About 5km outside the central business district of Gaborone, set in the subdued tranquility of the relatively untouched countryside overlooking the Kgale Mountains, sits the new Number One Ladies Opera House.
The official opening was attended by Alexander McCall Smith, the author famous for his detective books, who is also a co-owner of the new opera house. The opening event was held on a wobbly makeshift stage in a small hall able to accommodate 60 appreciative classical music lovers.
”Precious Ramotswe had never been to an opera. In fact, her only contact with music other than Botswana’s rich traditional music was through her first husband, Note Makote, a jazz trumpeter,” said David Slater, the director of the opera house.
He noted: ”Of course she heard Jimmy Molefhe’s Sunday evening programme of music on Radio Botswana, For You Alone, and that gave her a taste of Western classical music. Mr Molefhe played what he called opera music, so she knew that it involved people singing and stories that were usually rather sad.”
The Number One Ladies Opera House is a private venture between McCall Smith, a keen musician who plays the double bassoon, and Slater, the acclaimed Batswanan musical director.
Their collaboration on the opera house was the product of a coincidence. ”Last year when he came to Botswana in July, as he so often does, we were having coffee. He suddenly said I must open an opera house in Gaborone. I knew about this building and he also knew about it independently of me, so we both went out to look at it. He looked at the building once, and he said: ‘That’s it,”’ said Slater.
He acknowledges that his new venture is unlikely to make him rich. ”An opera house is not going to make any money. It has to be sponsored. We therefore agreed that it would run as a restaurant during the day. The idea was that every now and then we would have a musical performance.”
So it came to pass that the Number One Ladies Opera House was conceived over a cup of coffee in the beautiful tranquility of Kgale Siding. Slater plans to stage full operas twice a year to explore the country’s wonderful singing talent.
The beautiful white colonial building that houses the Number One Ladies Opera House is rich in colonial history. Originally a workshop garage, it was where Batswanan men were recruited for work in the South African mines. Erected in 1944, the building was used as a garage to service trucks transporting mine labourers to South Africa, said Slater.
”In those days the road outside was the main road from Johannesburg to Gaborone via Lobatse. There were the offices, the clinic, a canteen and the old workshop where the trucks and buses were maintained. Thousands of Batswana men were bused off to the mines from this place.”
The refurbished old workshop at Kgale Siding looks just like the fictional Speedy Motors might, the garage where Mr JLB Matekoni works hard to keep Mma Ramotswe’s beloved tiny white van in top shape and on the road.
Mma Ramotswe would probably have loved the idea of the first opera house in her beloved Botswana being in an old building like Mr JLB Matekoni’s Speedy Motors on the Tlokweng Road. It would also probably have been a source of pride that it has the same name as her world famous detective agency.
The restaurant and eating area is situated in an open area outside the building. Under a towering leadwood tree are 10 set tables perched on Klinker bricks made from ashes from the Gaborone Dam.
”We have skewed our menu to African food from all over Africa. We have Moroccan couscous salad, Kenyan coconut chicken curry and Malawian mbatata sim-sim balls,” said Slater. ”We have also named many of our dishes after characters in the book, [such as] Mr JLB Matekoni, [who] is Mma Ramotswe’s husband [and] Mma Makutsi [who] is the secretary to Mma Ramotswe.”
The breakfast named after McCall Smith involves a traditional English breakfast of scrambled egg on toast with anchovy butter, fried mushrooms, tomatoes and tomato relish. Mma Ramotswe’s pot of red bush tea is served just as Mma Ramotswe would have liked it: loose rooibos tea, a tea strainer and a slice of fruitcake named after one of Mma Ramotswe’s close friends, Mma Potokwane.
The Number One Ladies Opera House has been open for more than two months now. It is popular among the business community from the neighbouring Kgale office area and, on weekends, with families.
The ambience of the trees, the birds, the classical music and the great food appears to be winning followers. But of course, the link to the books remains an important one. ”A few people who have read the novel also get curious and want to enjoy the experience,” said Goitsemang Hubona, a waiter at the opera house.
Said Maryanne Francis, an Australian who was visiting the Opera House for the second time: ”It is the literary allusion that attracted me. [But] it is beautiful to walk into this place and hear David Slater playing in this quiet bush setting away from the everyday hustle and bustle of shopping malls. I want this place to remain a secret.”
A train passes by on the railway track adjacent to the Number One Ladies Opera House and, as I reach the entrance, I pass a small white van very similar to the one Mma Ramotswe drives.