CHAPTER ONE INSIDE PEOPLE, OUTSIDE PEOPLE
Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, doyenne of private investigators in Botswana (not that there were any others, apart from her assistant, Grace Makutsi), wife of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (garagiste
and past chairman of the Botswana Motor Trades Association), citizen of Botswana—that same Precious Ramotswe was sitting in the second row of chairs at the open-air wedding of Mr. Seemo Outule to Ms. Thato Kgwadi. The chairs were lined up under a large awning protecting the guests from the sun, which, since the wedding ceremony was taking place at eleven-thirty, was almost at its highest point in the echoing, empty sky. It was a hot day in October, a month of heat and unremitting thirst for the land and all that lived upon the land: the cattle, the wild animals, the small, almost invisible creatures that conducted their lives in the undergrowth or among the rocks, creatures whose very names had been forgotten now. They were all waiting for the rains, which would come, of course, in greater or smaller measure at a time when they were ready. And that was a time nobody could predict, even if they hoped against hope that it was not long off.
The land was waiting for that first rain, and the people too, but this did not mean that life did not go on as normal in spite of the dryness. Those who planned to move house or change their job, or start studying for something, or paint their kitchen, or turn over a new leaf—all of these people would go ahead with these things even though many of their waking hours were spent waiting for the relief of rain. You had to, because otherwise life would grind to a halt, and nobody would be ready for the rains once they came. And of course this applied to those who wanted to get married and get on with family life. Their weddings would take place in the heat, but that was probably better than getting married in the cold season—such as it was—and shivering before the preacher because you couldn’t wear an overcoat at your own wedding.
The two young people now taking their vows were well known to Mma Ramotswe, who was friendly with the families on both sides. The engagement of Seemo and his long-time girlfriend, Thato, had given her particular pleasure, as it seemed to her that the two families were ideally suited to one another. This was not only because both fathers were interested in cattle-breeding—although who wasn’t, in Botswana, a famous cattle-owning democracy?—but also because the mothers on both sides were passionate picklers and bottlers, preserving all sorts of fruits and vegetables in pickling jars of one shape or another. A shared interest in cattle and pickling may seem to be peripheral and not all that important in the overall scheme of things, but to take that view would be wrong, thought Mma Ramotswe, because these everyday things were often much more important to people than matters of politics or principle, or tribal affiliation. Cattle, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni once remarked, bring people together. Mma Ramotswe fully agreed with this observation, and felt that the same could be said of pickled marulas and kumquat jam, which also brought people together, in their own particular way.
Of course those were parental interests rather than the interests of the bride and groom themselves, but it was of the utmost importance, Mma Ramotswe had always maintained, that families should get on in any prospective marriage. The reason for that was that you did not just marry a man, you married his father and grandfather, his grandmother and, most important, you married his mother. That last relationship was weightier than any of the others, because a mother-in-law could make or break a marriage, sometimes even without saying anything at all. Sometimes body language was quite sufficient.
So she had no reservations when she heard that Seemo and Thato were going to marry on the fifteenth of October, in the grounds of Tlokweng Orphan Farm, courtesy of Mma Potokwane, who was a cousin of the bride’s family and who arranged with the housemothers to do the catering at a special cut-price rate. The Kgwadis had been generous to the Orphan Farm in the past, donating a used tractor and paying for the renewal of several bathrooms in which the concrete floor had cracked beyond repair. These were things that fell beyond the scope of Mma Potokwane’s normal budget, and the munificence of donors was the only way in which they would ever be done. If she could repay by hosting a family wedding in the Orphan Farm’s low-walled kgotla,
or meeting-place enclosure, near the vegetable fields, then that was what she would do. And from the point of view of the housemothers, this was an opportunity to show off their culinary skills and make a small amount of pin money into the bargain. The children themselves, of course, would love it. They would be happy were a wedding to take place every weekend; weddings gave the older children the chance to act as waiters and plate-washers, while the smaller children could help by fetching and carrying all the things that needed to be fetched and carried at such an occasion.
