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The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: Chapters 1 -3 June 4, 2007

Posted by Han in The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Sm.

Mma Ramotswe’s first client, Happy Bapetsi, is worried that the man who claims to be her father is a fraud taking advantage of her generosity. “All he does,” she says, “is sit in his chair outside the front door and tell me what to do for him next.” To which Mma Ramotswe replies, “Many men are like that” [p. 10]. What is Mma Ramotswe’s view of men generally? How do men behave in the novel?

What are your perceptions of Mma Ramotswe in these first few chapters?

Do you think her fathers story will play and important role?


1. Staci - June 5, 2007

It’s hard to say where Mma Ramotswe’s view of men comes from. It seems that the primary male figure in her life is her father, and she speaks of him with terms of absolute endearment, while at the same time being fairly patronizing of the sex in general. I think her view of “many men” might come from her culture. In Africa, men think of themselves as being in a class above women and no woman could ever be clever enough to be a detective. But, her own father is not in that class of “many men.” Could it be that she doesn’t think of him as a man? “He’s a father–my father.” Remember when you first realized that your mom was a girl? 🙂 A child tends to think of his or her parents as almost sexless, until the child grows old enough to figure out that couldn’t possibly be the case!

Mma Ramotswe seems heavily endowed with self-confidence. She has her father to thank for that. He obviously believed in her. How sobering to realize how much we as parents can empower our kids to reach their potential simply by making sure they know that we believe they have it (great potential).

2. bethany3boys - June 8, 2007

Great observations Staci!! I laughed at the parent as almost sexless comment….so true. I think you are right about African culture pla ying a role in her view of men….seems so as the book goes on too.

3. Michelle - June 9, 2007

It appears that she has had a few experiences and some counsel that lead her to think that men are lacking. I’m not entirely sure about the culture either. It may be the case in her life or culture.

I adored Mma Ramtswe’s truthfulness in the art competition. It made my heart warm to her. You can see her ingrained sense of justice at a fairly young age. It’s no wonder that she chose a career as a private detective- trying to right wrongs or discover truths.

On a more personal note, I spent a month in Africa last summer and reading these first three chapters have caused memories to begin flooding back. Biltong for instance. It’s kinda like beef jerkey and we snacked on it all the time. Kinda have a craving now.

4. Heather - June 14, 2007

I finished this book in one sitting, so I apologize if my overall impressions act as spoilers!

I agree with you all that traditional African culture probably has a lot of influence on Mma Ramotswe’s view of men. I wonder, though, if some of the negative thoughts towards men comes from the inevitable mix of the traditional with the modern. In traditional societies, men and women would have had very different roles, with men being primarily public and women domestic. When you read about traditional societies, you don’t usually come away with this picture of lazy men loafing around, “sit[ting] in his chair outside the front door and tell[ing] me what to do for him next.” Instead, you usually have a picture of each gender working very hard in their own sphere – men hunting, protecting, and ruling; women gathering, bearing and rearing children, and tending to domestic duties. In other words, their traditional roles seem very complimentary. (I know there will always be exceptions, but I’m just saying look at it in general for the sake of argument!) Even though women were considered to have a lower social status, they were still praised and revered for their ability to sustain the life of the community (through both childbearing and nurturing). Mme Ramotswe seems bothered by men who aren’t carrying their own weight or who are disrespecting women – but these seem to be the actions of the modern men, not those from the past. Her first case hints at this: “As she drove to Happy Bapetsi’s house in her tiny white van, she reflected on how the African tradition of support for relatives could cripple people… If you believed in the old Setswana morality, you couldn’t turn a relative away, and there was a lot to be said for that. But it did mean that charlatans and parasites had a very much easier time of it than they did elsewhere. They were the people who ruined the system, she thought. They’re the ones who are giving the old ways a bad name.” p. 12

I read an interesting article online that referenced a professor named Isak Niehauss. He said that it was colonialism that put men and women in the same sphere, and which eventually led to a decrease in women’s status. Something to think about!

