Friday Night Flashback: A Novel Exploration: No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Today’s flashback opens up a new series I’ve decided to call “A Novel Exploration.” It will briefly and in a manner lighter than typical, casually chat about a work and reach out to literary connections (text to self, books or world). This is a technique used in teaching literacy, but can also be a fun way to more deliberately explore novels, their characters and the ideas we find within them, especially when talking about books with friends.

In a way, referring to this practice as “novel,” or out of the ordinary, is a misnomer because, really, we engage in it all the time without consciously acknowledging that we are. Once we begin to realize how much we actually do it, though, it is sort of novel because we’re now approaching it in a different way, with a new perception on the process–maybe because the discoveries we make can bring so much more pleasure to the reading, and indeed, living experience. One of my favorites is trying to make food items or copy recipes that have appeared in a story. 

This particular piece was written several years ago for a university class, though it never really saw the light of day. Since that time many more Alexander McCall Smith books have been released–so many, in fact, I’ve lost track of what has come out and which ones I’ve read. But they are fun and flow smoothly, and those who populate McCall Smith’s works are easy to care about.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Original Blog Title: What You Need to Open a Detective Agency

Money, of course. But also: compassion; intuition; friends to help you get things like typewriters; a good supply of red bush tea; a place to set up shop; and a vehicle.

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Precious Ramotswe has inherited money from her late Daddy and with it purchased the building to set her agency, a corner plot on Zebra Drive and a tiny white van to get her around. Proudly being a lady of traditional build, Mma Ramotswe sometimes worries about the stress on it; nevertheless the loyal automobile carries her across the pages and through readers’ minds as she makes her way round Gaborone, up and down the Molepolole Road, to Francistown and to and fro each day at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency on Kgale Hill on the edge of the largest city in Botswana.

Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is somewhat misleading in that it reads with ease, but is filled with the details of a complex society rich with the nuances and understanding of a bustling economy grown from towns named after tribal chiefs, a cast of characters as varied as in any large and historical city, and mysteries that bubble under the surface. Mma Ramotswe is hired to “track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is that of a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witch doctors” (from back cover).

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Mma Ramotswe captured my heart because she is honest and caring, though not easily duped; she sees through so many situations, but remains patient enough to reserve assessment; and she values the traditions and ways of her culture while placing value in the future. Throughout The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency readers develop a greater understanding and awareness of Botswana culture, societal habits (even including such elements as particular gesticulations), history and its major players, and even its Achilles heel, the AIDS epidemic, discussed in tactfully delicate tones so as to offset the idea of a one-paradigm Africa while simultaneously maintaining respect for the realities in the lives of the many people affected by the disease. What brings all this together for me is the sheer ordinariness of it all: I have always been someone intrigued and interested in different cultures, but above all I want to know what the “regular” people do. What kind of toothpaste do they use? What are their shopping habits? What insights could I get from glimpses into decorating styles of their homes, inside and out? Smith satisfies these curiosities of mine, not merely for the sake of traveler voyeurism, but to help one gain a greater understanding and appreciation of people who are different–and yet the same–to many or most of us.

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I was delighted to discover, after I first read the book in 2001, that there was a sequel and still later I found a whole series waiting for me. Even now the author seems to have plans for more adventures of Mma Ramotswe, and I’ve read most books in his other series, as well as his stand-alone works. McCall Smith, a Scot who grew up in Africa, is a rather prolific writer, with titles ranging from the ones I’ve mentioned here, to others such as Forensic Aspects of Sleep and The Criminal Law of Botswana.

I’ve been intrigued enough to do a little research on my own regarding the country known as “the success story of Africa,” and have come across a wealth of information that exemplifies the way children expand their world when they read: from one paragraph they may learn two new words, from a chapter of a new world, and from the entire book a whole new set of questions. I’m so happy to write here that it remains an exciting prospect for me as well, when I read books and they open up doors to knowledge I never knew existed. What is it they say? What you never knew you never knew.

A few links that may be of interest to you regard:

Unity Dow, a Botswana attorney who succeeded in her litigation to render the citizenship laws of her country more equitable–previously a married woman could not pass her citizenship to her children. (The briefs linked here are rather long, but the language is straightforward and accessable.)


Botswana Gazette, a national newspaper. There also are foreign newspapers published in Botswana–magazine, press and Internet.

Alexander McCall Smith also maintains a web site, dedicated to his works and projects, here, with a lot of factual as well as fun information. I’ve wandered through it a few times and thought or wondered several things such as, I love to say the word Molepolole or Is Tlokweng, as in Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, pronounced Klokweng, with the same start sound as our Tlingit? I’ve also tried a variety of African bush tea (it’s delicious; I take it sans honey) and briefly written with a person from Gaborone, the capital.

Now I am about to read this first in the series again, and it will probably be an entirely new exploration.

