Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Africa on television

Those of you who get the HBO TV channel and are looking for a real winner of a television series should not miss The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. It’s based on the stories of Alexander McCall Smith, about a woman in Botswana who sets up a business as a private detective. There are mysteries solved — some with happy outcomes, and some not — but the show is really about the characters, more than about the cases.

It’s wonderful to see a mainstream television series set in a little-known African country — Botswana, once a British protectorate called Bechuanaland, is nestled among the higher-profile South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia — and starring many African actors. The scenery is gorgeous, and it’s great in high definition. And we see something of African life beyond the “nature” shows.

The two principals are African-American actresses. The detective, Precious Ramotswe, is played by Jill Scott, who proves that it’s not necessary to be Twiggy to be beautiful. (And I see that she just had a new baby a week ago!) Her assistant, Grace Makutsi, is theatre and film actress Anika Noni Rose. Many of the others, though, are African, including South African Desmond Dube from Hotel Rwanda.

And the costumes are as gorgeous as the scenery. I love the colours and patterns, and wouldn’t mind a few shirts from the same fabric as Ms Scott’s dresses.

But another thing I find engaging about the show is the tiny glimpse we get of the local language. Almost everything is in English, of course, but we’re teased by a few phrases in Setswana. Setswana, spoken in Botswana and parts of South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, is a Sotho language, a subgroup of Bantu. What we hear most is the standard greeting, “Dumela, mma,” meaning “Hello, ma’am,” using the word for “mother” as a general feminine term of respect. (And, of course, the corresponding, “Dumela, rra,” for “sir”.) We also hear, “Ee, mma,” (pronounced “eh”) for “Yes, ma’am,” along with “nnyaa” for “no”. Other words and phrases haven’t so far been repeated enough for me to’ve picked them up.

[Update: See the comments for some language links.]

In the episode titled “The Boy with an African Heart”, we hear a conversation in the Xhosa language, carried on through a translator. The Xhosa “click” sounds are fascinating. I always wonder, when I consider various languages, how we settle on the particular set of sounds we use in our languages, and how those sounds vary from language to language.

Watch this show, if you can! The first seven episodes have aired so far, but episodes 5 thru 7 are still scheduled for repeat airings. I will certainly buy the DVD set when it comes out — I’ll want to see these more than once or twice.


Katie said...

I wish you had included a link to a site explaining the language.

Catherine Nesbitt said...

I too am enjoying this show. It is true to the books, which were excellent. I think that buying the DVDs would be very worthwhile.

Barry Leiba said...

Ah, sorry about no language links.

The Wikipedia entry on Tswana language is a good one, and here's the entry on the related Sotho language. Here's a list of translations of some English words into Setswana. And here's an online dictionary (pretty limited, but...).

Just for fun, there's a Wikipedia version in Tswana, and here's the entry for Setswana from that.

The best source of information about the country itself is the CIA World Factbook, and here's the entry for Botswana.

By the way, as to confusion about "Tswana" vs "Setswana": The prefixes identify the country ("Bo-"), the people ("Ba-", or "Mo-" for one person), and the language ("Se-"). In English, we sometimes call the language "Tswana", but they call it "Setswana" (or sometimes "seTswana"). It's the same sort of thing with "Sotho" vs "Sesotho" and "Lesotho".

lidija said...

I saw a brief on the making of the series (while in a hotel, thus HBO) and it looked really good. I have known some die-hard fans of the book series for years but haven't gotten around to reading any of them and now would love to.

The Ridger, FCD said...

If you have ComCast then all the episodes are available on their On Demand service.

I heartily second Barry's recommendation.