her opinions and beliefs.
Is it not interesting to see that her fixed opinions and beliefs are the ones which make her see Ousmane as her toy?
This sounds highly patronising.
In fact, her attitude smacks of racist contempt – that an African boy loved by a European girl must consider himself lucky and must therefore be thankful.
She fails to understand the very object of her love her husband and makes no effort to understand Ousmane’s people as well.
In fact, she makes no attempt to because to Mireille, they are ignorant for to her, civilisation means thinking like her.
This is dangerous bigotry; so dangerous that when it fails to get the sought compliance, she goes out of the way to kill.
She poisons and kills her own son then stabs Ousmane several times on his neck, but he manages to cheat death.
Her action confirms that she sees both Ousmane and her son as her objects which she can dispose of to appease her injured arrogance.
Note, however, that in Africa-centred philosophy, children are not owned by either parent; they belong to their ancestry.
They are metaphysical beings with a special role to serve their communities, not even their individual selves.
It is therefore misguided to talk about tyranny of tradition and chauvinism in Senegal as some critics think.
The story is not about female condition in Africa as others put it even.
It is ironically about the literal and metaphysical rejection of the Western principle in Africa.
It is about Africa re-asserting itself.
Whether she is conscious of it or not, the scenario Mariama Ba paints is one of forcing Africa to adopt change in line with Western concepts of freedom of individual choices, but surely change is good if it is improving on what obtains. Her attempt to separate women from their male counterparts shows her misunderstanding of the African value chain.
Such writers are what Asante describes as voucher writers.
They write for a pay — to advance ideas of those who pay; those who set agendas. Africa needs to be advised.
Gender politics is part of Western agenda for the social re-engineering of our great continent.


  1. I completely disagreed with the analysis of this novel. Well not completely. Let’s not forget she literally went mad at the end of the narrative. People who aren’t in complete control of their mental faculties cannot be held completely accountable for their actions. I also noticed the lack pf vitriol shown towards Faye (the mother in-law). Hmmmm…. interesting

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