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Note: This post was updated to correct the author’s surname, which is McCall Smith, and not Smith. My apologies to Mr. McCall Smith.

Big Cats: How It Was With Dooms (Duma) (Book and DVD Review)

How It Was With Dooms: A True Story from Africa

by Xan Hopcraft and Carol Cawthra Hopcraft


Alexander Michaeltos, Eamonn Walker, Hope Davies and Campbell Scott

See also links at bottom 

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How It Was With Dooms: A True Story from Africa relates the story of Dooms, an orphaned cheetah, as told by his young friend, Xan, born after the big cat had already been living with the Hopcrafts on their Kenyan game ranch. Initiated as a scrapbook put together by seven-year-old Xan and his wildlife photographer mother, Carol, following the death of their beloved friend, How It Was With Dooms was born.

Featuring Xan’s drawings and Carol’s photos, the essays and images journey readers through the years with the family, background provided along the way.

Beginning with “About How Dooms Came to Live With Us,” our first glimpse into the family’s surroundings is a photo of the Hopcrafts’ marula-roofed (papyrus) house, linking later to memories of a playful if perhaps mischievous Dooms and one of his favorite exploits: scrambling across the roof despite the damage his sharp claws can do to it. After a night of hearing the cheetah scramble over the guest roof, one set of visitors marvel, “Wasn’t that a nice rain we had last night?”

Hopcraft gives readers information about cheetahs in general, linking it, too, to details about Dooms’s life and why they care for him in the particular ways they do, such as keeping him away from worms and bugs in the grass owing to the lack of antibodies in the cow’s milk they give him. Playtime, like that of human children, also teaches Dooms how his world works and helps him respond to it appropriately. Guarding a soccer ball is enabled by his cheetah brand of claws which, unlike those of other big cats, do not retract and therefore act like cleats that supply cheetah with greater traction when running. Chasing and playing with the dogs goes towards learning about hunting, which he eventually does begin to do on his own.

Along the way the author–it is Xan’s voice telling the story–provides for readers more intimate details about Dooms and his personality: his willingness to respect but demand for same in return; his fierce hatred of the family cats and intense dislike of water; killing oversize snakes and running away from the ranch. The drawings complement the photos perfectly, in size, placement and study, and Carol Cawthra Hopcraft’s photographs bring us so close to the subjects we feel almost as if we are there. One larger photo, spread over facing pages shows Xan and Dooms walking off, the grasses spread out in front of them, their companionship bonding them together.

Unfortunately, Duma does become ill and endures a difficult car ride to Nairobi for X-rays and a possible operation. Though the family had tried everything they could to help the cheetah recover, “Death came to the door and stole Dooms.” Accompanying that page is a drawing by Xan showing the trees outside, huddled together, perhaps comforting one another as the skies pour tears over them. It is about six months later the family, after having felt as if the cheetah’s restless spirit had been with them all along, finds a way to ease Dooms’s soul and their own mourning.

In 2005 a movie based upon the book was released.

The two biggest surprises I happened upon after watching the movie (and my subsequent reading of the book) were that, one: The movie is absolutely nothing like the book. Certainly, Davies’s character makes a lot of photos, suggesting she is a photographer by trade, given her devotion to it, and Duma (as Dooms is called in the film) does walk across the piano keys as a baby. Xan, however, is 12 before Duma is found in South Africa, where they live, his father dies in the movie and the boy and his cheetah set off on an adventure that never occurs in Hopcraft’s book. While aware that all movie adaptations are different to the books they are based upon, I was slightly in awe of the gulf between the reality of Hopcraft’s experiences and the story as told on the silver screen.

Two: the movie was a commercial failure.

I am no filmmaker, but I do know what I like and none of these details above put me off the movie. I mention them because perhaps what I really am in awe of is how almost from scratch the writers, Karen Janszen and Mark St. Germain, really began. Also, while it may betray my naiveté when it comes to move making, I remain unsure how this movie could debut as miserably as it did. According to Wikipedia it took a rave review in Variety for Warner Brothers to re-consider its previous decision not to release in the United States; the film eventually opened as a limited release, however, and that may answer my dismay about what went wrong.

This is a movie that needs to be seen.

Filmed in South Africa (with parts in neighboring, landlocked Botswana) the story opens with Xan (Michaeletos) and his father, Peter (Scott), nearly running over a cheetah cub whose mother has been killed by a lion shortly before he crawled through a hole in the fence surrounding the protective reserve. Knowing the critter really has nowhere else to go, they take him home where Xan’s mother, Kristin (Davies), muses, “Glad I’m not his mum; I’d be heartbroken to lose him.” They decide to name him with the Swahili word for “cheetah”: Duma.

