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The Full Cupboard of Life (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Book 5)
The Full Cupboard of Life (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Book 5)
Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, 2004
202 pp., $21.95

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By Susan VanZanten Gallagher


An Alternative Africa

The world of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

Our impressions of Africa have been informed for many years by the mysterious jungle seething with evil depicted verbally in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and visually in numerous Hollywood films. As Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe lamented in an influential lecture first presented in 1975, such representations have created an image of Africa that emphasizes savagery, chaos, and violence. News stories about the catastrophic spread of AIDS, endless civil wars, and decades-long droughts afflicting the continent only add to a common perception of Africa as a dark inferno.

Alexander McCall Smith's best-selling series, the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, paints an alternative picture that celebrates the rich variety of African life, even in the midst of poverty and trouble. In the founding novel, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, we meet Precious Ramotswe (pronounced Ram-ot-swáy), who establishes the first detective agency in Botswana with the proceeds from the sale of a herd of cattle left by her beloved Daddy at his death. Mma Ramotswe, as she is properly addressed, uses this conventional African dowry to establish herself as an unconventional modern professional. She is repeatedly described as being "traditionally built" (in other words, she's a large woman), but Mma Ramotswe is actually an exemplar of the new urban African, a far cry from Conrad's incomprehensible savage.

When an officious lawyer questions whether a woman can be a detective, the decidedly feminist Mma Ramotswe thinks, in an aside typical of the gentle humor pervading the series, "how dare he say that about women, when he didn't even know that his zip was half undone! Should she tell him?" She retorts, "Women are the ones who know what's going on. … They are the ones with eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?" Indeed, Mma Ramotswe has the eyes, ears, and heart to help people solve their problems. Ably assisted by her competent secretary, Mma Makutsi (who earned an unprecedented 97 percent average ...

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