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Novel set in Botswana, Africa

31st October 2016

Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith, novel set in Botswana, Africa.

Tears of the Giraffethe charming second book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, intertwines stories of proprietor and head detective Mma Precious Ramotswe’s life with those of her eclectic clients.

novel set in botswana, africaMma Ramotswe is a down-to-earth, patriotic Botswanan who relies on her women’s intuition to solve cases quite effectively. Though she has no background in detective or police work, she used the proceeds from the sale of her father’s cattle to set up an agency as well as buy her house on Zebra Drive. There are no certificates or degrees available in detection, so she uses an old book, The Principles of Private Investigation by Clovis Andersen, as her guide. She is the ultimate amateur sleuth, a detective because she chooses to call herself one.

Her cases are the bread and butter of any respectable detective agency: cheating spouses, the credit worthiness of potential business partners, suspected fraud or theft, and missing children. With her feminine insight and intimate knowledge of Botswanan culture, she’s able to solve even the most mysterious of crimes using common sense, her little white van and a bit of help from her secretary and fiancé.

In addition to teaching us about the culture and traditions of Botswana, her cases show us African people worrying about the same things Westerners do. I believe this is an important aspect of this series. The Africa described so lovingly in these books is not at all the Africa typically presented in Western media. These are tight-knit families with strong communal ties, dealing with the repercussions of encroaching Western traditions and values as their country modernizes. AIDS, child soldiers, famine, and rebellions are all touched upon, yet are firmly regulated to the background. What really matters to these characters – and thus the people of Africa – are keeping themselves and their families healthy and happy.

This focus on ‘ordinary’ Africans is emphasized by Mma Ramotswe as well: “…they had seen Africa become independent and take its own steps in the world. But what a troubled adolescence the continent had experienced, with its vainglorious dictators and their correct bureaucracies. And all the time, African people were simply trying to lead decent lives in the midst of all the turmoil and disappointment.

Mma Ramotswe and her fiancé Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, long for the return of the ‘old ways’ – when children showed respect for their elders, placed familial bonds above money, and their sense of community was stronger – yet are immensely proud of the positive steps Botswana has taken since freeing itself from colonial rule. Precious and her fiancé often makes comments about why Botswana is safer and better than neighboring African lands, just as Americans complain about other states, or Europeans about neighboring EU lands.

Though these books easily stand alone, reading the series in order does provide more insight into both Precious Ramotswe’s life, and those of the large supporting cast of characters popping in and out of the series. In the first book of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Mma Ramotswe is the lead protagonist and stories about her family history – her devoted, widowed father and the cousin who helped raise her – are used to connect the cases she takes on. This novel gradually progresses through the events which led to Precious opening up her detective agency in Gaborone, Botswana, and introduces us to Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, a kind mechanic and owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors who prides himself on being respectable, honest and fast.  Her secretary Mma Makutsi, a prim and proper young widower who graduated at the top of her class at secretarial school, makes a brief appearance.

Book two, Tears of the Giraffe, also revolves around Mma Precious Ramotswe’s cases and clients, though in this novel her fiancé Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni is the thread linking them together as we learn more about his employees, business, household and growing family. Mma Makutsi, the detective agency’s astute and observant secretary, develops into Precious’s side-kick and assistant detective in this second novel.

The two young men who work for Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni’s garage are typical teenagers who value quick money above hard work. Their role allows the author to explore issues such as the internal shift in Botswanan culture as Western values begin to supersede and replace traditional values, the migration of youth from small townships and villages to urban cities, and the desire for wealth superseding family values and bonds.

Botswana is as much a character as Mma Precious Ramotswe. You can feel the dust and hot sun on your face, hear the Go-Away Birds squawking overhead, and rest in the cool shade provided by the acacia tree in her front yard. Gaborone is a place where people take pride in their homes and streets, care for one and other, and still like to sit on their porches and enjoy the sunrise instead of rushing around the whole time.

The author weaves in the sort of details about Botswana only a local would notice; my favorite being most people don’t have alarm clocks but are awakened by “Radio Botswana broadcasting the sound of cow bells at six in the morning.” These books celebrate the beauty of Botswana’s bush, wildlife, open desert, and slower-paced lifestyle and McCall Smith’s gentle, rolling style of writing reflects that.

This series is inspired by Alexander McCall Smith’s own experiences gained while living and working in Africa, specifically Swaziland, Botswana and Zimbabwe. In this second novel, one of Mma Ramotswe’s clients is a white woman who once lived in Africa, back to look for her missing son. I had the distinct feeling that the author used her as a conduit to express his own affection for the Botswanan ways, culture, landscape and lifestyle.

The power of this novel is its simple, unassuming prose. It’s a bundle of short stories giving us a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Africans not normally seen in Western media. In contrast to so many travel fiction novels whose authors look upon locals with disdain and cynicism, McCall Smith truly respects and admires ‘the old Botswanan ways’, their traditions and culture. He also shy’s away from constant comparisons between daily life in Western and African countries. Instead of looking at Africans as ‘the Other’ and commenting on their strange or exotic behavior, he emphasizes the fact that we all share the same desire to be happy and healthy, see our children grow up to be good people, and to provide for our families no matter what our skin color, religion, ethnicity or nationality.

Mma Ramotswe says it best when she ruminates: “Sometimes she thought that people overseas had no room in their heart for Africa, because nobody had ever told them that African people were just the same as they were.” Though this sentence comes at the end of the book, this feeling resonates throughout this novel and series. And that is precisely why I love these books; they remind you to look beyond the doom and gloom often broadcast by Western media when reporting on ‘developing nations’ and remember that most people are really only searching for love, happiness and acceptance.

Jennifer S Alderson for the TripFiction Team



Jennifer has written two novels, one set in Nepal and the other set in her home city of Amsterdam. Both are inspirational for #literarywanderlust. You can connect with her on Twitter, img_3707-768x1024Facebook, Instagram and via her website



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