A conversation with McCall Smith

Bame Moremong from BITC with McCall Smith. PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Bame Moremong from BITC with McCall Smith. PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

Alexander McCall Smith has sold over 20 million copies of books telling a humble story of a Motswana woman living in Gaborone. Last week while in London, Britain Staff Writer THALEFANG CHARLES sat down with the legend in conversation to hear about the 20-year-old journey of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book series

“Do you know Mma Ramotswe?” Bogolo Kenewendo, Minister of Investment Trade and Industry, recalls that that was the first question she got from her host family when she moved to the US in 2008. 

Many Batswana who have travelled abroad, especially in the western world have dealt with this Mma Ramotswe question.

This is because Precious Ramotswe is possibly the most famous Motswana in the world. Yet she is not really a living human being. ‘Mma Ramotswe’ as she is popularly known is a lead character of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book series by Alexander McCall Smith.

McCall Smith is a legendary writer. With more than 100 books that he authored, he is one of the world’s most prolific and best-loved writers.  The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was his big break.

The book was published in Scotland in 1998 but McCall Smith says that the book took off first in the US before the rest of the world.

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel series, now 21 books all set in Botswana, has achieved worldwide fame, sold over 20 million copies and have been translated into over 40 languages.

The first novel gained two Booker Prize for Fiction Judges’ Special Recommendations, made the New York Times Bestseller list and was voted one of the best International Books of the Year and the Millennium by the Times Literary Supplement.

The books were adapted for television by the late Anthony Minghella and last week McCall Smith announced that the musical is also on the cards.

In 2009 Telegraph UK described him: “To say McCall Smith is a literary phenomenon doesn’t quite describe what has happened. He has become more of a movement, a worldwide club for the dissemination of gentle wisdom and good cheer”. McCall Smith’s books have also made Botswana a character in the novels.

He writes so charmingly about the country, its people and culture. Kenewendo recently paid tribute to McCall Smith at an event in London organised by the Botswana Investment and Trade Centre (BITC).

She said, “He has profiled Botswana with his series of books since 1998, has unwittingly provided great publicity for Botswana”. She urged Batswana to take advantage of McCall Smith’s generosity in marketing Botswana.

But McCall Smith could have easily chosen any other southern African country. He was born in Zimbabwe and has worked in Botswana and Swaziland.

And so why did he fall in love with Botswana? McCall Smith is one of the founders of University of Botswana Law School back in 1981. He attributes his stint at UB together with visits to his friends at Mochudi as some of the first inspirations to write about a Motswana woman.

“I was struck by the decency of the country. I was struck also by the level of courtesy of the people of Botswana. I fell in love with the country. After my cessation at UB I moved to Scotland but I went back to Botswana every year,” McCall Smith said.

He has also been lauded for writing about a strong black woman long before feminism was fashionable. He explains why he chose a female character saying, “One of the reasons is that I find the conversation of women interesting”.

“Women are prepared to talk about the emotional stuff”. McCall Smith is one of the few white writers that have presented Africans in positive light. He deviated from writing about the African stereotypes by beautifully capturing the essence of social relations in traditional African society.

Most Batswana that have read the books are happy with the way the author has presented the themes and topics of the stories.

“I am very conscious that I am an outsider writing about someone else’s culture. It’s very unfortunate that people from outside choose to write about Africa in a negative way. I want to tell the positive story,” said McCall Smith.

Another thing that makes McCall Smith a legendary writer is his extraordinary writing process. He is extremely prolific. His usual rate is 1,000 words an hour, even when travelling.

“I break all the rules in publishing because I write about five to six books a year – different series. I don’t have to sit there and think. It just comes. It comes from the subconscious part of the mind,” he explained.

During his brief event in London, which coincided with his annual London Tour, mostly attended by Batswana living in the UK, and ‘friends of Botswana’, McCall Smith demonstrated how his mind works by describing a scene in Botswana.

“When I write about Botswana, I see things. I often write about the sky because it comes to me. Also I might write about the smell of rain because I understand the significance of the rain. I like to describe the sheer beauty of the country.

He then took the audience to a morning in Botswana. “Mma Ramotswe gets up in the morning, and she goes out into her yard. The sun, floats up. It comes up over the Acacia trees. And you might get a little smell of wood because someone is making morning fire and the earth is fresh. And then the birds come…”

McCall Smith has become a great ambassador of Botswana and so when he was asked ‘What do you think Botswana is saying to the world?’ he took a moment and thought about it before saying, “It is saying that human decency is possible”.

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