Sometimes the best writing about a place comes not from focused travel writing per se, but from fiction that lays no claim to being any sort of guide to travel. These places could be in a time long gone by, like the post-war Britain of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, or contemporary, like the desolate Sundarbans of Amitava Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. In either case, the fiction informs us of the realities of a place, perhaps stripping it of romanticisation, in the process. The Hungry Tide, definitely did that for me, removing any illusions of the mangrove swamps as a broad swathe of communion with nature and instead painting a far more gritty picture where natural forces are at war with human beings.
My reading of Africa in fiction then, has been largely confined to two writers – Ben Okri and Chinua Achebe, both fantastic in their own right, but writing from sub-cultures based in Nigeria. Chinua Achebe, in particular, is not just a story teller, but in some sense, a chronicler of colonization and lost culture.
But surely, beyond colonization, lost cultures, poverty, AIDs, aid and such themes, Africa with its hundred countries must also be a place where people live today ? In a Granta collection , writer Binyavanga Wainaina has this lovely satirical piece on How to write about Africa. The antidote to such stereotyping then, is surely, Alexander McCall Smith, which brings me to his novel that I just finished reading, Blue Shoes and Happiness.
For those who haven’t read this writer before, his novels are set in Botswana, and the main character is Mma Ramotswe or Precious Ramotswe, who runs a detective agency with her deputy Mma Makutsi. The novels are delightful, there is simply no other word to describe them! You literally heave a sigh of relief, on realising that this is not another work on the ailments of Africa. Rather, people living in African countries also have stories just like people on other continents do !
Mma Ramotswe is no Hercule Poirot. She rarely gets called upon to solve murders. Rather, she is the detective of daily life, her cases the stuff that ordinary people’s problems revolve around – theft, adultery, small-time blackmailing, and in Blue Shoes and Happiness, perhaps what is a major case for her, witchcraft. The cases then are what not keep you engrossed, unlike a conventional detective novel. It is the way McCall Smith describes life in Botswana today from Mma Ramotswe’s perspective. It is an ordinary life, this life in Gaborone, like life in any other capital city. At the same time, it is unique to this time and place. She often reminisces about life in her old village, and it is not something central to the novel, but the contrast between urban and rural life seeps in there. It is a sort of constant reminder that atleast in Botswana, life goes on in pretty much an ordinary way. What is interesting is that the bush, the wild is not just a romanticised place with wild animals and safaris; people live there, villages exist, and one may even find out that while bush tea comes from the wild, it may not necessarily be served there !
“Mma Ramotswe rather liked the idea of a run down to Molokodi. Although she lived in Gaborone, she was not a town person at heart – very few Batswana were – and she was never happier than when was out in the bush, with the air of the country, dry and scented with the tang of acacia, in her lungs. On the drive to Molokodi, she would travel with the windows down and the sun and air would flood the cabin of her tiny white van; and she would see, opening up before her, the vista of hills around Otse and beyond, green in the foreground and blue behind…She tried to remember if they served bush tea there; She thought they did, but just in case, she would take a sachet of her own tea, which she could ask them to boil up for her.”
Bush tea is ofcourse a favorite of Mma Ramotswe’s along with other peculiarities such as quoting Seretse Khama on everything, and calling her rather overweight self “a traditionally built woman”. Mm Ramotswe’s full traditional figure, and her dilemma of whether she should diet or not, is a matter of much importance in Blue Shoes and Happiness. Finally, one of her acquaintances convinces her that she needs to drop the diet, as a mark of solidarity with other traditionally built ladies.
“Mma Ramotswe!”, she exclaimed. “If you go on a diet, then what are the rest of us to do? What will all the other traditionally built ladies think of they hear about this? How can you be so unkind?”
For all those who consider going to “Africa”, reading Alexander McCall Smith is a must-read. It makes one realise that while civil war is going on in some countries and Darfur may be the world’s most ignored atrocity zone, not all parts of Africa are the same. And Africa is not just about the land and the animals – who knows, on your travels there, you may even meet characters like Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, traditionally built ladies sipping their bush tea, and debating on whether a new pair of blue shoes are essential to happiness, just like you and me!