You’ve probably heard of Alexander McCall Smith’s The N° 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency before: I myself saw it on Goodreads, classified by friends as “read” or “to read”. The book cover seemed very familiar and I eventually realised that I had seen the book – and others from the series – on a bookshelf in our house in Mauritius or maybe at my aunt Wendy’s in the UK. I wrote to my mom and aunt for more information and I received the first book of the series in my post box just a few days later! Wendy, thanks again for making this article possible ;)
Precious Ramotswe is a typical African woman living in a tiny village in Botswana. Her claim to fame is that she is the sole female detective in the whole country, and of course, the very best of the trade. This is the first book of her adventures (described in 16 different books) which lead her to find disappearing husbands, teenage boyfriends and mysterious witchdoctors.
My mother and aunt grew up in South Africa and experienced first-hand the censorship implemented during the apartheid years. I have often heard stories about the few books that were allowed in the country, such as the Famous Five series that I read and reread as a child. They made for a pleasant read when I was little, but the racism and gender roles bother me now. In any case, because of the African context and the “murder mystery” vibe, I expected The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to be very similar to the Enid Blyton books I know so well. But I couldn’t have been more wrong!
I do not know “proper” Africa myself, but the description and very style itself reminded me of many things I miss from my years in Mauritius. I remembered the welcome shade provided by a lonely tree on scorched, cracked earth, the hot, heavy air, the sound of insects humming at sunset and the sharp taste of biltong and rooibos tea that I rarely ate or drank when they were readily available but that formed important, alternative memories for the European I would become.
I loved reading about the typical short, fat African woman who bustles about her kitchen making herself meals of pumpkin and chicken before borrowing her neighbour’s dogs for a stake out in her tacky white van. Mma Ramotswe’s attitude is wonderfully contradictory from my point of view: she is fiercely independent and does not want a man telling her what to do under any circumstances, but she also firmly believes that a man is fundamentally incapable of cooking and cleaning up after himself. The word that comes to mind when thinking of her character is “badass”: she is so tough, independent minded and strong. She kills crocodiles and snakes and deals with dangerous witchdoctors without ever missing a beat. I felt quite proud of her!
This light read turned out to be a real joy: funny, heart-warming and even an essay on women’s and children’s rights! I look forward to reading the other books in the series!