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The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Teacher’s Guide

By Alexander McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith



Structure and Plot:

1.The opening chapter of the novel introduces us to Precious Ramotswe and the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. What qualities are emphasized as important for success as a detective?

2.In Chapter 2, why does the author switch to the first person and have Obed Ramotswe narrate the chapter? What specific insights does this technique allow the reader?

3.How is Chapter 2 a description of the life of an “ordinary person?” What is the author implying about the value of life?

4.How does Mma Ramotswe’s personality affect her outlook on her job, where she lives, and the people with whom she encounters?

5.Why does the author use a third-person narration in this story? Would the novel be more effective if Mma Ramotswe narrated the entire story?

6.Mma Ramotswe receives a letter from Ernest Molai Pakotati about the kidnapping of his son. Do you think there is any connection between the voice she hears calling her name at 3:04 am and this case? Whose voice is it? Why does she awake in terror?

7.Although Mma Ramotswe proves that Kremlin Busang is a philandering husband, his wife, Alice Busang is furious at Mma Ramotswe. Why? Would there have been a better way to solve this particular case? How does Alice Busang act as a foil for the type of woman Mma Ramotswe strives to be?

8.How does the incident and meeting with Charlie Gotso reflect the social hierarchy lurking beneath the surface of Botswana society and politics?

9.Hector Lepodise’s refuses to pay the insurance company for an employee injury that he does not believe the specific employee sustained. How does Madam Ramotswe expose the truth? Are stereotypes employed by the author in this incident? If so, how?

Character and Conflict

1.In the novel’s opening, Mma Ramotswe states that she loves Africa “for all its trials” (p.4). How are these trials analogous to the trials in her personal life?

2.Notice when Mr. Smith uses the name “Precious” to refer to the novel’s protagonist and when he uses the more formal “Mma Ramotswe.” What does this tell the reader about the character herself?

3.Early in the text, Mma Ramotswe asks herself, “What would Solomon have done?” (p.11). Who was Solomon, and why does the author reference him in the book? What parallels can you draw between Solomon and Mma Ramotswe?

4.How does the author humanize Mma Ramotswe? What are some of her personal foibles?

5.What is the quality or characteristic that Mma Ramotswe values above all else? How are the individual cases and solutions to those cases structured around these qualities?

6.How are women in the story depicted as far more intelligent than they are credited? Discuss this in light of the old Setswana poem on page 34.

7.The cousin who comes to take care of Precious was abandoned by her husband because she was barren. How does this character rise above her station and the quiet contempt with which she is treated? Why do you think she is never named?

8.Precious Ramotswe wins the art contest sponsored by The Museum in Gaborone but feels compelled to tell the Minister that a mistake has been made on the label of the picture. How does this incident illustrate her role as a “moral compass” in the novel?

9.After her cousin marries and Precious Ramotswe turns 16, she goes to live with them. She solves her first case while working for the bus company. Describe the case and the personal qualities Precious employs to solve it.

10.Why does Precious follow Note Mokoti off the bus when he departs? Does she know the kind of man he is before she marries him? Why does she go against her father’s wishes and marry Note? What causes this apparent rebellion on her part?

11.After her father dies, Precious Ramotswe sets up the Detective Agency. Why does she choose to pursue this type of business?

12.What clues aid Precious Ramotswe in finding out what happened to Mma Malatsi’s missing husband?

13.Does Nandira Patel actually outsmart Mma Ramotswe? How?

14.Mma Pekwane approaches Mma Ramotswe because she believes her husband has stolen a car and she wants it returned to its rightful owner without her husband knowing. How does Madam Ramotswe’s solution to this problem display her ingenuity and respect for an individual’s privacy?

15.Why do you believe Mma Ramotswe is, initially, and throughout most of the novel, opposed to marrying again?

16.Who are some of the other main characters in the story that share Mma Ramotswe’s personal values system?

17.How does Mma Ramotswe achieve fame, recognition, and respect within her community in Gaborone?

18.How is Mma Ramotswe an independent woman? Cite examples.