Overall, I found many instances in this book where tradition is butting up against the modern, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut winner. There are times when Mma Ramotswe wants people to embrace a more modern mentality, but there are other times when she seems just as anxious for Africa to remain unblemished by western influences (particularly American!)

Staci – I loved your point regarding “sexless” parents! That is so true!

Precious does seem to adore her father, and he her! I was sad when the short account of Obed’s life came to an end; I liked him immediately! I loved his perspective on different things.

On God: “Some people think of God as a white man … I do not think this is so, because there is no difference between white men and black men; we are all the same; we are just people.” P. 19

On Africa: “The only thing that makes me sad is that I shall be leaving Africa when I die. I love Africa, which is my mother and my father. When I am dead, I shall miss the smell of Africa…” P. 17

On government: “That is the problem with governments these days. They want to do things all the time; they are always very busy thinking of what things they can do next. That is not what people want. People want to be left alone to look after their cattle.” P. 20

On his country’s bad past: “The mines sucked our men in and left the old men and the children at home. We dug for gold and diamonds and made those white men rich. They built their big houses, with their walls and their cars. And we dug down below them and brought out the rock on which they built it all.” P. 20

On Funagalo, the language used for giving orders in the mines: “It is a strange language. The Zulus laugh when they hear it, because there are so many Zulu words in it but it is not Zulu. It is a language which is good for telling people what to do. There are many words for push, take, shove, carry, load, and no words for love, or happiness, or the sounds which birds make in the morning.” P. 23

On his only child: “ …the child who was more valuable to me than all the gold taken out of those mines in Johannesburg. This was my first-born, and my only child, my girl, my Precious Ramotswe.” P. 28

5. Heather - June 15, 2007

Did you guys notice the part about complimenting vs. thanking? When the teacher complimented the cousin for how she’d trained and taught Precious, this was said: “This was virtually the first praise that she had ever received for any task she had performed; Obed had thanked her, and done so often, and generously, but it had not occurred to him to praise her, because in his view she was just doing her duty as a woman and there was nothing special about that.” p. 34 I need to remember to give compliments along with my thanks! 🙂

6. Heather - June 15, 2007

Oh, yeah, and the cousin seems to excel in this, as we find out a few pages later: “No woman had told him that he was handsome before, and he had never dreamed that any would, being more used to the wince of sympathy. The cousin, though, said that he was the most good-looking man she had ever met, and the most virile too. This was not mere flattery — she was telling the truth, as she saw it, and his heart was filled with the warmth that flows from the well-directed compliment.” p. 40. I love that image — warmth flowing from the well-directed compliment!

7. Heather - June 15, 2007

Michelle, I loved her truthfulness at the art competition, too! I’m glad you raised the issue of her sense of justice. For someone who struggled to accept a prize under false pretenses, she sure does tell some great whoppers in the course of solving some of her cases! But I think she sees those “white whoppers” as acceptable because they are helping to resolve a bigger issue of right and wrong.

I was going to ask you — do you have any idea how to pronounce “Mme”? And what does bush tea taste like?

8. bethany3boys - June 16, 2007

Heather great points on the traditional butting up against the modern and your observations on how that changes how the men act. Very perceptive. I think you have some great points there.

I love all your quotes too at the end of the first comment. Great.

9. bethany3boys - June 16, 2007

Good point on complimenting with Thanking.

10. Michelle Van Meter - June 18, 2007

Mme is pronounced “Me”. Nothing special.

Bush tea (also called Rooibos tea for the tea leaves its made from) brews with a reddish tint and has a sweet, slightly nutty flavor. It apparently has more antioxidents too. I brought some back for Marie and I think she still has some. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if you stopped by for a cup. You can also go a tea shop, or store that has a good tea selection, and look for Rooibos Tea. Prepare it with milk and sugar and eat it with a biscuit – mmm…

11. Michelle - June 18, 2007

Oops. I mean Mma is pronounced “ma”.

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