by David Robinson

Looking for Mma Ramotswe

July 31, 2018 | by David Robinson

Looking for Mma Ramotswe

This summer sees the 20th anniversary of the publication of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the first book in Alexander McCall Smith’s internationally bestselling series of the same name. In 2004, SRB contributor David Robinson travelled with McCall Smith to Botswana on a journey in search of Precious Ramotswe, the woman at the heart of it all. Published in 2008, this essay paints a vivid picture of two Botswanas and how the stories of real people and fictional characters intersect.
I never did get to meet the woman Alexander McCall Smith was thinking of when he wrote his first story about Mma Ramotswe, the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but I know she does exist – or that she did when I visited Botswana with him four years ago. But although I must have passed right past her house without knowing it, I did at least, like Mma Ramotswe herself, make a few surprising sleuthing discoveries of my own…
THE MAIN problem with looking for the most famous woman in Botswana is that she’s almost entirely fictional. Beyond the imagination of Alexander McCall Smith and the five million people who have bought his novels, there really is no large-hearted private detective called Mma Ramotswe, no matter how we might yearn for such a palpably decent, kindly sorter-out of other people’s problems. At the foot of Kgale Hill, there is no No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. On Gaborone’s bustling Twokleng Road, there is no Speedy Motors Garage, where Mr JLB Matekoni, fiction’s most charming mechanic and Mma Ramotswe’s adoring husband, plies his oily craft. You already know that there won’t be, even as you fly into Gaborone airport with the fanciful aim of sleuthing out the “real” Mma Ramotswe. And when you drive from there to the centre of Botswana’s capital, on roads thronged with gleaming flatbed trucks, it seems even more of a fool’s errand. Those miles of ultra-modern trading estates and offices marking out
Africa’s fastest-growing city; those long avenues of bungalows, their walls tipped with electric fences; that mall across the road, with shoppers edging past luxury sports cars and fashion shows to pour into the hi-fi shops; the cinema multiplexes showing the same films as they do in Britain – everything you see tells you you’re wasting your time: Mma Ramotswe couldn’t possibly live in a place as thoroughly westernised, as relentlessly up-to-the-minute, as this. But you’re wrong. You’ve just got to look harder, that’s all. And when you do, you’re in for a whole string of surprises.
It’s Sunday, 7:30am on a clear Botswanan winter’s day in 2004, and I am in church. The Anglican cathedral of the Holy Cross in Gaborone is where Mma Ramotswe worships her God, kneeling at pews facing a large altar table. Long strips of red light fall across the congregation’s faces from the stained-glass windows behind it. The reading is II Kings 5:1-15, the story about how the king of Syria asks the king of Israel to heal his best general, Na’aman, “a mighty man, but a leper”. The king of Israel takes this as a de facto declaration of war. He can’t possibly heal Na’aman (“Am I God, to kill and make alive?”). The prophet Elijah, however, can and does, and Na’aman’s “flesh is restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean”. I look around at the congregation. If the statistical averages of the population apply equally to the worshippers, then one out of every two women in their twenties in the pews behind me will die of AIDS. One in three Botswanans aged between 15 and 45 has HIV, the highest incidence of the virus in the world. Imagine that: the crowds in Gaborone’s Africa Square, the shoppers in the River Walk malls, the packed stands for the Zebras’ soccer games. One in three. About the same number as those upon whose upturned faces the light falls through the stained-glass windows in the cathedral.
Behind the altar, Howard Moffat is taking the service. A friend of McCall Smith’s since their teenage years in colonial Rhodesia, he appears briefly in every one of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books. A doctor as well as a minister, he is the medical superintendent at Gaborone’s main hospital and personal physician to Botswana’s president. He is also, says McCall Smith, the nearest thing he knows to a saint. Moffat is a reserved, gentle, quiet-spoken man, and there is indeed an aura of goodness about him. Perhaps I’m only thinking that because I know his hospital has the biggest AIDS clinic in the world, and a doctor I know who visited him there came away humbled by his colossal workload. But perhaps not: one of the reasons McCall Smith’s books are so successful is that they acknowledge the reality of goodness in a way so little contemporary fiction does – both in the hard work of real people like Howard Moffat, and in the life of Mma Ramotswe.
