'Miss Marple' of Botswana reflects growing pains

From her small, whitewashed office in the shadow of Kgale Hill, where chickens wander in as often as clients, Botswana's only female private eye has plenty of time for contemplation.

Gaborone's police handle what little crime there is, and the occasional case - tracking an itinerant spouse or finding a long-lost relative - is usually wrapped up in a day or two.

So Precious Ramotswe spends her time watching the 21st century race down her capital's sleepy streets. As the only woman in a field dominated by men, she may be rev-olutionary, but she's steeped in tradition - pining for the days when children respected their elders, firm discipline was the norm, and a verbal agreement was currency.

Though fictional, she echoes the feelings of many people in the real Botswana.

The founder of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and protagonist in the eponymous five-book series is the creation of author Alexander McCall Smith. Since her debut in 1998, the "African Miss Marple" has developed a global following, selling more than 1 million copies in the United States alone.

But she is much more than a good read for people here. The series has become a cultural touchstone, crystallizing the swirl of economic forces and emotions in a nation figuring out how to join the global village while preserving the values of its traditional village.

"He's captured the soul of our experience of living in Botswana," says Miriam Shanahan, an Irish expat who has lived here for 20 years. Ms. Shanahan, who has read four of the five books (the fifth arrives in the US in April 2004), says Ms. Ramotswe's charm and Mr. McCall Smith's breezy style, warm as the desert air, reflect the feel of life here.

Embracing the future

But changes are afoot. The real capital of Botswana could be mistaken for Bavaria, with all the German luxury cars. Business deals on cellphones have replaced village meetings under the shade of a thorn tree, and two sleek malls with cappuccino bars have sprung from the city's red soil over the past 18 months.

Diamonds have fueled this boom. At the time of independence from Britain in 1966, the Southern African nation ranked among the world's poorest countries. Two years later, the precious gems were discovered and for the next three decades, Botswana was Africa's fastest-growing economy.

While the standard of living is among the highest on the continent and is likely only to improve as the economy diversifies, some here want to make sure the past is not forgotten.

"Our economy has grown too fast," says Imelda Mishodzi Molokomme, who, aside from the detective part, could be Ramotswe's archetype. "We used to have a slow pace, where you had time to sit down and reiterate to children our value systems."

The energetic Ms. Molokomme, whose lobbying efforts helped put women in five of the government's top 20 cabinet posts, is currently working to introduce values such as "botho" - the traditional concept of humaneness - into the public-education curriculum.

She's also writing a business plan to create a cultural village, complete with authentic thatched huts, where Botswana's youths and foreign travelers can learn about the richness of the country - its history as a British protectorate, its ancient democratic principles, even its abundant wildlife.

This activism has rubbed off on at least one of her daughters. Mabu Nteta, founder of Service Bridges Consulting, helps train Batswana, as the people here are known, to work in the modern economy. She says the country's wealth - which allows the government to provide all citizens with free healthcare and education - has bred a sense of entitlement, especially in young people. And that's led to a less-than-energetic workforce.

To remedy this, she taps ancient traditions - including something she calls the "Kapula Principles."

"Kapula is how a person in Botswana would greet a visitor," says Ms. Nteta from her desk in the newly minted office park next to the Game City Mall. "When a visitor comes [to your home], it's time to dance, to eat - it's time to rejoice."

Nteta is trying to get workers to think this way on the job. One principle, she says, is that the spirit of service comes from within. She teaches employees to welcome customers as warmly as they would welcome a stranger into their home. She urges them to greet customers with "both hands" - treating each with respect.

Nteta says she is making progress, and hopes that her trainees will pass these traditions on to the next generation.

"I say to them, 'If you are not going to do better yourselves, please raise your children differently,' " she says.

The fictional Ramotswe would surely second this notion. She remembers when children looked adults in the eye when spoken to, and thinks society was better when children could be spanked in public (though as a modern woman, she disapproves of spanking.)

No dusting for finger prints

When not reminiscing, the sage sleuth helps clients recover overdue bills, spy on their adolescent daughters, or find them husbands. She doesn't dust for fingerprints or take DNA samples, instead relying on women's intuition and the wisdom of Solomon to get to the truth.

Ancient wisdom, Ramotswe believes, can always inform the modern world.

"Penal codes, then, were all very well," writes McCall Smith in "The Khalahari Typing School for Men," No. 29 on last week's New York Times bestseller list, "but she wondered whether it might not be simpler to rely on something like the Ten Commandments, which, with a bit of modernization, seemed to give a perfectly good set of guidelines for the conduct of one's life."

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