19.Why, after saying she will never marry again, does Precious Ramotswe accept Mr. JLB Matekoni’s proposal at the end of the novel?

Themes and Motifs

1.What sort of relationship is there between whites and blacks in the novel? Is it consistent or on an individual level (see page 30 for an optimistic view of whites)? How does Botswana’s experiences since independence contrast to South Africa’s experience?
2.The discovery in Botswana of three of the world’s richest diamond mines was an economic stroke of luck for the country. However, what does Obed Ramotswe’s description of his years working in the mines say about the political and social inequalities that existed in Africa?

3.How are the lessons Precious learns about boys in Sunday school valuable in later life?

4.How do the weekly visits Precious makes to her father’s home and their discussions underscore the quality of her father’s judgment?

5.How does Alexander McCall Smith heighten the tension and fear during the abduction of Thobiso (son of the Katsana Village teacher)?

6.How does the parable about the calf relate to the kidnapping of Thobiso?

7.The landscape described during Mma Ramotswe’s trip to find the witch doctor is described very differently than in other sections of the novel. How is the landscape description mirror the situation and characters’ feelings?

8.How does the author integrate the idea of feminism and chauvinism into the narrative?
9.What do we learn about the political situation of Botswana?
10.How is religion depicted? What are differences the between Mma Ramotswe praying to God for the souls of her baby and her father versus the practice of witchcraft that is denounced but still practiced in secret?

Setting and Society:

1.The novel takes place primarily in the capital city of Gaborone. Describe her home and the general character of this city.

2.How does the physical topography and geography of Africa affect the story?

3.What is Mma Ramotswe’s place within society? Do the people of Gaborone respect her? Why or why not?

4.How did Mma Ramotswe fund her detective agency? Why was it considered odd for a woman to create a business like this on her own?

5.What is the educational system like in Botswana? Did Mma Ramotswe attend school? How does her education differ from a more Westernized educational system?

6.Alexander McCall Smith effortlessly integrates African history, as well as that of Botswana, into the story. In what ways does the success of Botswana as a nation compared to the failures of other African nations parallel the successes of Mma Ramotswe compared to what people think / expect to happen?


What’s What and Who’s Who in THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY
Alexander McCall Smith’s Guide to the World of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
First and foremost, Mma Ramotswe:
Mma is the term used to address a woman, and may be placed before her name. It is pronounced "ma" (with a long a).

Rra is the rough equivalent of "mister". It is pronounced "rar", but with a slight rolling of the second r.

Mma Ramotswe is the daughter of the late Obed Ramotswe.
African English makes frequent use of the word late in this context. People say: "My father is late" rather than use more brutal expressions. At one point Mma Ramotswe refers to a "late dog" which had been run over by a steamroller. This shows great delicacy.

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni always uses his initials. Why this formality? People in Botswana can be fairly formal with one another. In Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s case, that is what he has always been called and nobody has ever found out what the initials stand for. The L is, in fact, Livingstone.

Sir Seretse Khama is referred to from time to time. Mma Ramotswe is a great admirer of his and feels proud of the first President of Botswana. Sir Seretse was a great man, who set the moral tone of the new republic.

Dr Moffat appears from time to time, together with his wife, Fiona. They are real people who currently live in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. Howard Moffat, a doctor, is a direct descendant of Robert Moffat, the Scottish missionary who first rendered the Setswana language in written form. Robert Moffat’s daughter married David Livingstone.

Setswana, the language spoken in most of Botswana. Most people speak English too and newspapers, for example, will be in both languages.

Bush tea is very important to Mma Ramotswe and her assistant, Mma Makutsi. It is a reddish tea, caffeine-free, which is also known as rooibos (red bush tea). It is an acquired taste, and may be drunk with honey, in which case it is called honeybush tea.

Masarwa. This term is commonly used to refer to the San people (previously called Bushmen) who inhabited the Kalahari and who have gradually moved away from their hunter-gatherer life.

The Kalahari is a semi-desert which occupies the central and western parts of Botswana. It supports light vegetation, but very few people.

