Saturday, May 23, 2009

Mma Ramotswe

If that name makes you smile instantly in anticipation of something pleasant, indeed tempted perhaps to fetch a cup of something to enjoy it more, don’t. This is short. (Well, as usually, it got long instead. So go ahead.) But if, instead, you find yourself puzzled, be prepared to get instructions on how to enjoy your leisure just a little more.

Years ago now I’ve abandoned the habit of urging so-called high literature on people, having discovered that, to some extent, we understand high literature to be that which we enjoyed in youth, a part of what was then The Canon. What we did not personally absorb, we neither canonize nor recommend. Meanwhile, I’ve discovered that many of my friends of old have quietly slipped out the backdoor of the Canon as the modern party heated up; they’re now relaxing in Walhalla or, more likely, still creating great things in some distant reaches of eternity.

But, instead of praising, say, Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi, Tsao Hsueh-Chin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of the Genji, the collected works of Jane Austen, and the bulb is out in the attic so I couldn’t immediately see other treasures of mine… So, instead, these days I recommend literature that is, perhaps, not of the highest rank but, in some ways, of the highest value: wonderful storytellers whose inner vision resonates with mine. And one of those is Alexander McCall Smith, creator of Mma Ramotswe, the sole and therefore No. 1 Lady Detective of Botswana (in fiction, of course). And, yes, one of the series is coming to a Moving Picture Theater near you SOON!

There are at least ten novels in this series. The most recent appeared days ago in hardback—and I saw it COSTCO therefore it must be good too. New readers should begin at the beginning with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. In some ways it is the most painful of them in that it brings views of the darker side of Africa, especially its diamond mining enterprise. They serve to place Mma Precious Ramotswe, a comfortable sort of lady described as “traditionally-built,” into the context of Botswana, with her own family history. Botswana? You will learn to appreciate the country the more you hear about it. Most people reading this blog in any detail will, I guarantee, be at least mildly pleased and well instructed by the experience.

This much for the general reader. The rest is for those of you who already know Mma but have wondered, as have I, what that title means. Mma is used to address women, Rra is used to address men. These titles are nowhere explained. And as I discovered today, the Internet is literally awash in blogs, discussion groups, and speculation—not least unhelpful words from Alexander McCall Smith not quite explaining the words. Ghulf Genes to the rescue.

First we deal with the pronunciation. Mma is voiced as “Ma,” Rra is voiced as “Ra” but with a rolled R. Please apply to native Spanish speakers on how to roll that R. Some swear that the roll of the R should follow the Ra, thus “Rar”; others dogmatically assert that there is only one R to roll, the first one. Make your own choice. As for how to roll the R silently as you read, on that subject I’m still searching for counsel.

The words are not abbreviations of longer words—but they do have plurals. Many Mmas, if I may put it that way, are called Bomma in the native language most Botswanans speak, Setswana (sometimes rendered Tswana). Many Rras are called Borra. The author of the series says that these are honorifics. The less informed say that they mean Madam and Sir respectively. I’ve searched high and low and finally managed to discover a book, entitled Culture and Customs of Botswana, by James Raymond Denbow and Phenyo C. Thebe, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006. This book has 244 pages whereas the average wisdom available from the web is under 45 words. In this books, on page 167, which you can look at here, the authors finally draw the veil from the mystery and reveal that Mma derives from “Mother” and “Rra” from “Father.” The Lord be praised. What a surprise!

Brigitte and I got to talking, she remembering a German and I a Hungarian childhood. And we both remember that it was customary in our youth for people to address all ladies who were older as “aunt” or “auntie” and all males as “uncle”—and this with perfect strangers. We think there is a parallel here. Monique may chime in with parallels from Bolivia in Spanish. So there’s the final word on the matter. Get busy, Google, and bring this good message to the entire Internet. SOON.


  1. The last time Mom was here, she left me a copy of The Miracle at Speedy Motors which I just finished a week ago or so- a thoroughly enjoyable read.

  2. That just so happens to have been the last one I read, too, Susan. A disappointing miracle, but a very good book.

  3. Very interesting, the meanings of both Mma and Rra in Setswana. I'm afraid Spanish has nothing quite the same. In Spanish one has, of course, Señor, Señora, and Señorita but these translate pretty directly to Mr., Mrs., and Ms. These titles are followed by either first and last name or just last name.

    Then, there are the more formal titles, Don and Doña which are followed by the first name and then sir name, the key being that they must be followed by the first name, not the sir name.

    So, neither came is quite the same as Mma and Rra. But, I'm happy to know what these titles mean and, your post reminded me to pick up Tears of the Giraffee when I finish this second Elezabeth Peter's myster set in Egypt...


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