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July 6, 2005

Back from Botswana

I just finished the sixth in the series of “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” books that I—and thousand of others around the world—have come to love. And so I’m back from another marvelous week in Botswana, the week I spent In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (Random House) and specifically with the agency’s owner, the “traditionally built” and wonderfully wise Precious Ramotswe whose sleuthing abilities come primarily from her understanding of the human heart. The crimes she solves mostly are minor ones, murder is rare. But their solutions tend to right the world again. Often people get second chances to behave in what she explains are the old ways of  her beloved country. Things definitely are better in Botswana because Mma Ramotswe is on the case.

A year ago the series author, Scotsman Alexander McCall Smith, was on a book tour in the U.S. and happened to be in Grand Rapids, Mich., when I was there attending a conference. I missed his bookstore talk, but read the newspaper feature the next day in which McCall Smith was asked about his “idealization” of Africa. I remember his comeback: No, answered the author who was reared in Africa, what I write about is real—just as real as the turmoil and war reported relentlessly.

I understand. I’ve been to Africa twice on reporting trips for The Lutheran. The problems, of course, are real and really overwhelming. But so is the goodness of the people. And that, I suspect, is what draws me and so many others back to the Botswana books.  

Still, the books aren’t enough for some. In The Chicago Tribune (June 14) I read a report from foreign correspondent Laurie Goering about a booming business in Gaberone, Botswana, the capital city and home to Mma Ramotswe’s agency. Seems that people traveling with tour operators to the nearby Kalahari began to point out street signs to Zebra Drive and Tlokweng Road, the President Hotel and the Princess Marina Hospital—places familiar to the series’ readers. Now there are specialty tours of all the spots that are such an important part of the books’ landscape.

Not only are these places real, but some of the characters are too, the story pointed out, including Bishop Trevor Mwamba, head of the Anglican Cathedral, who plays a particularly significant role in the fifth book, The Full Cupboard of Life. He’s a detective of sorts, too, as he gives an explanation of the books’ appeal: “There’s this hidden side, the peaceful Africa, the Africa concerned about humanity and helping. These books try to bring out that life and attitude.”

To that I can only add “Amen!”

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