As in the book the family embarks on a campaign to help Duma learn to be a wild cheetah as opposed to an orphaned one. They accomplish this with such techniques as racing in Peter’s motorcycle, parallel to the cheetah’s running path, Xan riding in the sidecar. This is a splendid moment for viewers, especially those who may be unfamiliar with the cheetah’s feat of acceleration: the motorcycle is simply no match for a cheetah who, aerodynamically built for speed, can go from standing to sixty MPH in three seconds, reaching top speed of 75 MPH.

Peter and Xan sketch out a weekend trip designed to release the cheetah to the wild, as he is getting older and the window for him to be able to accomplish the acclimation will soon close forever. Though the boy does not wish to lose his beloved friend, his father reminds him, “His wildness is something he knows without even knowing it. It’s in his blood, in his bones, like a memory. Duma has to live the life he was born to or he’ll never be fully alive.” If the opening is missed, he will likely have to remain in captivity, a choice father and son consider as not an option.

These plans are thrown into disarray, however, when Peter falls ill and dies, and Kristin is forced to lease the farm and move the family to Johannesburg where she can work. Xan takes well neither to the shift nor his new school; as for Duma, who temporarily stays in the apartment of Auntie Gwen (who is terrified of him), well, it just doesn’t work out. He makes his way to the street and Xan’s school, causing a ruckus that shuts the school down; subsequently Xan takes matters in to his own hands.

The movie moves at a semi-fast clip, though there are moments when viewers can see the built-in passages of time containing character introspection and changes affecting how they respond to their circumstances. Shortly before shifting to the city, Xan is seen to be sitting in the long grass, staring off into space. He is still only 12, but his appearance is of a boy who has been forced to grow much in just a few days, and the weight of it shows in his countenance. At his new school, however, his ill-fitting uniform (new for him, as he’d been home-schooled) side part and wide-eyed affectation give him a vulnerable aura, and indeed he is bullied by some other boys.

When boy and cheetah meet up they escape an immediate danger but also a long-term one, for there are officials and weapons that threaten their bond. They won’t necessarily kill the cheetah, but they would take him away from Xan, and so the pair run away.

The music (playing in the video above) is another great feature of the movie, though why it isn’t more widely available baffles me. This may again reveal my own inexperience re: the movie and music industry, but with all the other CDs of African music circulating, it remains a mystery why this one seems so scarce.

To the tune of “Kaboyi Kaboyi” Xan and Duma embark on their adventure, taking off in Peter’s motorcycle, this time with Duma squarely in the sidecar. Eventually they must stop and it is here they meet up with Ripkuna (Walker), a drifter Xan doesn’t quite trust but agrees to pair up with in order to carry out the plan he had outlined with his father, that of returning Duma to the wild. Learning of his new partner’s plan, Rip is shocked because Xan appears unintelligent enough to fear the danger he faces.

“So you plan to cross the Okavango?”
“Yeah. So?”
“‘So’. [Sardonic laugh.] That is a place of many teeth, my friend. It is a place to die.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Be smart. Be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Stupid boy. [Walks off, exasperated.] You know nothing. You know nothing.”

Xan does contemplate frequently on his mother who, unbeknownst to him has organized a search, and fears she hates him for leaving her. Rip tells him the traditional Zulu story of how the cheetah get their distinctive tear stains marked onto their faces, traced back to the one heartbroken cheetah mother who has lost her precious cub. “Her face, stained forever, from her crying.” Rip confides in Xan some of his own story and his own people, and we are left to contemplate the idea of connections and loss, and the appeals to self and others in order to reconcile the two.

It is difficult to say which half of the movie is the more appealing because despite the differences, both bring out that ultimately the story of Xan and Duma, which also is the story of many others, is about connections that continue to exist even when separation occurs or someone suffers a loss. It is also about relationships that embody these ideals, and how they occur every day in events routine as well as extraordinary. Duma’s loss has connected Xan to Ripkuna, who has also suffered. Xan embarks on a road following his loss, which in turn re-creates connections in a place and amongst people he never might have crossed paths with otherwise.

The severed ends of these links may or may not ever re-connect at various points, but humans and animals alike instinctively value and seek them, as if they were, as Peter says earlier in the film of Duma, in the blood and bones, “like a memory.” Wound amongst these connections also is the understanding that friendships created along the way aid in the establishment or re-connection of links–or the awareness that the bond never went away at all. This is repeated through the film, oftentimes hidden, as they can be in life.

“There are things you know without knowing. For me it was my dad. Everything he was, everything he believed in is now part of me. I was taking Duma home, but he took me somewhere too. . . That’s how it was with me and Duma.”

Conservation Fund: Cheetah Fact Sheet and How You Can Help

International Society for Endangered Cats: The Asiatic Cheetah

This review previously appeared at the blog’s alternative location.

Note: This post title was updated to reflect its inclusion in the “Big Cats” series.