The Kalahari Typing School for Men

Alexander McCall Smith

The title doesn’t seem encouraging. It doesn’t sound like something you have been longing to read about.  But when you realize that this is from the series that began with ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’, that changes everything.  You are lucky if you have enjoyed some of these books already. You are even luckier if they are completely new to you because you have a treat in store.

Here are the opening lines of the first novel of the series.

“Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill. These were its assets: a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, and an old typewriter. Then there was a teapot, in which Mma Ramotswe – the only lady private detective in Botswana – brewed redbush tea.”

Mma Ramotswe is engaged to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. We never learn his first name. He works hard in his garage and tries to keep his two young apprentices in order. He helps Mma Potokwani , the redoubtable matron of the orphan farm, where he gives his time freely and cheerfully. He manages to keep their aging water pump working and repairs the van which transports the children. He is regarded as the best mechanic in Gabarone or even in the whole of Botswana.

Mma Ramotswe’s secretary is Mma Makutsi. She hasn’t much money but by sheer hard work achieved 97 per cent in the final exams of the Botswana Secretarial College. Mma Ramotswe realizes her worth and does her best to help her.

She even wants Mma Makutsi to look for a suitable young man and perhaps marry him. She approaches the subject.

‘Mma Makutsi,’  Mma Ramotswe began after her assistant had delivered the cup of freshly made tea to her desk, ‘are you happy?’

However, Mma Makutsi is worried that this would lead on to the suggestion that she move on and find another job, which would be disaster for her. 

“Mma Makutsi made her way back to her desk. She picked up her cup, but her hand shook and she put it down again. Why was life so unfair? Why did all the best jobs go to the beautiful girls, even if they barely got 50 per cent in the examinations at the Botswana Secretarial College while she, with her results, had experienced such difficulty in finding a job at all? There was no obvious answer to that question.

‘I am very happy,’ said Mma Makutsi miserably, ‘I am very happy with this job. I do not want to go anywhere else.’

Mma Ramotswe laughed. ‘Oh, the job. Of course you’re happy with that. We know that. And we’re very happy with you. You are our right-hand woman. Everybody knows that.’

It took Mma Makutsi a few moments to absorb this compliment, but, when she did, she felt relief flood through her.”

Alexander McCall Smith is a prolific writer, and there are now over twenty novels in the ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series. Start with any of the early ones. I have chosen the fourth today. Each can stand by itself, but, if possible, try to follow the order in which they were written.

This is the world of Mma Ramotswe, and it is the happy side of Africa. She has the traditional virtues of Botswana, respect, courtesy and kindness.

We read of the heat of midday and the afternoon, and the cool of the early morning and the evening when the people of Gabarone can relax a little. Their lives depend on the rains. If the rains are good, the cattle grow fat. Cattle are highly valued in Botswana, and a person’s wealth is measured by how many cattle they possess. Mma Ramotswe’s father, Obed Ramotswe, built up a large herd of excellent cattle, which he bequeathed to her. But life for many is not easy and if the rains do not come, then it is harder still.

It has been said that these novels have the feel-good factor. This is to underestimate them. We feel good after having a well-made coffee. We feel good after playing a hard game of tennis. These books do more than that. They show that life can be made worthwhile. They show that all the little acts of kindness in whatever we do, add up to something that matters.

So enjoy these books and learn from them. These are ideal aims. ‘The Kalahari Typing School for Men’ will achieve both. In spades!