Monday, October 12, 2009

No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency: selling Africa through feel-good television

I have only watched a couple episodes of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency but I am so excited I had to write about it already. This series is adapted for television from a bestselling novel. It features Jill Scott as the major actor and is set in Botswana. It's not exactly produced by Motswana or Africans but it is pretty 'African'. I have only seen two episodes but it didn't mention one thing synonymous with Botswana - HIV-AIDS. We also know Botswana has one of the best performing African economies and is one African country with no record of military rule. The series doesn't broadcast these, but celebrates Africa. You have to watch to understand. I had heard about this series before but while I was populating a list of African-themed films I wanted the Stanford libraries to have, someone suggested this addition.

From Wikipedia, we learn about the novels. "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is a series of ten novels by British author Alexander McCall Smith. The agency is located in Gaborone, capital of Botswana. It's founder is a Motswana woman, Mma Precious Ramotswe, who features as the stories' protagonist and main detective. The episodic novels are as much about the adventures and foibles of different characters as they are about solving mysteries. Each book in the series follows on from the previous book. They have been adapted for radio and television."

The first episode, Pilot, is a film by Anthony Minghella, and presumably longer than all the other episodes. Minghella looked like a Tswana name when I saw it, but dude's from Britain. Yeah, there's a huge British influence on this series. I didn't know Botswana drove on the left like the Brits (and South Africans) do until I watched this. Alexander McCall Smith is a white Zimbabwean-born professor based in Scotland. Too bad he probably would not be contributing to a similar spectacular production out of Zimbabwe thanks to Uncle Bob. This episode was great, witty conversation, a nice soundtrack, great picture and video quality (something you'll expect from a BBC-HBO production) and some good acting.

Here's a promo

Like their neighbours in South Africa, Botswana must be a nation that loves to sing. Jill Scott was clicking away leading the chorus in the first episode. We know Jill Scott is a professional singer, but it's another thing to be battling with x's, q's and clicks in Southern African languages. That was a beautiful scene. We heard some Kwaito too, though I am not too well-versed in Kwaito to tell if it was from South Africa or Botswana. I hope it was from the latter.

Most of the series is set in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. I expected to see some skyscrapers, great infrastructure and flashy cars. Don't quiz me, haven't you heard about Botswana? I like how Mma Ramotswe decided to settle on an office in a place that wasn't downtown Gaborone or a place that looked really nice. She probably wanted to work near the people whose problems she'd end up solving hanged out. And it worked. Some have complained about having AMerican actors, etc. We must understand this series has the backing of an American company so we can't fault that. The cast includes Anika Noni Rose and the ladies' favorite, Idris Elba. I love how it features many Southern African actors too. Didn't take the time to find out if they were all from Botswana, or South Africa, or not. Botswana and Africa is winning here.

One interesting thing about this series is the BK character, the male hairdresser. Now, I don't know how much homophobia there is in Botswana but was there a need for this character? I couldn't help thinking, "oh, let's do some groundbreaking theater, let's put in a 'gay' acts like a woman-man character in this series". It's happening all over, in many productions these days. It's almost like, you can't validate a new movie or television series these days until you have a gay character in there. Is this necessary? Is this idea being driven by diversity or the gay producers/directors/actors out there? I don't think the way to get people to understand/appreciate/not kill/not chastise gay people is putting them on the big screen. Maybe it's just me thinking this way.

In the second episode, we get introduced to our first foreigner/immigrant in Botswana. Take a good educated guess. Of course, he's Nigerian. Only this time, he's a dentist. That was pretty exciting, considering the Nigerians we saw in South African movies were portrayed very badly. Maybe Nigerians in Botswana are a little different? Maybe, the American influences on the drama caused the Nigerian to be something other than a societal menace? Not so fast though, our Nigerian dentist was a player in one investigative case. So even those seen to be doing good deeds could not be exempt from crime. But this whole scenario begs the question, if there is a foreigner who is a bad nut in some African drama, does he/she have to be Nigerian? Why is it so easy to pick on Nigerians? Can't we stop this already? Anyway, turns out this Nigerian dentist is a bad man. Won't tell his crime, that's something you'll have to find out. In the context of the episode, it made for good television but in the big picture, I am disappointed another screen production had to demonise Naija. Let's stop this already.

I still have a few episodes to watch. I am loving this series very much and think it's a must-watch for people everywhere, especially Africans. We can't miss the little things. I'll speak the truth. For many Africans and lovers of Africa, we love African films that bring back nice memories. That is how movies of bad quality and bad acting can do well anyway. Seeing kids play soccer with bare feet and wooden goal posts, dirt roads, singing at funerals of people who lived full lives (108 years), seeing car mechanics dance to Kwaito instead of working, seeing that people appreciated full-bodied thick women, the smile of an African queen, can sell. It's these little things that make us smile and appreciate what we are watching. It's really not that difficult to sell Africa. Go find this series and watch it. Oyee Botswana!
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