Mma Ramotswe knew Seemo a bit better than she knew his bride. She had first become acquainted with him when he was in his late teens, and doing well at Gaborone Secondary School. He had occasionally washed and polished her tiny white van on Saturday mornings to raise money for his boy-scout troop, and this had impressed her. Then he had gone off to do a course in dental mechanics, and had recently returned to be one of the few people in the country who could assemble and fix a set of false teeth or a complicated dental plate. This profession paid well, and within a few months of his return he was able to afford to propose marriage to his girlfriend, and pay her family every single pula agreed to in the bride-price negotiations. As both families were traditionalists, this price was expressed in head of cattle, and, although money equivalents were broadly acceptable, in this case there had been an actual transfer from the herd of one father to that of the other. Few people saw that transfer other than the cattlemen and herd boys retained by both at their remote cattle posts, who carried out the transaction at the behest of their employers. A new brand was burned into fifteen head of cattle—a substantial dowry, when eight was more normal—and that sealed the bargain. Now all that remained was for the bride and groom to exchange their vows and for the assembled guests to fall with enthusiasm upon the beef and boervors
already sizzling over the cooking pits dug in the Orphan Farm grounds for this very occasion. The smells that accompanied this wafted over to where the congregation was sitting, causing more than one set of nostrils to turn slightly to savour the delectable odour of Botswana beef being prepared for an imminent wedding feast.
As at most Botswana weddings, the guest list had been drawn up in a spirit of generosity. A wedding was a very significant event for the entire community, and the general expectation was that anybody who had the slightest dealings with the families or with the bride and groom themselves was entitled to be at least considered for an invitation. Of course, limits had to be set, as this circle of acquaintanceship could be a very wide one, in some cases involving thousands, and a line had to be drawn somewhere. The drawing of that line was a difficult task, and not always was it described in just the right place. Nor was it always expressed in a sufficiently tactful way—as was the case, Mma Ramotswe feared, with this particular wedding. Here, the invitation, which was in all other respects normal, created a new precedent by disclosing whether the invitee could expect a seat or not. Mma Ramotswe had received one that stated unambiguously, Seats available for two persons,
while less fortunate guests received an invitation saying, In view of the fact that seating is limited by the venue, we regret that you will not be able to sit down for the actual ceremony. Please bring a blanket to sit upon, if required.
Looking about her, Mma Ramotswe understood why it had been necessary to distinguish between guests in this way. The kgotla
was not large, essentially being a well-swept circle of packed earth surrounded by a waist-high, whitewashed wall. Within this space twelve rows of folding chairs had been set out, enough to accommodate just over one hundred and twenty people. The other guests, who numbered at least two hundred, were expected to stand around the kgotla
walls, looking in on the ceremony. Once assembled, these guests made up a crowd five or six persons deep all the way round, unprotected by the shade afforded by the awning and consequently relying on umbrellas for protection against the hammer blows of the sun. It was not ideal, particularly if you were Mma Makutsi and her husband, Phuti Radiphuti, who had received standing-only invitations, and who were now surveying the rows of seated guests and wondering about the criteria upon which selection for that privileged group had been made. It was not moral merit, thought Mma Makutsi, as her eye fell on a well-known Gaborone businessman, seated near the front, who had only the previous week been exposed as having not only one but two mistresses, and three children by each of them. Nor was it good looks or fashion, as there, she noted, was that woman whom she sometimes saw at the supermarket who looked, she decided, remarkably like a hippo and had a voice that sounded like a hippo’s too. She was there, and they might even be able to pick her voice out once they started to sing hymns. She would sing exactly as a hippo would sing, thought Mma Makutsi, who smiled at the rather uncharitable thought.
And then Mma Makutsi spotted Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, firmly and comfortably seated, and thought, Why should Mma Ramotswe receive a better invitation than mine? Was it because they thought she was more important, being the managing director of the agency, whereas she, Mma Makutsi, was only an ordinary director? Was it because Mma Ramotswe had been written about occasionally in the Botswana Daily News
and was therefore, in the view of people who did not know any better, a local celebrity of some sort? Was that it? The possibility was an uncomfortable one for Mma Makutsi; after all, who was the Botswana Secretarial College’s most distinguished graduate (with ninety-seven per cent) of her year—and indeed of all years, before and after? She was that person, and she had a certificate to prove it. Mma Ramotswe had many merits—Mma Makutsi would never dispute that—but she had no paper qualifications to speak of, other than some small and insignificant certificate from that school at Mochudi to the effect that she had completed three years or so of secondary education. If there were any justice in the world, people would be more aware of these things and not need to be given a reminder, as Mma Makutsi had to provide from time to time, of who got what in which examinations.
Of course, a more innocent, less provocative explanation for Mma Ramotswe having the superior invitation was possible, and this would be cousinage with one of the families. In Botswana everybody was related to everybody one way or another, and it was perfectly possible that this was the basis on which Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni had been preferred. That made relegation to the outside a little easier to bear, although it was still an annoyance.
“I see that Mma Ramotswe is sitting down,” Mma Makutsi remarked to Phuti Radiphuti. Phuti glanced over the wall.
“Yes, I see that, Mma. She is very lucky to be in the shade.”
“And sitting on a chair,” said Mma Makutsi, “while ordinary people are having to stand in this heat.”
