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Enlarging hearts through empathy

25 July 2007

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books expand readers’ moral imagination, argues John Inge

Empathetic: Alexander McCall Smith, author of the novels about Precious Ramotswe

Empathetic: Alexander McCall Smith, author of the novels about Precious Ramotswe

Mma Ramotswe walked back towards her van, not wanting to intrude upon the intimate moments of reunion. She was crying, for her own child, too — remembering the minute hand that grasped her own, so briefly, while it tried to hold on to a strange world that was slipping away so quickly. There was so much suffering in Africa that it was tempting to shrug your shoulders and walk away. But you can’t do that, she thought. You just can’t.

So reflects Precious Ramotswe, the good Christian hero of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, having tracked down a boy who had been kidnapped and reunited him with his father. She watches the father stumble forward to seize his son, and hold him, while he shouts wildly for the world to hear his joy.

She cannot walk away from the suffering of Africa because she empathises with those who suffer. In this instance, she empathises because she herself has lost a child.

These books develop our moral imagination by translating horrifying statistics of suffering into the stories of the lives of people with whom we can empathise. Though they present a world that is, in one sense, uncomplicated, the books do not give the pretence that life is free from suffering. Far from it: we are presented with suffering as a fact of life, and it is rendered all the more affecting by the understated manner in which it is introduced.

We learn, in moving detail, how Mma Ramotswe’s father, like many others, left Bechuanaland Protectorate, as Botswana was then called, at the age of 18 to work in the mines in South Africa, and contracted a terminal lung disease in the process.

We are introduced similarly to Botswana’s continuing dominant tragedy, HIV/AIDS, through the brother of Mma Ramotswe’s assistant. The assistant nursed him during the final months of his life in a small corner of her one room, which she had curtained off for his sickbed, “doing her best to make him comfortable in the morning before she went off for work, and bringing him whatever small delicacies she could afford from her meagre salary”.

There are only a few references to AIDS in the books. As Professor McCall Smith told an interviewer: “The Botswanans themselves don’t dwell on it. They just wish to continue with their ordinary lives as best they can, and, as far as possible, I want to respect their wishes.” So he “tells it slant” by introducing us to the pain of its ravages in a particular situation.

We learn of the sexism endemic in African society through the prejudice Mma Ramotswe faces when, for example, she goes to see a lawyer who suggests that women cannot be detectives:

How dare he say that about women, when he didn’t even know that his zip was half undone! Should she tell him?

“Women are the ones who know what’s going on,” she said quietly. “They are the ones with eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?”

  The lawyer looked taken aback. “Agatha Christie? Of course I know her. Yes, that is true. A woman sees more than a man sees. That is well known.” . . .

“Yes,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Maybe.” Adding, “Your zip, Rra.

  The lawyer looked taken aback. “Agatha Christie? Of course I know her. Yes, that is true. A woman sees more than a man sees. That is well known.” . . .

“Yes,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Maybe.” Adding, “Your zip, Rra.

I think you may not have noticed.”

With insight and humour, Professor McCall Smith shows the power of empathy across cultural boundaries. Most of his readers will never know at first hand what it is like to live in a country afflicted by AIDS in the way that Botswana is now. We all understand what it is to suffer, though, and in these books we have our moral imagination stretched across boundaries, to the point where we can empathise with those who suffer in Africa.

Empathy is not something on which Christians are often encouraged to reflect. It is not listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit by the apostle Paul. Yet, by making clear the power of empathy, these books offer Christians a challenging insight into the truths that lie at the heart of their faith.

We hear of compassion in Christian circles, but compassion can, like charity, tend to imply a distance, suggesting that one is “looking down”, albeit benignly, on someone else. Christ, however, “emptied himself” (Philippians 2.7), and responded to the needs of another as an equal. Christians, enlarging their hearts through empathy, are called to do the same.

So empathy really is central to Christian faith. The author of the letter to the Hebrews can proclaim: “we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathise with us in our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4.15-16). In other words: fear not, God in Christ empathises with us, and calls us to empathise with one another.

Such empathy is the beginning of all morality, as Mma Ramotswe reflects: “If you knew how a person was feeling, if you could imagine yourself in her position, then surely it would be impossible to inflict further pain. Inflicting pain in such circumstances would be like hurting oneself.”

There is nothing preachy about the hero of these books, but the goodness of Precious Ramotswe, formed by the Christian scriptures, shines through them. What we see emerging from her own suffering is a good person whose subsequent actions and relationships are inspirational.

These books are more than a good read: they are an opportunity to develop our moral imagination through empathy, and thereby be more fully conformed to Christ.

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Huntingdon. His book, Living Love: In conversation with the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, is published by Inspire (£5.99, 978-1-905958-04-7).

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