- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

MOCHUDI, Botswana — “This is the spot of the creation of Mma Ramotswe,” the guide announces, swerving the open-air jeep to an abrupt halt at a dusty village crossroad.

Our party stands in reverence in the footsteps of Precious Ramotswe, the fictional detective from Botswana whose heart and moxie have captivated readers worldwide and placed her on the best-seller lists.

It was here, in the village of Mochudi, that a writer named Alexander McCall Smith marveled years ago at the persistence of a woman chasing after a chicken for his dinner.

He turned her into Mma Ramotswe (Mma means Mrs.), founder of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” who calls herself “just a tiny person in Africa” and whose caseload ranges from cheating husbands and truant schoolchildren to sinister witchcraft and a kidnapping.

The five Mma Ramotswe books, with three more planned, transport readers into a Texas-size land of thorn trees and desert, homegrown values and good-hearted people. It is a country of 1.5 million people rich in diamonds, well-governed, untouched by coups and corruption, which is probably why it’s rarely in the news.

The biggest thing in Botswana lately was this month’s visit by President Bush, but fans of the Mma Ramotswe series are already on intimate terms with the country. Now they can join Africa Insight — a tour outfitter that normally takes tourists on rugged safaris through the Okavango Delta and the Kalahari Desert — on a tour of the Ramotswe trail in and around the capital, Gaborone.

The trip takes in the squat homes and meandering dirt roads of Mochudi; the President’s Hotel, where Mma Ramotswe likes to take tea; Zebra Drive (really Zebra Way), the quiet street where she lives; and a garage strikingly similar to Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and the fictional business of Mma Ramotswe’s true love, identified only and always as Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.

Mr. McCall Smith, 54, a prolific author both of fictional and academic books, is a medical lawyer who teaches at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He spent several years in Botswana helping set up its law school.

Born and raised in neighboring Zimbabwe, then a British colony called Rhodesia, Mr. Smith is aware that some find it strange for a white man to be writing from a black Botswana woman’s point for view.

“But I think as a writer one must be able to empathize with all sorts of people. As a writer, I try to keep my eyes open. I hope I get it right. One has to be careful in writing about someone else’s culture. You can get it wrong and misinterpret. But if you are careful, you should be able to say something about their lives.”

In a phone interview from Toronto, where he was promoting a Mma Ramotswe novel, he said Africa, and Botswana in particular, have remained with him.

“You feel it when you get off a plane … something about the atmosphere of good in the country,” he said. “I’m delighted if people are seeing the positive side of Africa and people are getting the message that in the middle of civil war, disaster, and all the difficulties in Africa, there are an awful lot of people trying to lead good lives.”

Indeed, Gaborone is unusual. It has none of the violent crime and poverty endemic elsewhere in Africa. Its streets are safe. Only one real detective agency was listed in the phone book, and calls to the number went unanswered.

Botswana’s one enormous problem is its AIDS infection rate, the world’s highest. Nearly 40 percent of adults are HIV-positive.

The “Mma Ramotswe Tour” starts soon after sunrise. Driving out of Gaborone along a paved highway, we wind our way up the hills overlooking Mochudi, crossing the murky green Notwane River where our heroine solves the mystery of a man who goes missing after he is baptized there.

The air is smoky-sweet from wood fires.

Nearby, a kgotla, or traditional court hearing, is being held under a wide thatched canopy. Today’s case involves a woman who has moved back into her husband’s house, much to his new wife’s consternation.

“In traditional culture there would have been no need for Mma Ramotswe to be a detective,” explains the guide, Tim Race. “All the issues she deals with would have been dealt with by the kgotla.”

Mochudi has grown into a suburb of Gaborone, with gas stations, restaurants and the My Darling Fresh Produce and Butchery Shop.

“All this is new; Mma Ramotswe would be lost here,” Mr. Race says.

Then comes a dirt road through neatly swept homes. A donkey cart. White goats grazing under a marulla tree. Vervet monkeys darting in the shadows. Ramotswe country.

Minah Phiri, 89, is on her knees laying a new patio of sun-hardened mud and dung outside her cinder-block home. It easily could be Mma Ramotswe’s childhood home.

A woman gumshoe? The great-grandmother cocks her head in disbelief. “In my day, a woman could not be a detective,” she said. “That would have been a man’s job,”

Onward to Fiona Moffat, a retired librarian and friend of Mr. McCall Smith’s. She and her husband happily agreed to be portrayed as Mma Ramotswe’s friends in the series, but never imagined the books would become best sellers.

“I think so many awful things are happening all over the world. … People actually like to hear a pleasant story not filled with gloom and doom,” she said.

Down the road is a garage looking a lot like Speedy Motors. “This is Speedy Motors as it was … very laid-back workshop, nothing fancy, but we do good work, sometimes speedily, sometimes not,” said the proprietor, John Moxen, who could pass easily for Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.

Fragments of engines, carburetors and gaskets litter the shelves. Trays are piled high with invoices and paperwork. “That’s supposedly ‘matters pending,’” he says.

Chasing the sunset, we reach the flat, arid edge of the Kalahari Desert, which Mma Ramotswe thought of as “those empty spaces, those wide grasslands that broke and broke the heart.” A go-away bird, so called because its call warns of predators, flies overhead.

Then, a rare sight: A pair of cheetahs slink by, putting a surprise ending to an unusual tour — the kind of ending Mma Ramotswe would have loved.

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