The Orphan Farm exists, though not under that name. The orphans live in small houses presided over by a housemother. There is a matron (called, in the books, Mma Potokwani) and a man who is officially employed as a father figure, surely one of the more unusual job titles. In the past, the matron’s husband occupied that job.

The Bishop. Mma Ramotswe admires the Bishop. He is in charge of the Anglican Cathedral, which is directly opposite the Princess Marina Hospital. The last occupant of this office was the Bishop Walter Makhulu, who has recently handed over to Bishop Theophilus.

Mafikeng (formerly Mafeking) lies to the south, outside the borders of Botswana. Mma Ramotswe previously shopped there, but now that Gaborone has better shops she is content to do all her shopping there.

Zebra Drive. This is where Mma Ramotswe has her house. There is a Zebra Way in Gaborone. Mma Ramotswe’s house is the last house on the left before the Zebra Way turns the corner.

Tlokweng Road, the road on which Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors sits, goes to Tlokweng, some five or six miles outside Gaborone. The Francistown Road goes to Francistown, in the North, and the Lobatse Road goes to Lobatse. To get to Molepolole, one should take the Molepolole Road.

The Village is the old part of the Gaborone. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni lives on the edge of the Village, near the old Botswana Defence Force Club.

Acacia trees cover the land. They have light greyish-greenish leaves and harbour birds such as the Go-Away Bird with its famous cry, or doves.

Cattle are very important. They are everywhere. A person’s prosperity will usually be measured by the number of cattle he or she has.


* A major theme of Mr. Smith’s novel is how history, individual and general, affects the characters of his text. For instance, Mma Ramotswe’s father dies because he has worked in the South African coalmines for nearly his entire life. In this major plot development, the reader is told several things: The economy of Botswana may rely on diamonds, but all of its people cannot be employed by this industry; other safe work is difficult to find; hard work will often pay off only a generation later. Research a particular aspect of the history of Botswana — climate, politics, or even economy — and discuss how Mr. Smith uses it in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to add a degree of realism to this fictional story.
* Research and consider contemporary implications for the following:
1.The AIDS epidemic in Africa.
2.America’s foreign policy and aid to Africa; include how this policy affect the world views of Africans and how Africans see the world
3.Identify Africa’s attempts for self-sufficiency and describe its economic policies and goals. How would an investor view Botswana?
4.Research the leadership of Botswana. How does Botswana’s government today reflect the government of the past? The future? Is the present government doing a good job?
History of Botswana
The recent history of Botswana, a central South African country smaller than Texas, but larger than California, hinges on gaining independence in 1966 from the United Kingdom. Under the British, the country had been known as the Bechuanaland protectorate. As a reader can tell from the story, Botswana’s relatively recent independence and success, due in large part to the country’s development of extensive diamond reserves, is a source of great pride among its citizens. Thus, Mma Ramotswe’s depiction of Botswana as a stable, highly fortunate beacon of hope on the all-to-often tumultuous landscape of Africa is more than just a fictional creation; it is reality.
Previous to the British occupation of Botswana, the region had known many African as well as European visitors. Frequently threatened by these visitors, natives in the region banded together under chief Khama II as well as subsequent leaders to drive out the Zulus, Ndebele, Afrikaners, and Germans. The point should not be lost, then, that natives of Botswana were and are not isolated from the rest of Africa and the world. This small country of an estimated one and one half million people has a thriving capital in Gaborone, a democratically elected legislature that adheres to a constitution over thirty years old, and a beautiful country that includes hills, deserts, rivers, and marshlands.

Internet Resources
Official website of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

Government of Botswana

Botswanian Culture

Facts about Botswana, its environs and culture


Other Titles of Interest
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
Paperback | 0-679-72475-3 | 480 pages

Born Free by Joy Adamson
Paperback | 0-375-71438-3 | 224 pages

King Solomon’s Mines by H. G Haggard
Paperback | 0-8129-6629-5| 304 pages

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Paperback | 0-385-47454-7 | 224 pages


This Teacher’s Guide was produced by Kathryne Speaker, Ed.D., an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Language Sciences at The College of New Jersey. She is the Director of the Graduate Reading Program at the college and teaches courses in Children’s Literature and Storytelling.

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