“It will not be for hours,” said Phuti. “This part of the wedding is usually short enough, isn’t it? As long as they don’t sing for too long. Or make endless speeches.”
“Endless speeches are not a problem if you have a chair,” muttered Mma Makutsi. “Provided the chair is strong enough.”
Phuti gave her a puzzled look.
“Strong enough,” whispered Mma Makutsi. “There are some very traditionally built people over there. Those chairs do not look too strong, Rra. It would be a big pity if some of them gave way.”
Phuti made a silencing gesture. “We should be happy when people have chairs,” he admonished. “We should be happy, even if we do not have a chair ourselves.”
Mma Makutsi looked down at the ground. Her husband was right, of course, and his gentle reproach made her feel guilty. She should be pleased for Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni— they were older than she was and they had a much greater claim to shade, and to chairs. Phuti was right.
By now the bride had arrived and was standing with the groom at the front of the congregation. A photographer crouched and darted about to get the best angle for his shots; necks craned in an effort to see the bride’s finery; several women ululated, the traditional way of expressing joy. There would be more ululations, shrill and exultant, when the business of the ceremony was concluded.
The preacher, a tall, bespectacled man whom Mma Ramotswe knew vaguely through some distant Mochudi connection, now raised a hand to silence the congregation.
“My brothers and my sisters,” he began, “we are gathered together in the sight of God.” My brothers and my sisters.
Those words, as simple and direct as they were, never failed to resonate with her. They were words that said so much about how people should feel about one another. When you addressed others as your brothers or your sisters, you professed something deep and essential about how you felt towards them. You were saying We are not strangers to one another.
You were reminding them, and yourself as well, of your shared humanity. You were not claiming to be anything more than they were; you were not claiming any advantage or chance of advantage. You were saying: Here I am, as I am, and I am speaking to you, as you are, as a brother or a sister must speak to one with whom he or she was brought up, from whom no secrets would be hidden, to whom no untruths would be told.
“We are gathered here,” the preacher went on, “to witness the coming together in holy matrimony of this man and this woman, as at that wedding in Cana of Galilee . . .”
She looked at Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and remembered how, not all that many years ago, she had stood next to him not far from here, at their own wedding, and they had been addressed in similar terms, and how, when she had looked up, as she had done during that ceremony, she had seen a Cape dove watching them from a bough in the tree above their heads. And the dove had stayed there until, a few minutes later, it launched itself into the air and disappeared, and she realised she had not been paying attention to what was being said to her and had to be nudged to give the necessary response.
Now as those same questions were put to Seemo and Thato, and as each uttered the appropriate response, Mma Ramotswe noticed that Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni was nodding at each answer, as if he agreed with the proposition behind the question, or as if he were himself echoing the couple’s words. It occurred to her that he was thinking back to their own wedding, and was, in a sense, renewing the promises he had made on that occasion. And how faithfully he had carried out those vows—observing them to the letter, she thought, in a way that some husbands, perhaps even many husbands, found so difficult to do. So, yes, he had honoured and cherished her, just as he had promised to do at the altar; and yes, he had shared all his worldly goods with her, asking for very little for himself; and yes, he had forsaken all others for her, even though there were always husbandstealers on the prowl—people like Violet Sephotho—who were constantly circling round, looking for opportunities to take advantage of men in all their weakness.
She looked at Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni with pride—and gratitude that he had been delivered into her care, and thanked whatever, or whomever, it was that kept watch over her life. God, perhaps, or God acting in concert, so to speak, with a committee of ancestors—her mother, her grandmother, and ladies going back a long time to the early days of her people. And Africa, too, she was there somewhere in those protective forces; wise and nurturing, Mother Africa had arms wide enough to embrace all her children.
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni nudged her gently. “You’re dreaming about something, Mma,” he whispered.
She brought herself back to reality. “I was remembering,” she whispered back. “I was remembering our own wedding, Rra. Not far away from where we are.”
He smiled. “You said yes,” he said. “You said yes, just like Thato’s just done.”
“Good. It would be too late to say no at the altar. Far too late.” Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni looked concerned. “I hope that has never happened, Mma.”
“I’m afraid that it has,” said Mma Ramotswe. “There was a wedding in Gaborone a few years back when they both said no, apparently.”
“Ow!” exclaimed Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. And then, “Ow!” once more. “Yes, they said that they had both been persuaded by their families to get married, and they decided to refuse right at the last moment.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni rolled his eyes. “Their poor families.”
“Yes. And I heard that they had already cooked the roasts and so the guests just went on and ate all the food.”
“It would not have helped anybody if they had wasted the food,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. “That never helps.”
