Years ago, I read a positive notice in the New York Times Book Review about an unusual series of novels about a woman in Botswana who opens her own detective agency. It sounded weird and interesting, so I got the books and fell in love with the stories of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana. Since then I’ve read nearly all the books in the series, although I’ve fallen off of late, and I’ve continued to love them, mostly because of the main character, Precious Ramotswe, who started the agency with a small inheritance from her father. Mma Ramotswe is irresistible: uneducated but clever and street-savvy, plucky and independent, wise and compassionate, and unfailingly loyal to family, friends, and Botswana.
The other characters are delightful as well: Grace Makutsi, Mma Ramotswe’s assistant; Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe’s husband and “the finest mechanic in Botswana”; Silvia Potokwane, the matron of the orphan farm from which Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni adopted their foster children, Motholeli and Puso; and an assortment of others. Even Mma Ramotswe’s tiny white van has a personality of its own. But the central character in the series, and the element that makes the book unique, is Botswana itself, and, more broadly, Africa. The books paint a vivid and loving picture of their setting, and each ends with a kind of poem, or prayer: the word “africa” printed 9 times in a diamond shape just after the last line of each book.
So I eagerly picked up one of the recent No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books that I had not yet read, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. The title reflects two central preoccupations of the series, which in turn point to one of its major themes: tea and the “traditional build” of African women like Mma Ramotswe, who is, from a western perspective, fat. But these books resist western conventions, viewing Botswana and African culture more generally through the positive lens of their traditions of respect, generosity, community, and a more realistic conception of the actual range of female body types. Alexander McCall Smith, the author, who was born in what is now Zimbabwe and spent considerable time in Botswana, has repeatedly said that one of his goals was to show the depth and breadth of the Africa he loves.
All this is well and good, necessary, even, but as I read Tea Time I was also reminded that my love of the series is always tempered by a dose of discomfort. The source of this unease is the sense that, in attempting to depict Africa positively and to respect Botswana and its culture, McCall Smith has created an almost naïve portrait of both the land and his characters, an oversimplification that verges, at times, on a patronizing and imperial tone. Though he is himself African (now living in Scotland), as a white man McCall Smith represents the colonial powers in Africa, and while I applaud his attempt at a sensitive, multifaceted portrayal of Botswana and its people, certain of his editorial decisions seem insensitive to the power of privilege.
A case in point: McCall Smith’s treatment of the AIDS crisis in Africa. Necessarily, AIDS haunts the margins of these books, but it is never even named. In the third book, Morality for Beautiful Girls, we learn that Mma Makutsi’s brother—dying of what is only called “that illness,” “that terrible illness,” or related epithets—is living with her, apparently untreated, and by the next book he has died. In Tea Time, too, AIDS appears obliquely, when Mma Ramotswe accompanies one of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s apprentice mechanics home, and finds that he lives with his grandmother. “Mma Ramotswe nodded. It was not unusual for a grandmother to be the head of a household, especially now, with that illness that had stalked the land.” McCall Smith, responding to a question about why he never directly addresses AIDS, answered, “I do not mention it too directly because they are very distressed about it and I am trying, as far as possible, to show the positive side of Africa. This is not to deny what is happening, of course; it’s just that there is so much about the trials and difficulties of Africa and so little about ordinary life there.” This may be true, but the desire to present an uncomplicated and unreservedly positive picture of a place that is just as complex, difficult, and problematic as any other place on earth (and perhaps more so as regards AIDS) is a form of infantilization that, in the hands of a white male writer, reeks of imperialism.
This oversimplification extends, in some ways, to other aspects of the books. Mma Ramotswe, for example, is a paragon of virtue. Although she admits to an uncharitable thought once in a while, generally she is so perfect and so good that she is almost inhuman; the same might be said of her husband. And although Mma Ramotswe is no innocent—we learn in the early books that she was once married to an abusive man and lost an infant child—Mma Makutsi, with her childish insistence on the importance of her 97 percent GPA at the Botswana Secretarial College, seems to be. To be fair, McCall Smith does address some important questions through the characters and plots: Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni has suffered clinical depression; Mma Makutsi’s hardscrabble upbringing and striving for education and independence raise class issues; and we see a backdrop of cheating and corruption through some of the investigations conducted by the detective agency. But almost inevitably, although I enjoy these books, while I’m reading something will make me cringe.
I have no real answers about whether these books do a service or disservice to Africa—I will leave that to experts. I do know that my process in reading them is complicated by the coexistence of their very real appeal and the pride they take in the characters and the land with the simultaneous oversimplification of those characters and that land that lends them a slightly colonialist feel. In some ways, the very things that give me pause are also the things that attract me. But the enjoyment I get from them is genuine, and I will probably keep reading them even as I continue to critique my own pleasure.