- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 1, 2006

When I see lists of required reading for most schools, I feel frustrated with the paucity of literary experience the students are getting. It’s usually a smattering of American and English authors; the rest of Europe is pretty much ignored. The works of Asian, Middle Eastern, South American and African writers are, for the most part, unrepresented in the standard offerings of typical high school — or even college — literature courses.

This is a shame because there are many wonderful authors around the world whose works can open the eyes of the student to many new ways of seeing life. Literature can be the “magic carpet ride” that gives us a window into another world. As home-schoolers, we are free to explore the full range of literature from the global community, not simply the narrow cross section of our own national or ethnic heritage.

Alexander McCall Smith has captured the culture and climate of Africa in a lovingly crafted series of books about a female detective, a conscientious mechanic, a highly charged matron of an orphan farm, and a meticulous typist supporting her dying brother.

“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” the first in the series, introduces us to the gentle and decent characters living in the town of Gaborone, Botswana. The much-beloved daughter of a miner and cattle owner, Precious Ramotswe inherits a decent sum upon her father’s death, which she uses to set up her own business — a detective agency, of all things.

She and her one employee, the high-achieving graduate of a secretarial college, face the entrenched African attitudes that women don’t belong in professional endeavors, but they use their gender and traditional strengths to overcome the obstacles they face in ferreting out secrets on behalf of their clients.

The books are entertaining but also are filled with all sorts of insight into the cultural mores of Botswana as well as the ecology and seasonal cycles of the country. Traditional African values, such as respect for elders or consideration for others’ feelings, are conveyed through the thoughts and words of the various characters.

Awareness of languages, tribes, wildlife and politics permeates the books. By writing in the colloquial terms of respect, the author helps the reader develop appreciation for the language and the etiquette that underlies African familial and community structures.

Yet the books are written so simply and matter-of-factly that they can be enjoyed by the whole family. My 13-year-old niece is enamored of the books, and I couldn’t put them down myself.

Having spent some time in several African nations, I found the books wonderfully evocative of the beauty and depth of the continent and its peoples. I was transported once again to those wide spaces, brilliant skies and dry heat and the firm but gentle regulation the elder-centered society exerts on the individual, whether born there or visiting from other lands.

I would like to recommend the series to home-schoolers as a way of teaching geography, literature and world cultures. The first book is followed by “Tears of the Giraffe,” “Morality for Beautiful Girls,” “The Kalahari Typing School for Men,” “The Full Cupboard of Life” and “In the Company of Cheerful Ladies.”

World cultures often are best introduced though cultural products rather than through dry analysis of statistics on a country or region. I hope your family enjoys the stories of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series and the lessons embedded within them.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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