When I was growing up, Africa was glamorous and exotic. Teeming with fierce lions and tigers and peopled by savage tribesmen, it was a place where fabulous riches could be found. Of course my knowledge came from the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs ( Tarzan), Edgar Wallace ( Sanders of the River ) and H.Rider Haggard ( King Solomon’s Mines) and infrequent black-and- white newsreels. This image changed for the worse as the African colonies achieved independence only to slide into chaos, dictatorship and very often civil war.The pitiless eye of television showed a grim reality quite different from my childhood imaginings , a continent that I would least like to visit.
Now all that has changed again thanks to Alexander McCall-Smith and his novels about The Number One Ladies Detective Agency and it’s properietor, the wonderfully named Precious Ramotswe. McCall-Smith, a Scottish medico-legal luminary, spent several years in Africa and writes lovingly about the continent and it’s people. The novels are set in Mochudi, in Botswana, and are peopled with a host of unforgettable, sharply etched characters. In addition to the ‘traditionally built’ ( read” stout’ ) Mma Ramotswe we have her assistant Mma. Makutsi ( who scored 97 % in her typing exam at the secretarial college and is forever reminding us of it); Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’ the propreitor of Tlokweng Speedy Motors and his two worthless apprentices who would rather stare at passing girls than work and Mma. Potokwane who runs the orphan farm. The ‘crimes’ that Mma Ramotswe solves are minor but what keeps the reader coming back for more are the descriptions of the land, harsh yet beautiful, and the people simple and poor yet dignified. When Mma. Ramotswe muses about her late father Obed Ramotswe or about Botswana and its first President Seretse Khama her love ( & McCall Smith’s) for the land and the people comes shining through. I read up on Botswana and it’s politics and found that it was true- Seretse Khama was that rarity, an honest politician and a statesman, and the people of Botswana are proud and immensely patriotic.
There have been seven novels in the seies so far and I have read them all with delight. The eigth and final one is due this year and I await it’s publication eagerly but with sadness because it means saying good-bye to Precious Ramotswe. If you haven’t read any of these novels don’t delay, you are in for a real treat.
McCall- Smith , who now lives in Edinburgh, has written two other series of novels, both set in that city but they do not have nearly the same charm. I suppose he left his heart in Africa. I’m not sure that I want to visit Africa; there are so many other places I want to visit first but , if I do, Botswana is the place that I’ll go.