Sitting in the freezing vestry of a Norman church in Lowdham, England, I was talking to the dapper, 67-year-old author of the world-famous No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books. Affable Alexander McCall Smith was deep into the story of his discovery of Botswana, where he based the series. Listening to him speak, I was transported to that faraway African country—hot, dry, but always vibrant.
“I first started visiting Botswana while living briefly in Swaziland and working at the university there,” he recalled, “Then, I lived and worked in Botswana itself for a year. That’s when I realised what a remarkable country it is. I became a regular visitor thereafter. And eventually wrote about it, never thinking I would write more than one book on it. But Mma Ramotswe has many friends.”
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency turned the soft-spoken Edinburgh professor into a bestselling author, with 20 million copies of his first novel sold around the world. Fifteen Botswana books followed (and more are to come). This was a series of gentle, almost everyday mysteries in a little-known part of the world with a feisty yet kind African woman protagonist who was a rarity in popular English literature. Both the books and its eccentric yet likeable characters became literary legends, a great tourist draw for Botswana and constant companions for many, including me.
Mma Ramotswe’s genial world was one I escaped to whenever I needed to brighten my day. And this was because McCall Smith had invested in her the warmth, nobility, and determination he saw in Botswana itself. “Sub-Saharan Africa,” he said to me, “is usually portrayed negatively. People concentrate on its difficulties. I really wanted to say to them—here’s this remarkable, wonderful country with positive things happening in it. There was no explicit agenda, of course. I didn’t want to preach a message. I wanted to tell a story, and how extraordinary Botswana is came out through the story.”
So beloved is Botswana to McCall Smith that in his books, the country is as pivotal to the action as his characters. In fact, McCall Smith makes the land one of the greatest sources of strength for his protagonist. Precious Ramotswe lost her mother early but her wise father, Obed, taught her to love and identify with the land instead. After he dies, she seeks solace in these childhood memories and in the sights and sounds of Mochudi, the village where she grew up. A real village of nearly 50,000, Mochudi, in southeast Botswana becomes a space Mma Ramotswe drives off to whenever she needs thinking space. McCall Smith writes on his website: “I find Botswana a very interesting and admirable country. I respect the people who live there—they have built up their country very carefully and successfully. I admire their patience and their decency… They lead good lives, with honour and integrity. Mma Ramotswe is one such person. There are many people like her—fine people, people with great gifts of intuition, intelligence, and humour.”
Mma Ramotswe also draws strength from the ancient, endless Kalahari Desert. This vast sweep of barren land with scrub and the occasional acacia tree has been the same for centuries, with a permanence that is both reassuring and frightening. McCall Smith set some of his lady detective’s most troubling cases involving primitive curses, voodoo, and even murder here. In her very first adventure, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, she grapples with a diabolical witch doctor and a man-eating crocodile in the Kalahari. Through her, we experience the desert’s mystery, the occasionally sinister air, but also its great serenity.
Botswana’s capital Gaborone too gives Mma Ramotswe the equilibrium and vigour she needs to carry on in the face of obstacles. She zips around the city in her little white van, questioning, observing, and trying to solve mysteries. Everywhere she goes is marked by the vivid hues of Botswana, from the reds of the earth and the bush tea to the lush greens of the oases and the blues and blacks of desert skies. Precious is a fine example of the flamboyant and colourfully dressed traditional (and traditionally built) Motswana woman, an integral part of the landscape of her country.
The books are populated with many Botswanan women, and I ask McCall Smith if this is because they are as vital and resilient as the land itself? “Yes,” he said. “In Africa, strong, independent-minded, and intuitive women play a very important role in their nation’s lives. They are very enterprising and interesting people and when writing about Botswana, that’s what I wanted to focus on.” And with that last tribute he disappeared into the dark corridors of the hushed English church.
My stroll through Botswana with McCall Smith was over far too quickly but he had left me with a keen interest in exploring the real thing.
Appeared in the May 2016 issue as “Botswana Calling”.
Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series recounts the adventures of Mma Precious Ramotswe, a native of Botswana who runs a detective agency in the country’s capital, Gabarone. The lighthearted crime capers incorporate the sights and sounds of Botswana and its people. In The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Café, set in Gabarone, Mma Ramotswe takes up the case of a woman who has lost her memory. The Good Husband of Zebra Drive sees the gentle detective investigate the mysterious deaths of patients at a Mochudi hospital and showcases her love for the country. Set against the wild, surreal backdrop of the Okavango Delta, The Double Comfort Safari Club is about a trip Ramotswe and her secretary take to a safari camp to investigate a case.
Shreya Sen-Handley is a columnist and illustrator for the British and Indian media. Her short stories have been published in three continents and her HarperCollins India book, 'Memoirs of My Body' is out now.