Mma Ramotswe remembered another detail. “The groom didn’t go to the feast,” she said. “I think he felt too embarrassed.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.
“But the bride—or the almost bride—wasn’t embarrassed. I heard that she stayed for the feast and met another man there—one she had not met before. He was a guest of the groom’s family. She married him, I was told.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s eyes opened wide. “There and then? At the same wedding?”
“No, later, Rra. A few months later, I think.”
“Then something good came of it,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.
The vows having been exchanged, the preacher pronounced the couple man and wife. There was applause from the congregation, and ululating cries, too. The couple turned around and smiled, and the applause became louder. Mma Ramotswe tried not to cry, but failed. She always cried at a wedding, no matter how hard she tried to remain dry-eyed. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni passed her a handkerchief that he extracted from the top pocket of his suit. The man standing next to him caught his eye and smiled, as if the two of them were exchanging some secret man’s message: women cry. Mma Ramotswe intercepted this as she wiped her eyes, and thought, Yes, we may cry, but you should do so too.
She returned the handkerchief as the congregation rose to its feet to sing. Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful river, the beautiful river . . .
It had been a favourite of hers as a girl, when she had thought that the river must be the Limpopo, that rose very near to Mochudi, and that would always be her river. As a young girl she had felt proud that her local river should have been referred to in this hymn, so clearly crafted somewhere else, as most things were. They wrote hymns in England, she thought, and then sent them out into the world for people to sing them in all sorts of places, even here, on the very edge of the Kalahari.
The bride and groom left. Friends stopped to talk. Clothes were admired. Children ran about, laughing, playing little games of their own devising.
“Mma Ramotswe, so there you are!”
She looked up and saw Mma Makutsi waiting outside the gate of the kgotla.
Behind her, Phuti Radiphuti, wearing a light grey suit and a bright red tie, smiled nervously.
“And you, Phuti,” said Mma Ramotswe. “There you are too.”
“It was a very good service,” said Mma Makutsi, “even if Phuti and I couldn’t see very well . . .”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Phuti. “We were not too far away.”
Mma Makutsi gave him a discouraging glance. “That’s a matter of opinion, Rra,” she said. “Who would have thought in advance that this would be a wedding with inside people and outside people? Who would have thought that, Mma?”
Mma Ramotswe sighed. “Numbers are always a problem when you have a wedding, Mma. You can’t invite the whole world, I think.”
“Oh, I know that,” said Mma Makutsi. “I’m not saying that you should invite the whole world—or even all of Gaborone, for instance. I am not saying that.”
Phuti Radiphuti made a valiant effort to move the conversation on. “And the bride was very pretty,” he said loudly. “I sell furniture to her father, you know. He has a shop somewhere up north, and it stocks some of our furniture.”
“That is all very interesting, Rra,” said Mma Makutsi sharply. “Perhaps we can talk about sofas and dining-room tables later on. What I was talking about now-now was the idea of dividing your guests into inside people and outside people. That sometimes doesn’t make the outside people feel very happy. They may sit there—or stand there, shall I say—and ask themselves: Are we not good enough to be inside people? That is what they might think, Mma. I’m just reporting it. I’m just saying what I believe they might be thinking.”
“Oh well,” said Mma Ramotswe. “The important thing is that the bride and groom are happy. This is their day, after all, not ours.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni shifted awkwardly on his feet. “There is a very fine smell of beef,” he said. “That is one way of being happy—having some beef to eat.” Phuti seized the opportunity.
“That is very funny, Rra. But it is also very true. If you have a good slice of beef on your plate, then you are happy. Many studies have shown that, I think.”
Mma Ramotswe pointed to the large tent on the other side of the garden. “That is where we will find some lunch,” she said. “And then we can talk more about some other things.”
While Phuti and Grace went off to greet other friends in the crowd, Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni made their way through the throng of guests towards the catering tent, where already the outside people, having enjoyed a head start, were making inroads on the meat. And it was on the way that Mma Ramotswe suddenly gripped Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s arm.
“I have seen a ghost, Rra,” she said, her voice filled with alarm. He looked at her in astonishment, uncertain whether to laugh.
“There,” hissed Mma Ramotswe. “There, Rra—right over there.”
He looked where she was pointing. There was a group of four women and two men, each dressed in their wedding best. One of the women wore an elaborate, broad-brimmed hat—one of those hats that is more umbrella, perhaps, than headgear.
“Those are people, Mma,” he said. “They are not ghosts, as far as I can see.”
She shook her head. Lowering her voice, she said, “One of them is late, Rra. That one over there—she is late.”
Copyright © 2019 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.