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World Orphan Week Special: Interview with novelist Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith seeks inspiration from SOS Children Botswana  (photo and text Mats Ögren Wanger)

At the SOS Children’s Village in Tlokweng, just outside the Botswana capital of Gaborone, a little girl is running excitedly though the hot dust shouting "He has arrived, he has arrived!” The welcome is warm and the visitor is familiar - world-famous Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith.

Alexander McCall Smith

The children, who have been preparing for his visit for weeks, start playing happy tunes on their marimbas. All the staff, including the Village Director Derek James, gather to greet Mr McCall Smith – or ‘Sandy’ as he is known to his friends. He is the author of ‘The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ book series, which has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, and where this SOS Children’s Village plays an important role.

"During my travels in Botswana, I got to know Derek James and SOS mother Betty Mpodi. Betty is the inspiration for Mma Potokwane, the matron of the orphan farm in my ‘Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ book series. As my readers know, she is a very determined lady who does everything she can to help the children" says the author who goes to Botswana to seek inspiration for his books, and explains “there is a certain pace of life here, a slowness that is very special.”

Every year, Alexander McCall Smith returns to Africa and never misses the chance to spend time with the staff and the children of the SOS Children’s Village in Tlokweng. "What impresses me most is that every child gets unconditional love. It is the most extraordinary feeling everytime I come here.”

Derek James proudly speaks of the achievements made by the Village since Alexander McCall Smith visited last time: "We now have six students attending University and another six who received a scholarship to attend the private school in Marapula.” Mr McCall Smith is well aware of the challenges that face the children here in Botswana, a country suffering badly from the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Almost 40% of pregnant mothers are HIV-positive and 17 % of the entire adult population has the virus. "We feel a large amount of pressure. If nothing is done, there will be a lot of children suffering stigma, exploitation and disease. They are the future generation of this developing country" says Derek James. Alexander McCall Smith explains: "In most sub-Saharan countries, relatives are the social security net. But the traditional system of the extended families has broken down because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.” Alexander McCall Smith SOS Children's Villaeg Tlokweng Botswana

The day before Alexander McCall Smith's arrival, a young girl from the SOS Children’s Village in Francistown died of AIDS. She was 9-years-old and had contracted the disease after being raped. “Even though I knew she was incurably ill, the grief is terrible for us all" says Derek James.

In his book series, the issue of HIV/AIDS is highlighted but Alexander McCall Smith never specifies the name of the disease. He explains "I have been thinking very carefully about how I portray this dreadful disease that haunts southern Africa and creates tragedies at every level. AIDS has an enormous impact on Botswana and the other countries in the region. But if I was to put the epidemic centre-stage, the books would change from being celebrations to being tragedies. Almost every book that is written about Botswana is a tragedy and I want to show the other side, all the good that still is here.”

The older children are starting to play football, and the younger ones all want to sit on Alexander McCall Smith’s lap. The author, who is married and has two daughters himself, loves children and has written several children's books including the ‘Akimbo’ series. "To me, it is very encouraging to see the good work that is being done to help all these children. I admire SOS Children greatly" he says before waving goodbye – until next time.

At present there are three SOS Children's Villages in Botswana, two SOS Youth Homes, three SOS Nurseries and two SOS Social Centres.The SOS Children's Village Tlokweng offers a new home to up to 192 orphaned and abandoned children in 16 family houses.The SOS Children's Village Tlokweng also includes an SOS Nursery, two SOS Vocational Training Centres, which offer courses in welding, carpentry, sewing, cooking and home-economics. The SOS Youth Home accommodates youths during the time of their vocational training or education and gives them a chance to prepare for an independent life under the guidance of their youth leaders.

Somewhere in the World a Child Loses a Parent Every 2.2 Seconds. There are 143 million orphaned children living in the world today and as many as 100 million more children abandoned on the streets world wide, living in substandard and dangerous conditions.  Generations of children have been left to raise themselves. What future awaits them? What future can be predicted for their countries? World Orphan Week is the time to respond to the World Orphan Crisis.  Click here to find out how you can make the difference.