The Old Botswana Morality

Those who value cultural conservatism are made happy when agreeable ideas flow through the mind of a favorite character, straight off on the first page of the 18th book of her series.  Mma Ramotswe, founder and proprietress of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, thinks about these ideas at first in terms of clothes:

.  . . -but she was never keen to pay one hundred pula for something that could be obtained elsewhere for eighty pula, or to get rid of any item that, although getting on a bit, still served its purpose well enough.  And that, she thought, was the most important consideration of all – whether something worked. . . She also felt that if something was doing its job then you should hold on to it and cherish it, rather than discarding it in favor of something new.  Her white van, for instance, was now rather old and inclined to rattle, but it never failed to start -except after a rain storm, which was rare enough in a dry country like Botswana – and it got her from place to place – except when she ran out of fuel, or when it broke down, which it did from time to time, but not too often.

Her author, Alexander McCall Smith, then makes one of his transitions between internal monologue and direct speech in dialogue, of the sort and of the, well, beauty of which he is seemingly effortless master, in the manner of Austen.  She converses with her husband on the question of replacing his worn-out work boots.  Anybody who has had a husband knows how that conversation goes.

When the story has got going and the problems presented, Mma Ramotswe thinks while driving to a distant appointment in her faithful van:

. . . that men should let ladies sit down if there are not enough chairs to go round and that they, the men, should stand – well, who would disagree with that?  To the surprise of both Mma Ramotswe and Mma Potokwane, it appeared that there were people who felt that this was an old-fashioned way of behaving and that if a man reached the chair first he should sit down, even if a woman ended up standing.  These people argued that offering a lady a chair implied that she was weak and that men and women should be treated differently.  Well, said both Mma Ramotswe and Mma Potokwane, of course women should be treated differently.  Of course they should be treated with respect and consideration and given the credit for all the hard work they did in the home, looking after children (and men), and in the workplace too.  Offering a lady a chair was one way of showing that this work was appreciated, and that strength and brute force –  at which men generally tended to excel – was not the only thing that counted.  Respect for ladies tamed men, and there were many men who were sorely in need of taming; that was well known, said Mma Ramotswe.

The gentleness of the exposition of these ideas arises from its context in beautiful Botswana, beautiful Botswana cattle, and the old Botswana morality.  That context plucks the heartstrings of millions of readers around the world who had never heard of the place.  That’s encouraging, I think.

There are bad people in the stories who do wicked things; nobody is walking around with eyes closed here.  The particular style in which the just are shown to pursue the wicked and make judgments about how to handle various problems is a reassuring, soothing style. There a times a reader wants a techno-thriller or a series of nice medieval battle scenes.  Then there are those times when a Mma Ramotswe story is just what is needed.  Thank goodness the author keeps rolling them out.

McCall Smith was born in Rhodesia, spent a great deal of his boyhood in Botswana, studied law in Edinburgh, co-founded the law school in Botswana, and specialized in medical law and medical ethics.


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