Sunny tales from Africa charm and reassure

Today, when most books about Africa describe hardship, Alexander McCall Smith brings us further glimpses of Mma Precious Ramotswe and her friends that refresh our souls.

"The Full Cupboard of Life" is the fifth book in the series, and Mma Ramotswe's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is well established. Although the occasional chicken still wanders into the office to peck at toes, it is only because the adjacent garage, Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, leaves its doors open to the world. And the garage is home to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe's self-effacing, generous, and hard-working fiancé.

Detective stories in the West usually dwell on murder, large-scale fraud, or evildoing in high places. Mma Ramotswe, on the other hand, tails errant wives, faces down a local bully, and advises women on which suitors are merely after their money.

Unabashed at being a single woman coping in a male-dominated culture, she sets out on adventures in her "tiny white van," kept on the road only by her fiancé's frequent ministrations.

But, although endearing, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is something of a problem. He has already been pressured into adopting two orphans by the forceful Mma Potokwane. Now she has talked him into a parachute jump to raise funds for her orphanage. Mma Ramotswe, with delicate diplomacy worthy of a UN secretary-general - and a reluctance to become a widow before becoming a wife - speeds to the rescue.

The people in these sunny tales are not wealthy, but they are rich in their contentment, their sense of what is right, and their trust in human goodness. We become caught up in the lives of these gentle Botswanans. We share a mug of bush tea with them, and sit together under the shade of a jacaranda. Look for long-awaited romantic news at the conclusion.

Gillian Charters is an editor on the Monitor's copy desk.

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