Long before AIDS came to Botswana, Howard Moffat was a busy man. In Mochudi, the village thirty-five miles away, in which Mma Ramotswe grew up, he used to be the head of the local hospital. In the books, McCall Smith has him treating Obed, Mma Ramotswe’s father, as he lay dying of a lung disease contracted when working in South Africa’s gold mines. He’d probably have treated Mma Ramotswe too. In fact – and this is where the boundary with fiction almost dissolves – that’s just what he did.
Alexander McCall Smith has often spoken about how he first got the idea of writing about a woman like Mma Ramotswe. It’s a simple, apparently insignificant, story. In 1980, he was visiting Howard and Fiona Moffat in Mochudi, and was walking with Fiona in the village late one summer afternoon when a large lady called out to her. She wanted, she said, to give Dr Moffat a chicken. She chased it round the yard, wrung its neck, and handed it over. That’s it. End of story. Or rather, the start of one, because fifteen years later, sitting in front of his computer in Edinburgh, McCall Smith thought back to that woman, to how eager she had been to give his friend that present, how she had bustled around her clean-swept yard with such determination. He started writing a story of a woman like her, a woman whose father had died, and who had decided to set up a detective agency. End of story again. It had only taken four pages. But he found himself wondering, as writers do, about the life of that woman whom he had only seen for a few minutes. And the more he thought about her, the more it seemed to fit in with memories of 1981, the year he’d spent in Botswana setting up the law faculty of its only university.
McCall Smith loves the country with a passion that can perhaps only come from someone born in Africa. Back then, Botswana’s virtues shone more brightly against the horrors of apartheid, only thirty miles away across the South African border. But this land, this Botswana, was a completely colour-blind country, whose first president had risked everything for the love of the white woman he married; a democracy, free of corruption, observing the rule of law, almost free of crime, with an unfettered press; a country which had never been invaded or riven by tribal fighting, where guns were banned and the police unarmed – and where the world’s biggest source of gem diamonds had been found, on the edges of the Kalahari, just a year after the British pulled out in 1966. In short, almost a paradise. So he returned to Mma Ramotswe, this good woman in a good country, and wrote the first book in a series whose popularity encircles the globe. Mma Ramotswe is not the woman who chased the chicken round her clean-swept yard in Mochudi, but without the one, we might never have had the other. So here’s the question: Who is that woman who inadvertently provided the inspiration for McCall Smith’s novels?
Until now, no-one has known. The “real” Mma Ramotswe is now 73, extremely deaf, possibly confused about her accidental role in literature, and unwilling to be interviewed by strangers like me – so we’ll give her the name Mma Betty. She still lives in Mochudi, where Dr Moffat treated her for diabetes. She no longer keeps chickens, but grows gourds and squash in her yard, some of which she sells to neighbours. And when friends of mine visited her for an hour last week, she welcomed them in, sat them all down in her overcrowded lounge and did exactly what the fictional Mma Ramotswe would also have done immediately: offered them tea and cake. Mma Betty was shorter than she used to be, but just as large – “traditionally built” in McCall Smith’s endearing euphemism – as ever. She opened the door wearing a large tartan headscarf and grubby glasses, apologising for the small amount of building work in her yard. “Welcome to my ruin,” she said, laughing, ushering her visitors into a lounge crammed with three unmatching settees, various other chairs, and a cluttered dining-room table. On the walls were the certificates she’d been awarded for her work as a teacher and leader of the Sunbeams, as Brownies are called in Botswana; a picture of Botswana’s first president, Sir Seretse Khama, and one of her only son. No, she said, she didn’t recall chasing that chicken to give to Dr Moffat, or meeting the man whose stories she had accidentally inspired. My friends gave her a copy of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. She promised to read it.
