Commentary Magazine

The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith

The Full Cupboard of Life
by Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon. 208 pp. $19.95

On the map you will find Botswana north of South Africa and west of Zimbabwe. It is characterized by big skies and the Kalahari desert and the Limpopo River, and by the abiding respect shown by its inhabitants, who belong for the most part to the Tswana ethnic group, for the owning and raising of cattle.

Obed Ramotswe, a good and decent man, has invested in cattle the money earned from long, difficult, and dangerous years in the gold and diamond mines of South Africa. This insures the security of his beloved daughter Precious, upon whom his affection has focused after the death of his wife. He urges Precious to make good use of this estate, perhaps selling a few head to start a business she can manage in Gaborone, Botswana's capital.

Obed Ramotswe knows that he has raised an intelligent and sensible girl, one with proper Christian values acquired at missionary schools; but some things will not be learned except through bitter experience. Indeed, in her young folly, Precious has chosen the wrong husband, a musician and ne'er-do-well who mistreats and abandons her. Precious promises herself she will never remarry. After her father's death, she sells some of the herd and opens the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the first private investigation firm of any kind in Botswana. “These were its assets,” writes her chronicler:

a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, and an old typewriter. . . . What else does a detective agency really need? Detective agencies rely on human intuition and intelligence, both of which Mma Ramotswe had in abundance.

“Mma” is a traditional honorific for a grown woman, and Precious Ramotswe, courteous to a fault, well-spoken, attractive, traditionally built, commands respect. “She was a good detective, and a good woman. A good woman in a good country, one might say. . . . I am not ashamed to be called an African patriot, said Mma Ramotswe. I love all the people whom God made, but I especially know how to love the people who live in this place. . . . It is my duty to help them to solve the mysteries in their lives.”


And that is the premise for a remarkable series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith, which began a few years ago with the publication of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency and appears to have reached its conclusion with the marriage of Precious Ramotswe to Botswana's finest automobile mechanic, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, in this year's The Full Cupboard of Life.1

Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, too, is a decent human being—he “would do anything for one who needed help, and, in a world of increasing dishonesty, he still practiced the old Botswana morality.” His only defect is his lack of a mate, or rather his unwillingness to conclude a marriage tie. Like any sensible detective, Mma Ramotswe cannot, past a certain point, solve other people's problems if she does not solve her own, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni—as everyone, including his long-suffering fiancée, refers to him—is her own special mystery.

Like the other mysteries solved by Precious Ramotswe over the course of these stories, this one is skillfully and without ostentation related by McCall Smith to the larger African mystery, of which Botswana is both typical and atypical. Born and raised in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), McCall Smith lived for several years in Botswana and has a great deal of affection for its people, who were spared the turbulence that marked their neighbors during the waning years of white power in southern Africa. This was due to the country's isolation and poverty as well as to the wisdom of British colonial administrators who were able to keep the colony of Bechuanaland beyond the grasp of the Boer-dominated National Party when the latter terminated the Union of South Africa and took their new Republic out of the Commonwealth.

Independence came in 1966, as did the discovery of some of the world's richest diamond mines. The management of the resulting wealth, combined with the fiscally prudent, socially enlightened policies of Botswana's paramount chiefs (traditional rulers who have had no difficulty winning democratic elections) made Botswana into the Denmark of Africa. It has the continent's strongest currency and lowest crime rate, and is viewed by bankers as Africa's safest bet for investment.

The problem is that investment has not translated into job growth, and estimates of the country's unemployment rate range as high as 40 percent. Moreover, Botswana's populated eastern corridor, from Gaborone to Francistown, is a major stretch of Africa's north-south transportation network and hence one of the conduits of the HIV epidemic. According to U.S. and World Health Organization estimates, Botswana has the highest infection rate in the world: in a population of 1.5 million, there are 300,000 carriers, 21,000 of whom died last year.


Although AIDS is a critical plot element in only one of the Precious Ramotswe novels, the crisis of which the HIV epidemic is at once cause and symptom is one of McCall Smith's main themes. This is the crisis of Africa: the devastating rapidity with which modernity has overwhelmed the traditional societies of the continent.

McCall Smith's characters are sharply aware of this crisis, and the best of them know very well that it is pointless to expect others to solve it for them. They believe that they will get through, and that they will get their country through, by maintaining their traditional ways without rejecting modernity outright; on the contrary, they will embrace the modern world—“selfish and full of cold and rude people” as it is—without being seduced by it.

Of necessity, then, Mma Ramotswe is something of a feminist: Africa needs women who can take on roles that are not traditional for them—as private detectives, for example. She observes men exploiting women and (she is not that much of a feminist) women getting their own back. A man steals. A woman cheats. A child is abducted. She believes these bad habits must change, not only as a general principle but for the sake of her country's success. Big answers to the African malaise are easy to come by—colonialism and politics, climate and geography. Still, dealing with small but terrible events, a lady detective drinking bush tea in Gaborone may also bring an answer, or the beginning of one.

That is perhaps why her major preoccupation, throughout the cycle of novels and particularly in The Full Cupboard of Life, is marriage, the best hope for family stability and by inference for social decency. There is, for example, a rich client whose many suitors must be investigated to weed out the gold-diggers. And there is her own remarriage. Although Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni has proposed long ago, at the end of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, he has been in no hurry to change; he has procrastinated over the course of the three intervening books.

Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's personal habits are conservative, irreproachable; but they are focused on his garage and on the dump he calls home. Gradually, in this latest novel, a mutual friend of the engaged pair, the bossy matron of the Gaborone orphanage, moves matters along. First she convinces Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to adopt an orphaned brother and sister. Later she devises a mad fund-raising scheme involving a parachute jump that has the desired consequence of forcing the date of the wedding. All's well that ends well under the great African sky.

But of course all is hardly well. People persist in their felonies and frauds and much larger crimes—the ultimate human mystery, the insoluble one, but the one that must be constantly addressed. Gracefully and with a great deal of understated humor, McCall Smith shows his characters coping with these large and small crimes, thereby repeatedly making the point that if modern history is a nightmare from which too many Africans are trying to escape, so too is ancient history—their own ancient history. With or without the intrusions of immigrants and colonizers and adventurers and crooks and do-gooders from everywhere, that history is what they are stuck with. Once again the good characters in these books are simply the ones who accept the responsibility of the hand they have been dealt. The bad ones are the ones who evade it. In the American political spectrum, Precious Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni would be Booker T. Washingtonians.

Where does this leave the reader? McCall Smith's view of the Tswana people is, undoubtedly, idealized. Notwithstanding scenes of murderous witchcraft, catastrophic epidemic, selfishness, cruelty, and the sheer daily struggle of making ends meet, Precious Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni project an image of gentility and civilization that may thrive more in the exiled imagination of their creator—McCall Smith lives in Edinburgh, where he teaches medical law—than in Gaborone's neighborhoods. It is not by accident that some of his many readers have reportedly been lured into “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Sightseeing Tours” (high-end tourism is a major Botswana industry).

But, after all, Arthur Conan Doyle's more devoted followers are known to indulge in the same sort of thing. McCall Smith's merit is to have given us a picture of Africans as they ordinarily really are, dignified and kind and admirable, the picture that is hidden by the jackals, as Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni calls them, who are too often at center stage.



1 In his just-released The Sunday Philosophy Club, McCall Smith has a new heroine, the Scottish-American Isabel Dalhousie.


About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.

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