Cover image of "The Joy and Light Bus Company," the 22nd novel about Botswana's famous lady detectives

Nothing ever changes, but nothing’s the same from day to day for Botswana’s famous lady detectives. Once again, the challenges come three at a time for Mma Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of Gaborone’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

  • The son of a wealthy man is convinced that the nurse who cares for his elderly and ailing father has wickedly prevailed on him to leave her the rural estate where they live.
  • A 12-year-old girl at the Orphan Farm, escaped from domestic slavery in a wealthy home in the capital, says that two other youngsters are still held there against their will.
  • And Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, Precious’ loyal and loving husband, attends a motivational seminar for small business owners. There, he meets a childhood friend who is now a big success. The friend wants him to join as a partner in a risky scheme to start a bus company—and to do so he’ll have to mortgage the premises where both the detective agency and the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors repair shop are located.

Getting to the truth with care and concern

Together with her exasperating secretary, Mma Grace Makutsi, who has promoted herself to “senior co-managing director” in the agency, Mma Ramotswe must somehow get to the truth behind each of these three troublesome reports—and find ways to resolve the dilemmas they pose in the most caring way she can. Thus begins the 22nd entry in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by the prolific Scots author Alexander McCall Smith.

The Joy and Light Bus Company (No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency #22) by Alexander McCall Smith (2021) 238 pages ★★★★★ 

Aerial image of Gaborone, where this novel about Botswana's famous lady detectives is set
Aerial view of Gaborone, Botswana’s capital city, where the lady detective series is set. Image: University of California Education Abroad Program

Celebrating African tradition and values

McCall Smith idealizes Africa’s traditional values of love for the land, the people, and the communities they forge. Mma Ramotswe’s thoughts turn again and again to her memories of the late Obed Ramotswe, the wise man who raised prize cattle and gave life to her. She and Mma Makutsi both cling proudly to their identification with the villages where they were born and raised, Precious in relative comfort, Grace in poverty.

There is corruption and wrongdoing in the country, and AIDS rages in the background, but we gain only glimpses of the damage they do. Evil is personified in a handful of rich and greedy families, an occasional criminal, and in the person of Violet Sephotho, Grace’s glamorous classmate at the Secretarial School who steals husbands and constantly connives to undermine the lady detectives. Mma Ramotse makes her way through this world acting as though people are good, and only rarely is she disappointed. And she laments the passing of the “old ways.”

Happiness for one and all

Here, for example, Mma Ramotswe muses about happiness. “Both sexes, she thought, might give some thought to the happiness of the other. She knew that there were some women who did not care much about men, and who would not be bothered too much if there were large numbers of discontented men, but she did not think that way herself. Such women, she thought, were every bit as selfish as those men who seemed not to care about the happiness of women. We should all care about each other, she felt, and it made no difference whether an unhappy person was a man or a woman. Any unhappiness, in anybody at all, was a shame. It was as simple as that: it was a shame.”

Forget the African stereotypes: this is Botswana

Understanding these charming little novels requires at least a cursory knowledge of the city and country where they’re set. Botswana is a large, landlocked country in south-central Africa bordered on the south by South Africa, on the west by Namibia, and on the north by Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Though it’s nearly the size of Texas, Botswana is home to just 2.4 million people. It’s one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Nearly 70 percent of its territory is the huge Kalahari Desert. The capital city of Gaborone, where Precious Ramotswe lives, has a population of 276,000. It’s the size of Chula Vista, California, or Durham, North Carolina. Which means, of course, that it’s no surprise Mma Ramotswe could so often run into people she knows.

Although Botswana has been inhabited for 200,000 years, it lost its independence in the 19th-century Scramble for Africa. It first became a German colony and then a British protectorate known as Bechuanaland. The country regained its independence in 1966 and has been a stable democracy ever since. In recent years, despite the terrible toll of the AIDS epidemic, Botswana has become one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies and is now ranked as a middle-income nation. Seretse Khama, the country’s beloved first president, is one of Precious Ramotswe’s heroes.

Map of the country where this novel about Botswana's famous lady detectives is set
Botswana lies in the heart of south-central Africa.

About the author

Image of Alexander McCall Smith, author of this novel about Botswana's famous lady detectives

Alexander McCall Smith was born in 1948 in what is now the nation of Zambia. Educated at the University of Edinburgh, where he received his LLB and PhD degrees in law, he later co-founded the law school and taught law at the University of Botswana. As Wikipedia notes, “He settled in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1984. He and his wife Elizabeth, a physician, . . . lived there for almost 30 years, raising their two daughters. Nearby lived the authors J. K. RowlingIan Rankin, and Kate Atkinson.” McCall Smith reportedly writes 2,000 to 3,000 words a day. He has produced scores of novels, including two other long-running series (44 Scotland Street and The Sunday Philosophy Club) as well as the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. McCall Smith is also a renowned expert on law and medical ethics. He has authored thirteen legal texts.

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