The real truths from which fiction is woven are like that: they come from a different angle to the written story. Remember that first lesson from the Bible at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, which I thought had been specially chosen because of the parallels between leprosy and AIDS? It wasn’t: in every Anglican service in the world, that was the text for the Sunday on which I heard it. Now it’s three days later, and I’m in a car with Derek James, the charismatic 62- year-old director of a charity which runs two orphanages in Botswana. We are heading west towards the border with South Africa, the country he left 32 years ago, when the pressures of being an ANC supporter and defying the cruel absurdities of apartheid grew too great. I wanted to see the SoS Children’s Village at Twokleng, the “orphan farm” in McCall Smith’s series, because this is where Mma Ramotswe’s children come from, and because its former matron is another real-life person with a role in the novels. Although I don’t know it yet, I am travelling behind the fiction, towards an even stranger truth.
In McCall Smith’s series, Mma Ramotswe’s fiancé, the estimable Mr JLB Matekoni, is a regular visitor to the orphanage. Each time he goes there, Mma Potokwane, its formidable matron, inveigles him into fixing any machinery that needs attention, or repairing the orphanage’s trucks and its battered minibus. In Tears of the Giraffe, Mma Potokwane tells Mr JLB Matekoni the story of the two most recent arrivals at the orphanage. A band of nomadic Kalahari bushmen had been on an ostrich-hunt when one of the mothers died. According to bushman custom, when this happens, if the mother is still feeding a baby, it is buried with her. A baby boy had been wrapped up in animal hide and buried alive in a shallow, sandy grave. His sister, who was five years old, had hidden in the bush, and when the adults had moved on, she dug up her baby brother and ran off with him in her arms. When she reached a road, a passer-by took them both to Francistown hospital, near the border with Zimbabwe. The baby was still alive. The children learnt Setswana and were given foster parents in the town, but then the girl who had rescued her brother was struck down by TB of the spine. She was now in a wheelchair, and when her foster parents could no longer cope, she and her brother were sent to the orphanage. It’s an important part of the story, because these are children JLB Matekoni will take home and Mma Ramotswe will adopt: the wheelchair-bound Motholeli and her younger brother Puso. But that’s all I had assumed it was: a story. I’d never imagined it might be true. “Sure it is,” says Derek James. “Every bit of it – apart from the fact that they’re both girls. If you want, I can show you the files.”
There are terrible stories in these files. A boy whose stepfather put him in a hut and set it on fire when he was one year old. An eight-year-old girl who had been tied to a tree at the back of a shebeen and used as a sex object. Seven children with full-blown AIDS. You flick through the official trail of these brief lives – the social workers’ recommendations, the medical case notes, the care histories – and the pictures attached. All the children are beaming at the camera – except, at first, little Khumo. She would have been one year old when she was buried alive by her tribe, nine by the time she was admitted to the orphanage in 1990. In the first picture, you can tell that she really is trying to force a small grin for the camera, but she can’t. Even her case notes admit that “she doesn’t find it easy to smile”. She’s shy, note the house mothers at the orphanage; she doesn’t like talking, and she is far better at football than anything else at school.
Karabo is three years older. She was six when she dug up her little sister, cleared the sand from her mouth and nose and carried her to safety. The two girls lived for a while at the hospital near the huge diamond mine at Orapa, then were fostered to a family near Francistown. It didn’t work out. The foster parents were unemployed and started neglecting them; particularly when, at the age of nine, Karabo got TB and had to start using a wheelchair. At the Twokleng orphanage, though, she blossomed. She was popular, friendly, outgoing. After she left the orphanage, a place was found for her at a workshop for physically disabled adults forty miles away, where she assembled solar rechargeable hearing aids, before being promoted to receptionist. Three years ago, following a relationship with a co-worker, she had a baby. Khumo only left the orphanage last year, when she turned 21. After going to hotel school in Namibia, she is now a waitress in a motel only a short walk away. It’s a poorly paid job: only £55 a month, and the orphanage is still helping her by paying her rent.
