Precious Ramotswe, private detective, is one of the most colourful fictional characters to have come out of Africa, Botswana to be precise. Mma Ramotswe (pronounced “Ma,” a term of both endearment and courtesy), is the creation of Alexander McCall Smith, a writer from Scotland. She is the main character in the series of stories featured around the No.1 ladies detective agency.
McCall Smith, born in Southern Rhodesia, has spent most of his life in Africa. His contributions runs into a hundred books in different genres, medical law, novels, children’s books, short story collections etc..
The antecedents of Mma Ramotswe are the following: her father, Obed Ramotswe, had built up a good-sized herd of cattle. On his deathbed, he advises her to sell the herd and buy a store. On the profits made from the sale, she decides to set up a detective agency, for Botswana to have the unique distinction of possessing the only ladies’ detective agency. When young, she married a jazz musician called Note Mokoti, a bad apple. Ramotswe is resourceful, caring and often overbearing. The series of books describe Precious Ramotswe’s life and work.
The allure of McCall Smith’s series lie in its simplicity. Smith portrays life in Africa in an idealized manner. The people are polite and warm to each other and to outsiders. It is the one country in sub-Saharan Africa that seems to have escaped the post-independence slide into corruption and collapse that has afflicted much of the continent. It is well-run, neat, and, a remarkably pleasant place for most of its inhabitants. With the discovery of diamonds the economy of Botswana blooms.
Mma Ramotswe’s modus operandi is based on intuition, wisdom and a deep understanding of her people rather than cold facts and evidence. She understands the distinction between human frailty and evil. Most of the people she meets in her work suffer from the former, thus bringing out her tolerance, humour and kindliness. On encountering evil occasionally, she concedes her incapacity to change it. Her ability to look at life positively inspires people around her through her empathy and generosity. She shows integrity, compassion and forgiveness, and by her moral judgement and attention to interpersonal relationships, she highlights important dimensions of human experience.
The 18 odd books in the series start when Precious Ramotswe sets up shop with Grace Makutsi. By her late thirties , she has a house, two adopted children, a good fiancé and many satisfied customers, and she begins to wonder when she would get married. We find her investigating an unexpected series of deaths at the hospital in Mochudi. She takes effective action against Violet Sephotho, the villain in the series, from seducing Phuti Radiphuti, the fiance of Grace Makutsi. She also takes effective care of a builder who tricks Phuti. When an old friend, Mma Potokwane, the orphan farm’s respected matron, is dismissed from her post, Mma Ramotswe mounts a campaign to have her reinstated. Next, we find her helping a young Canadian woman recover important pieces of her life in Botswana. When she learns of the plan to build a flashy hotel next to a graveyard, she allows her friends to persuade her to run for a seat on the Gaborone City Council.
As a detective, she’s a maverick and depends primarily on her intuition. She is more concerned with ethical values than with the law and hence she’s reluctant to be involved with the police and prefers customary law, in all its guises. An outstanding feature of Mma Ramotswe is her great humanity. She has great empathy for people and believes that people often makes mistakes without being bad. But, unfortunately, many factors can lead a person down the wrong track, and quite often what is not needed is a legal outcome.
Mma Ramotswe’s cases are not detective stories, though they carry the trappings of detective fiction – a missing child, a cheating husband, an insurance fraud. Instead, they are vignettes of African life, solved according to the dictates of courtesy and gentility, which are hallmarks of life in Botswana. The cases get solved without much effort and most of the time is spent drinking tea and gossiping with her fiance Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni or her redoubtable secretary, Mma Grace Makutsi.
Mma Ramotswe is prone to philosophical speculation, though she realizes that they lead to further questions that often have no answers. She is a champion of traditional Botswana values and intuitively knows that the old ways of doing things are right. The old Botswana morality determines what is right and what is wrong. However, when they can’t guide many present day situations, one has to choose the most compassionate course and act on it. Morality begins with empathy, which in turn leads us to acts of compassion to relieve others’ pain. The inability to feel empathy is the root of evil. Mma Ramotswe believes that wars would not happen if women ruled the country. She declares: “Women can’t be bothered with all this fighting. They recognise war for what it is- a matter of broken bodies and crying mothers.”
Mma Ramotswe’s theology is also simplistic. According to a Setswana saying, “And God was here before the missionaries came and had a different name”. He preferred to live in the rocks and the sky. As in the old Setswana poem, she believes that “it was women who first ploughed the earth when God created it. We were the ones who made the food. We take care of men during their childhood, their youth and when they grow old and on the verge of death. We are always there. But we are just women, and nobody sees us.”
We may like to compare Mma Ramotswe to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple from St. Mary Mead, another remarkable female sleuth. Miss Marple’s brilliance is because of her innate wisdom. Behind that calm façade, there is a brilliant intellect at work, absorbing events and assessing facts quite like a professional detective. The pastoral settings may make one forget that she has seen more examples of human depravation than professional police officers. Miss Marple’s capacity for solving complicated cases is because, on occasion after occasion, she finds examples of the evil that is part of the human nature in St. Mary Mead. She has a parallel precedent in the village for every case brought to her, which enables her to look at the crime with a clear perspective.
Botswana is an idyllic world with more innocent crimes, where even the worst transgressions appear to have newly emerged from a latter-day Garden of Eden. By installing a detective agency here, McCall Smith may be offering us “plausibly” a simpler, gentler amble through the heart of relatively innocuous darkness. Botswana is one of the few countries left in the world where his amateur detectives could have exercised their gift for gossip so beneficently.