Best-selling author attacked over 'tribal stereotypes'

Portrayal of infanticide by 'No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' writer is condemned

Paul Bignell
Sunday 16 March 2008 01:00 GMT

Award-winning author Alexander McCall Smith, whose best-selling books about a Botswanan female detective are printed in more than 30 languages, is accused by human rights campaigners of stereotyping tribal groups in Africa.

The hugely successful Scottish author drew criticism over his claims that infanticide is practised routinely in Botswana. But one of the stars of the TV adaptation of his The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency leapt to McCall Smith's defence.

Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, a charity that campaigns for the rights of indigenous peoples, claimed that the stereotyping of tribal people, in literature and elsewhere, as barbaric and primitive can adversely influence how they are treated by governments and the wider community.

He argued that the idea of Bushmen practising infanticide has been used by authorities against the recognition of the land rights of such tribes as the Gana and Gwi Bushmen of the central Kalahari game reserve in Botswana. He suggests some of the ideas may have come from McCall Smith's books.

"It is not difficult to show how the false portrayal of tribal peoples, whether by novelists or experts, can do real harm," said Mr Corry. Singling out McCall Smith's second novel in the series, Tears of the Giraffe, Mr Corry points to the author's depiction of infanticide: "When a Mosarwa woman dies and she's still feeding a baby, they bury the baby too... That's the way it is."

"That is not the way it really is," Mr Corry said. "McCall Smith's character presents as habit something that is in fact exceedingly rare. His books portray Botswana in a very rosy light, but the reality for the Bushmen is very different. Their experience is one of repression, bullying and persecution by a government that seems determined not to let them go home, despite what their courts say."

The timing of the attack comes just ahead of the dramatised BBC version of the first book in the series. The adaptation, by Anthony Minghella and Richard Curtis, to be shown on Easter Sunday, stars Jill Scott as Precious Ramotswe, the first female sleuth in Botswana.

British actor Idris Elba, who also stars in the drama, which was filmed on location in Botswana, defended the author. He said: "Alexander McCall Smith's stories are fictional and I think that the characters, as in anything you write, are embellished and exaggerated a little. Mr Corry should definitely take that into mind while making these statements. I feel being in Botswana and being among the Botswanan people, I didn't get any sense of 'oh my God, they're disrespecting our culture or our feelings'. I commend Mr Corry's argument and attempts to protect, but I think he should put it into perspective."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in