Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

I once spent, not very happily, slightly less than 24 hours in Botswana. It was during the summer between my first and second years at university. A friend and I had got hold of some bargain plane tickets: Heathrow to Harare via Sofia on Balkan Bulgarian Airlines, flying home from Johannesburg six weeks later. The (arbitrary) plan was to hitch-hike around the more obvious tourist spots in Zimbabwe, before making our way, through Namibia, to Cape Town. Hitch-hiking in Namibia wasn’t the most reliable form of transport. The population density is very low, almost the lowest in the world: only slightly more than two people per square kilometre. And there are a lot of square kilometres: 825,418, to be precise, which is, in the words of the CIA’s World Factbook, ‘slightly more than half the size of Alaska’. What these figures mean, in practical terms, is that we spent three days camping in the car park of a service station a few miles south-west of Grünau. (Leaving Windhoek, we had been offered a lift at dusk by a family in a pick-up truck. Stopping for fuel, the father said to us, riding in the back: ‘My wife is wondering if your mothers know where you are.’ We mumbled something non-committal. ‘She says she hopes for their sakes that they don’t,’ he said.) When at last we reached the Orange River – courtesy of a customs official on his way to work – we had to walk over the bridge into South Africa. The immigration people seemed to find our pedestrian status rather amusing. At last, after two uneventful days in Springbok, we decided to take the bus to Cape Town.

Our not-quite-24 hours in Botswana was spent on the way to Namibia from Zimbabwe. The Caprivi Strip, part of Namibia because the British ceded it to Germany in 1890 in exchange for the Germans renouncing their claim to Zanzibar, juts out – like the Florida panhandle, the CIA might say – along the northern frontier of Botswana. X marks the spot where Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet: there is no Zambia/Botswana or Zimbabwe/Namibia border. This is all much more obvious if you have a map: we didn’t have a map, having mislaid our Lonely Planet guide in Bulawayo. At the Zimbabwe/ Botswana border, the Batswana officials asked us how long we were intending to stay in their country; when we told them we were just passing through, they stamped our passports with 24-hour permits. Plenty of time, we thought, as we strolled along the Namibia road. The afternoon came and went; night drew on; few cars passed; none stopped. We pitched the tent at the side of the road. I spent a sleepless night, worrying about marauding elephants and the encroaching unlawfulness of our presence in the country. Salvation arrived gratifyingly soon after the sun came up, in the form of a man in a van who was going to Namibia for a weekend’s fishing. He even gave us breakfast: salami sandwiches and cold beer.

All of which is by way of establishing that I am, through every fault of my own, as ignorant of Botswana as the average Anglo-American reader of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and its sequels. The novel was first published in 1998 by Polygon. The US edition came out in 2002, and has been very popular. Abacus reissued the novel in Britain this year; it’s been reprinted at least five times. You’ve probably read it. But just in case you haven’t, here’s the deal.

When Precious Ramotswe’s father died, she sold his 180 cows and, after buying herself a house, set up a private detective agency in Gaborone. ‘These were its assets: a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone and an old typewriter.’ In and out of her van, she trails straying husbands and wilful daughters, confidence tricksters and unreliable doctors, making wise pronouncements all the while. She also has a teapot, in which she’s forever brewing up bush tea, and a best friend, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, a mechanic who would like to marry her. She was married once, in her early twenties, to a trumpeter who used to beat her up. They had a baby who died when it was five days old.

The books have been widely praised as ‘charming’, ‘heart-warming’, ‘a rare pleasure’. ‘Delightfully different,’ the blurb says, ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency offers a captivating portrait of an exotic world.’ It isn’t, thankfully, very exotic: it’s reassuringly banal, in fact, not so unlike the England portrayed in Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels (much referred to by Mma Ramotswe), and all too homelier-than-thou. The two things foreigners know about Botswana, if they know anything, are that it has possibly the strongest economy in Africa, based largely on diamond production, and that it has possibly the worst HIV epidemic in the world: 38.8 per cent of the population are infected; life expectancy at birth is down to 32 years. It’s pretty much impossible to miss the almost total absence of any mention of Aids from The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: for the women who ask Mma Ramotswe to investigate their husbands’ infidelity, it could be a matter of life or death, but that’s never said. Mma Ramotswe’s cleaning woman has five children by five men: chances are, two of those men are HIV positive. The first and only allusion to Aids comes when a thwarted conman says: ‘I have a sister who is sick with a disease that is killing everybody these days. You know what I’m talking about.’ McCall Smith, a medical lawyer when he’s not writing novels, has said:

I think people in Botswana are pleased that my books paint a positive picture of their lives and portray the country as being very special . . . The people are fed up with the constant reporting of only the problems and poverty of the continent. They welcome something which puts the positive side.

The other day Mmegi, a Botswana newspaper, carried a story about the HIV-positive winner of ‘a beauty competition . . . aimed at breaking down the stigma surrounding the disease’: one of the problems is that people don’t want to talk about it.