Janet Street-Porter: Welcome to Botswana – the sanitised version

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The Independent Online

I've read every book about Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's No.1 Lady Detective, and this weekend I will be tuning in to the BBC film based on the books. But listening to the emollient tones of author Alexander McCall Smith on the radio yesterday, I felt queasy. Over the years, his rose-tinted view of life in this corner of Africa has become increasingly hard to stomach, the exploits of traditionally built Precious and her sidekick the plain, bespectacled Mma Makutsi going from whimsically charming to morally dubious – the literary equivalent of eating a can of Delia-approved tinned mince.

Of course we don't always want to talk about Africa in terms of tragedy, but is it really acceptable to portray Botswana as if it was 1950s Britain rather than the world's largest supplier of diamonds?

Botswana was in the news this week when De Beers launched an important new multimillion dollar venture with the government to sort and value about 15 per cent of the country's diamonds, which will then be cut and polished locally. The new factory will create about 3,000 jobs in the capital, Gabarone.

Botswana produces more than 22 per cent of the world's diamonds, which contribute 80 per cent of the country's foreign earnings, but that does not necessarily mean economic prosperity. And diamonds are a finite resource. Unemployment runs at 20 per cent and one in four of the population live on just a dollar a day. More than a quarter of the population are HIV positive.

This week the UN Human Rights Commission will be meeting to discuss Botswana. Survival International, a charity fighting for the rights of indigenous people, has been campaigning to uphold the rights of the Bushmen of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, who are denied the right to hunt on their land and use the water boreholes there, in spite of a 2006 High Court ruling.

A report by the International Federation for Human Rights and the Botswana Centre for Human Rights has documented the "inhumane and degrading treatment" suffered by condemned prisoners and their families in the country. Relatives are not allowed to see prisoners before they are executed nor to visit the grave afterwards – the victims are buried within prison walls.

In Botswana, there is no legislation preventing employers from secretly testing their workforces for HIV, although neighbouring Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola have laws preventing this kind of discrimination. When Debswana, the joint venture between DeBeers and the Botswana government, tested (openly) 6,500 employees, 28.8 per cent were HIV positive, leading them to set up health and support schemes. HIV is inflicting a terrible toll on a country with a population of only 1.7m – life expectancy has fallen to an average of 33.7 years.

Meanwhile, religious organisations are celebrating the popularity of McCall Smith's books – the author was educated at the Christian Brothers college in Bulawayo before teaching law at Botswana University – claiming that Precious is a great Christian role model, hoping the film and telly series will create a Harry Potter effect and bring thousands of tourists to Botswana. In the hands of co-writer Richard Curtis and director Anthony Minghella, this Sunday's programme is guaranteed to be a feel-good experience, but without wishing to be a party-pooper, perhaps we could all remember that there is another, less sanitised version of life in Botswana?

No way to treat your liver, Mike

Good to see evidence that binge drinking in Britain isn't the prerogative of the young or the underclass. The Cheltenham Festival last week offered an opportunity for our national sport – and even members of the Royal family apparently participated. After a long day, Zara Phillips and her boyfriend Mike Tindall were reportedly somewhat the worse for wear. Next morning Tindall was stopped by the police while driving to the England-Ireland match at Twickenham. He failed a breath test and was held in a police cell for several hours. Mr Tindall has a seriously damaged liver after injuries sustained during a match six weeks ago – maybe he hasn't realised that this is the organ boozers need to process all those units.

* One side-effect of the credit squeeze is the rash of well-meaning features offering advice on how to live economically. There's sensible stuff, like eating more seasonal vegetables, planning a week's worth of meals in one go, and cooking from scratch rather than using pre-cooked or processed food.

Fine if you've got the time – but if your monthly mortgage bill has risen by £100, that's a lot of turnips and brisket, and the idea of freezing left-over red wine to put in sauces is daft. Given the recent increases in utility bills, most of us won't be letting an inch of red plonk sit around in the bottle, no matter how much tax Mr Darling has slapped on it.

At times like this, what we want are things that are going to make us feel better, like large bars of chocolate. Quite honestly, trekking down to Billingsgate on a Saturday to pick up cheap fish is a non-starter.

Meanwhile, the same female journalists who offer tips on saving money take up acres of newsprint telling us that designer shoes are the new handbags...