When I wrote a Musing about comfort reading, I received a number of gifts from readers in the form of book suggestions. One of these was from my friend, Judy (who happens to be the author of the highly recommended book, The Skeptic and the Rabbi). She suggested the 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith. While I haven’t started that series yet, her suggestion prodded me to read the first book in the writer’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.
I am hooked. Along with enjoying these charmingly written, evocative and delightful books—I am currently reading the eleventh in the series—I am intrigued by something I have noticed. The protagonist of the books is Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder and owner of the only detective agency in Botswana. I admit to knowing little of Botswana before starting these books, but Mr. McCall Smith is clearly in love with the country in which he lived for many years.
Mma Ramotswe is warm and wise. She is also highly patriotic and convinced of the superiority of her country as well as proud that she is a Motswana (member of the Tswana tribe). On occasion, she compares her country to others on the continent of Africa and her tribe to other tribes. There is no cultural equivalency here; her heritage is clearly superior. At the same time, she is a loving foster mother to two children of Bushman background and helps people from all countries and tribes, often at no charge.
I began to wonder what the response might be if a similar series was written extolling, shall we say, the United States among other North American countries. Or perhaps, claiming that Oklahoma was more praiseworthy than New York? Is it all right to compare one’s ethnic heritage with someone else’s to the detriment of the second? Mma Ramotswe’s pride is endearing. Why don’t I find it xenophobic and racist?
My answer is that her delight in her country and tribe are a part of her coming across as a real character. They help make her the gracious, loving woman that she is. How she feels about her country is an extension of the gratitude and love with which she remembers her father, Obed Ramotswe. Despite losing her mother at a young age, she had a secure and protected childhood that allowed her to grow into a confident and giving woman who can overcome challenges and rejoice in her life.
I think that one of the failings of our modern culture is the suggestion that somehow ‘belonging’ is a negative thing. The impression given is that we must act as if everyone and everything is equal. Yet, human beings have a very natural need to belong whether to a family, a neighborhood, a city, state, country, religion, ethnicity or any other sort of group. It is through that opening that we can expand and relate to others.
In the sandlots of previous generations, young boys taunted one another saying, “My dad can beat up your dad.” While they, usually, outgrew that level of childishness, there is a feeling of safety in thinking of your family as powerful. Only when we are safe can we emotionally make room for caring about others. Loving, and being loved by, the close and the particular leads to our loving the broad and general.
To our detriment, much of our educational and cultural system has reversed this idea. We are encouraged to focus on our family’s dysfunctionality, our nation’s sins and our group’s victimization. There is a place for recognizing failures and disappointments and sad historical truths. However, that should not come prior to or in place of learning anything about greatness.
Starting from a place of gratitude for the circumstances of our birth, no matter what they objectively are, establishes a launching pad for a healthy life. Even, or perhaps especially, for those few who are truly born into personal and communal terrible circumstances, it is vital to find some source of specialness. This is, perhaps, one of the evils of the theory of unaided materialistic evolution forced on our schoolchildren. How much greater to be created as a child of God rather than to be descended from an ape.