Alexander McCall Smith: Revisiting Botswana

A new BBC programme follows a real-life version of the 'No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency'. For Alexander McCall Smith , the author of the best-selling Botswana-set novels, it is an opportunity to revisit and reflect on the colourful country and characters that have inspired his writing
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He was referring to Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, an entirely fictional garage which plays a major role in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, my series of novels set in Gaborone, the capital of what is for many people a rather remote place, Botswana.

We were standing under the spreading boughs of an old jacaranda tree in the garden of a friend who lives in Gaborone. The American was an HIV specialist, one of those brave people who struggle to so something about the illness that is cutting a swathe through sub-Saharan Africa, and he had come to work for a while in Botswana after reading about Precious Ramotswe and her colleagues in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. He had hoped to find Mma Ramotswe herself, I suspect, but had settled for finding the places described in the novel.

These trips are not uncommon. Since I started to write these books, I have met numerous people who have gone to Botswana in search of the world described in them. Some take the tours, which an enterprising local operator has organised, visiting the sites associated with the books. Others pursue a private search for the woman herself, convinced that behind every fictional character there stands a real person. When I meet such people I wish that I could direct them to a cheerful, traditionally-built private female detective with a taste for red-bush tea, but I cannot.

Mma Ramotswe herself may not exist, but some of the other characters in the books certainly do. In the first volume, which I wrote in blissful unawareness of what would happen to the whole story, I put in a few real people, and I have continued to do so ever since. In those cases where the real people play a major role, or where they are not public figures, I ask permission and show them what I have written. If they say anything in the books, then, they are always given the chance to comment on what I would have them say.

Howard and Fiona Moffat have made the most persistent appearances in the stories, cropping up, as themselves, in every volume and assured of a place until the series eventually comes to an end. Howard is a doctor who has served Botswana well over many years. He is a direct descendant of the Scottish missionary, Robert Moffat, who in the early years of the nineteenth century set up the mission at Kuruman in the Northern Cape.

It was while I was staying in the early Eighties with the Moffats in Mochudi that I first conceived of the idea of writing a story about Botswana. So when it came to describing the illness sof Mma Ramotswe's father, Obed Ramotswe, it was natural that the doctor who should look after him should be Howard Moffat. After the publication of the first two books, Howard's wife, Fiona, pointed out to me that while Howard was given something to say, she was not. This was corrected in subsequent instalments, and Mma Ramotswe now took to having tea with Fiona Moffat in the garden of their house in Gaborone and the conversation on these occasions was extensive.

With this precedent, the way was set for other real people to make their appearance. Some of these were public figures who might not be surprised to find themselves in the pages of fiction as well as the pages of history. Sir Seretse Khama, Botswana's first president, was mentioned, as were his successors, President Masire and President Mogae. I never met Sereste Khama, but I did meet the other two presidents, both of whom have been most generous about the books and both of whom have not objected to entering into Mma Ramotswe's world. Other real people who appear in the books are less well-known but are every bit as remarkable in their way. In particular, the matron of what is called the Orphan Farm in the books, is a real matron whom I met when I used to visit the SOS Children's Village in Tlokweng, just outside Gaborone. The SOS organisation operates all over the world – in Botswana it has three centres for which, because of the AIDS epidemic, there is a growing demand.

The children's village on which I based the fictional orphan farm is an attractive collection of small cottages, each of which is run by a house mother. As you enter each house, your are immediately struck by two things – the highly-polished floors and the smell of cooking. There is always something bubbling away on the stove, no matter the time of day.

When I first visited the village, the matron of the children's home – in real life – was a very traditionally-built lady by the name of Betty. She was a matron of the sort long since abolished in Britain; she would have given Hattie Jacques a run for her money and she was, moreover, a great baker of fruit cake. In the books, Mma Potokwane, who is inspired by Betty, is a consummate producer, and consumer, of fruit cake. Betty is a great woman – somebody who has given over her life to making children happy in the face of an unhappy start in this life.

The administrator of the children's village, Derek James, is also mentioned here and there in the books. He, like Betty, has devoted his life to the welfare of children, and the love which the children feel for him is very apparent. They flock to him as he shows visitors round, holding on to the his hands, clinging to his legs, and he looks down and smiles and cracks jokes in Setswana.

He pointed out to me a small boy standing aside from the others, a boy of about five or so and with the lighter complexion and very striking facial features of those who have Bushman blood. Then he told me the story which inspired me to create the character of Puso and his sister Motheleli in the books. These are the two orphans whom Mma Ramotswe's fiancé, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni fosters. This little boy was rescued from being buried alive and was brought up by his sister, who ended up in a wheelchair from a progressive disease. She was only about five years older than her brother, but was allowed to live in somebody's back yard where she brought him up until they were eventually offered a place in the children's home.

Years later, I visited the girl, now a young woman in her early twenties. It was not a happy meeting, as it seemed to me that her life was still not an easy one and I came away with a feeling of sadness for her. I did not meet the boy again and have no idea what happened to him. These two children are not Puso and Mothelei – but they certainly came into my mind when I created the fictional characters.

As the series progressed, other real people knocked on the door. Two years ago when I was at a dinner party in Gaborone, I found myself sitting next to Trevor Mwamba, who was then a member of the local Anglcian Cathedral's non-stipendiary clergy. Trevor had enjoyed a successful career in banking. He was originally from Zambia, and had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He then took a job in Botswana and ended up marrying the daughter of the then president, Sir Quett Masire.

Trevor told me that he had enjoyed the novels and that he would rather like to be written into them. I found him a charming man and I needed somebody to perform the marriage ceremony that I was planning for Mma Ramostwe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. Trevor, being a clergyman, was ideal and so he duly appeared in this role, and under his own name, in the fifth book in the series, The Full Cupboard of Life. He appears again in the volume that followed that, and he will also be in the seventh volume, this time as Bishop of Botswana.

People sometimes accuse me of ignoring the fact that, like any other country, Botswana has its dark side. I am also accused of being a utopian writer, determined to see only the good. Both of these charges might be answered by the fact that a number of the characters in the books are, in fact, real people, and I believe that they are accurately described.

The problem is that we have become so cynical that we cannot believe that the world is peopled, in part at least, by those who are sincere, well-meaning , and well-disposed to others. When I created Mma Ramotswe, I intended to conjure up a person who was quite credible. Although there may be no one person behind her, she is certainly a mixture of people whom I have met in Botswana – and elsewhere in that part of Africa. And the fact that she appears to be able to speak to so many people in very widely-differing parts of the world suggests that people are receptive to the qualities she represents.

So I understand why that American doctor came to Botswana and drove around in the hope of finding some reality behind the fiction. He was not disappointed. And, in an indirect way, the fact that he was there at all – that he had given up six months of his time to volunteer to work in a Botswana hospital, proves that Mma Ramotswe exists.

All six books in 'The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency' series are available as Abacus paperbacks. The seventh in the series, 'Blue Shoes and Happiness', will be published by Polygon in March 2006.

'The Real No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' will be shown on BBC Two on 5 July at 7pm