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Tea Time for the Traditionally Built Reader’s Guide

By Alexander McCall Smith

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith


“As wise and lovely as ever.” —USA Today
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, the latest installment in Alexander McCall Smith’s beloved series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.


Mma Ramotswe’s ever-ready tiny white van has recently developed a rather disturbing noise.  Of course, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni—her estimable husband and one of Botswana’s most talented mechanics—is the man to turn to for help.  But Precious suspects he might simply send the tiny white van to the junkyard and replace it with something more modern.  Can she find a way to save her old friend?
In the meantime, Mma Makutsi discovers that her old rival Violet Sephotho, who could not have gotten more than 50 percent on her typing final at the Botswana Secretarial College, has set her sights on none other than Mma Makutsi’s fiancé, Phuti Radiphuti.  Can Mma Ramotswe’s intuition save the day?  Finally, the proprietor of a local football team has enlisted the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to help explain its dreadful losing streak.  The owner of the team is convinced he has a traitor in his midst.  But how is Mma Ramotswe, who has never seen a football match in her life, going to discern who is throwing the game?  Help, it turns out, may come from an unexpected quarter.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Grace pokes fun at Fanwell’s name, and says that he and Charlie, apprentice mechanics in the garage, are lazy. What aspect of Grace’s character is revealed in this conversation [pp. 6–7]? How does Mma Ramotswe deal with temperamental differences between herself and her assistant?

2. As she said in The Miracle at Speedy Motors, “I am a lady first and then I am a detective. So I just do the things which we ladies know how to do—I talk to people and find out what has happened. Then I try to solve the problems in people’s lives. That is all I do.”  Why does the suspicion presented by Mr. Molofololo—that someone on his football team is throwing games—cause a real difficulty for Mma Ramotswe in solving the case?

3. How does visiting Fanwell’s home provoke Mma Ramotswe’s sympathy [pp. 63–72]?  Why does she conclude, “until you dig deeper, and listen … you know only a tiny part of the goodness of the human heart” [p. 72]?

4. Mma Tafa’s ambition for her husband, Big Man, to be captain of the football team makes Mma Ramotswe wonder whether Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni nursed any hidden, unfulfilled desires.  She thinks, “when we dismiss or deny the hopes of others … we forget that they, like us, have only one chance in this life” [p. 130].  If Mma Ramotswe’s compassionate insights were collected, would they comprise a dependable guide to an ethical life?

5. Mma Ramotswe has to laugh when she thinks of the tiny goalkeeper, Big Man Tafa, dancing with his wife [pp. 130–3].  What other moments cause laughter in the story? How would you describe Mma Ramotswe’s sense of humor?

6. Mma Makutsi’s purchase of new shoes gives her “that extraordinary feeling of renewal that an exciting purchase can bring,” but her old shoes silently make their resentment known [pp. 146–7].  If you have read Blue Shoes and Happiness, how does this moment recall an earlier episode where Grace buys a pair of new shoes?

7. What qualities make Precious Ramotswe such an unusual person?  How would you describe the quality of her insight or wisdom?  To her husband, she was the person “who stood for kindness and generosity and understanding; for a country of which he was so proud; who stood for Africa and all the love that Africa contained” [pp. 151-52].  Do you find her inspirational, and if so how can she been seen as a model for behavior in everyday life?

8. Why does Violet Sephotho make a direct play for Phuti Radiphuti?  Does it appear that she holds a grudge against Grace?  Does the conversation on pp. 45-47 suggest that Grace’s physical imperfections might present a serious cause for anxiety regarding Phuti’s commitment to her?

9. Why is Mma Ramotswe’s tiny white van so beloved?  What does it signify for her?  Having finally passed beyond the hope of repair, it was towed away by a man who bought it for spare parts [p. 172].  Do you see any hope for its revival in future episodes?

10. Mma Ramotswe often thinks of her father, Obed Ramotswe: “She would give anything—anything—to have her father back with her, just for a day, so that she could tell him about how her life had been and how she owed everything to him and to his goodness to her” [p. 183].  It is often said that gratitude is a spiritual emotion.  Why is gratitude such an important emotion in these books?

11. Mma Ramotswe says to Mma Makutsi, “Most of all I am grateful to you for being my friend … That is the best thing that anybody can be to anybody else—a friend” [p. 185].  What provokes these feelings of gratitude?  How is the “sense of dreadful imminence, [the] rawness” that Precious feels, resolved on page 186?  Discuss how, with scenes like this one, the series addresses small but important moments of life.

12. Puso provides the insight that Mma Ramotswe was missing in her investigation of the football team’s troubles.  What is the “sudden, blinding insight that Puso had triggered” [p. 207]?  Does it seem likely that Mr. Molofololo will learn what he needs to learn about himself and about his players [pp. 208–09]?

13. In most detective fiction, readers seek the identity of the criminal or the resolution of a mystery. Who are the criminals, and what is the mystery, in Tea Time for the Traditionally Built? How does Mma Ramotswe differ from most fictional detectives? How do plot and pace differ, and what unique features distinguish The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series from conventional mystery novels?

14. What are Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi celebrating with their lunch at the end of the novel? How does the fact that rain is coming add to the sense of a happy ending?

15. A typographic design, repeating the word Africa, follows the novel’s final sentence.  How does this affect your reading of the ending, and what emotions does it express?

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About this Author

Alexander McCall Smith is also the author of the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, and the 44 Scotland Street series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and has served on many national and international bodies concerned with bioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana. He lives in Scotland

Suggested Reading

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun; Kate Atkinson, Case Histories; J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace; Nuruddin Farah, Gifts; Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight; Nadine Gordimer, Six Feet of the Country; Bessie Head, When Rain Clouds Gather; P. D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman; J. Nozipo Maraire, Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter; Nadine Gordimer, Telling Tales; Norman Rush, Mating; Wole Soyinka, Aké: The Years of Childhood.
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