These, then, are the true stories of fictional people. It’s no surprise that they only overlap at the start. If they echoed each other completely – if, for example, Motholi and Puso stayed on at the orphanage, as Karabo and Khumo did, or if Mma Ramotswe really was Mma Betty – McCall Smith’s books would be very different. And yes, it would certainly be possible to paint an altogether bleaker portrait of Botswana: one that shows its rising crime rate, the effect of AIDS, and unemployment far higher than the official figures of nineteen per cent. But these books are about something more than social realism. They are gently paced, charming stories where good things usually happen to good people: in the latest Mma Ramotswe novel, for example, a decent ex-convict is given a second chance, our heroine’s own honesty saves her from blackmail, and her physically rather unprepossessing assistant accidentally discovers love with a patently decent man. Real life, we might say to ourselves, isn’t like that. But we suspend our disbelief because McCall Smith makes such a convincing case that, in a good country like Botswana at least, it just might be. My first impressions, as I drove from Gaborone airport, were that this was a country whose anodyne modernity might just as easily be anywhere else, and I felt slightly disillusioned. Only out in the villages on the way to the Kalahari did life start to resemble what I had imagined: thatched rondavels, traditionally built women, a palpably slower pace.
Gradually, I started to notice how wrong those first impressions were: that even in the city, people’s friendliness exceeded my expectations. After church, for example, the congregation applauded me just for coming from Scotland, and complete strangers invited me into their house for lunch. In the streets, casual greetings were given by passers-by as a matter of course. In conversation, there was a greater attentiveness to the speaker, an easiness of laughter. Maybe McCall Smith is right; maybe this really is a place where goodness happens that bit more readily.
On my last night, there was a party at the Moffats’ house. By that stage, I’d seen a lot more of the country than most visitors will, from a brunch on the well-watered lawns of the State House to nights under the stars of the Kalahari, where the members of our small safari team were the only humans in an area the size of Portugal. I’d talked to Botswanan writers and orphans, seen the world’s largest HIV research clinic outside America and, like Mma Ramotswe, I’d drunk bush tea on the veranda of the President’s Hotel. I’d met a lot of people I liked a great deal. But now my search for Mma Ramotswe was winding down to a close. In the garden of the Moffat house, which Mma Ramotswe visits in the latest book after giving a lift to Fiona Moffat (“because in Botswana, no-one passes a friend”), under a large spreading jacaranda tree, many of the people I’d met in the course of the week were already gathered. Rev. Trevor Mwamba*, the irrepressibly charming priest who marries Mma Ramotswe to JLB Matekoni. Tim Race, who runs the marvellous Mma Ramotswe Literary Tour, the only one of its kind in Africa. His wife Claire, whose work has more than halved the transmission rate of HIV between mothers and babies in a clinical trial. American doctors confident that the AIDS tide is turning as more people see the very real benefits of retroviral drugs. Dr Moffat, relaxing for once, away from the hospital. Bujosi Olthogile, the Edinburgh-trained vice-chancellor of the country’s university, who is pointing out to me how much Botswana owes to Scotland. Derek James, whom I’d last seen doing war-dances with the nursery class in his orphanage, surely one of the best-run in Africa.
The twelve young children, swaying and dancing as they sing for us in the Moffats’ garden, are also orphans. Someone tells me they have made up all the words and music themselves. “Thank you, Mr Sandy,” they sing. “Thank you for being with us. Please come back to see us, but thank you for just being here.” And in the middle of this group of friends, under the Southern Cross, in the warmth of a Botswanan night, a kind-faced author in a kilt smiles back at them as he wipes a tear from his eye.
This is an extract from In Cold Ink: On the Writers’ Tracks by David Robinson (Maclean Dubois, 2008). Reproduced with the permission of the author.

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