Our constant news cycle gives us a very skewed view of the world. We are at the mercy of the media which have a penchant for the brutal, the sensational and the disastrous. Take the coverage of Africa. We know all about greedy dictators who accumulate obscene fortunes while their people are destitute. We know about rigged elections and corrupt rulers who cling to power long after their terms have expired. There is chaos in Somalia and Eritrea, mayhem in Congo and Sudan. Nigeria has an infestation of terrorists (Boko Haram) and in Zimbabwe, President Mugabe has instituted a North Korea-style brutal dictatorship.
But what do we know about countries where people lead ordinary lives, going about their business, not causing trouble or bothering anybody? We never hear about Malawi, Senegal, Gabon, the Gambia, Tanzania or Botswana.
For this reason I would like to give a huge thank you to Alexander McCall Smith who takes us to Gaborone, Botswana in his series about The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. He shows us another Africa that is not torn by violence and mayhem. Granted he has idealized Botswana a little, but the good thing is that he introduces us to a different culture, one of people who show much kindness and consideration for others and who look at life in their own unique way.
He introduces us to Mma Ramotswe, the founder and owner of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, presented us to her secretary-assistant-partner Mma Makutsi, and to her husband J.L.B Matekoni, proprietor of the Tolkweng Road Speedy Motors garage. Mma Ramotswe’s name is Precious and she is euphemistically described as “traditionally built.” Mma Makutsi whose first name is Grace is the proud recipient of a 97% final grade in Secretarial School. Mma is a polite and formal way of addressing ladies. The equivalent for men is Rra. J.L.B. Matekoni’s first name has never been divulged. We are also told that Mma Makutsi has many virtues which “she is the first to admit to.”
We all have an inner voice which talks to us. Mma Makutsi who has a weakness for colorful shoes, has projected this voice onto her shoes and they talk to her and guide her choices in life.
Mma Ramotswe and J.L.B Matekone live in a comfortable house on Zebra Drive, with a verandah where they drink bush tea, and a shady garden with an acacia tree. They have two adopted children, one of whom is in a wheelchair. In Africa it is very common to raise children who are not your own, sometimes nieces and nephews, sometimes strangers, because of the large number of orphans, and to treat them as your own children. Although Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L. B. Matekoni obviously love each other, they have a curiously formal way of addressing each other.
People come to Mma Ramotswe ‘s agency with problems that she solves with a combination of common sense, determination, empathy and astuteness. The detection aspect of the story often serves to demonstrate the Botswana way of thinking and to illustrate a way of life which is essentially leisurely, old fashioned and unassuming. There are, of course, also villains, cheaters and baddies or Precious Ramotswe would be unemployed. Gaborone’s inhabitants have a circuitous way of conversing, going off on tangents and meandering before they get to the point (if they ever do.) They have a knack for making a short story long and the author loves to poke gentle fun at them. People’s wealth is measured in heads of cattle.
The country they live in has been democratically ruled since its independence in 1966. It is sparsely populated and has a modest standard of living. Once in a while we are reminded of medical epidemics (AIDS) which leave children orphans. The Limpopo River and Kalahari Desert add a note of exoticism. There are still some wild animals and human hunter-gatherers in the desert.
There are now 15 titles in this series and they are all a pleasure to read. The latest one is “The Woman who Walks in Sunshine.”