Anyone who’s a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s novel series, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” has to love the HBO series of the same name. Set  in Gabarone, the capitol of Botswana, the main character among a bunch of memorable characters is one Precious Ramotswe, a woman possessed of a  “traditional build” and an uncommon amount of common sense. The casting for the Cable TV series is amazingly good, and the portrayals of the head of the private detective agency Mma Ramotswe, her blunt, uptight assistant Grace Makutsi and her laconic ace auto mechanic fiance turned husband Rra J.L.B. Maketoni are outstanding. Mma and Rra are, respectively, the form of respectful address for men and women in Botswana, a nation Mr. Smith depicts as being a generally moral, loving and polite country. The people there are all at once naive and unworldly and yet possessed of a timeless wisdom, a great understanding of life and a deep empathy for their fellow human beings.

The detective work undertaken by Precious Ramotswe is not all that similar to the seamy potboiler American Private Eye novels. Mysterious blondes with  a past and shady husbands are in short supply and few people are guarded or deceptive about their personal lives. Violence in the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novels is rare and even the villains in the books are not all that menacing, more like opportunistic miscreants who threaten the overall honesty and integrity of life in Botswana. When a truly dangerous person turns up, unlike hard-boiled American fictional detectives, Mma Ramotswe never takes them on but sensibly calls in the police to deal with them. She doesn’t even carry a gun. 

Nor is she that breed of fictional detective like Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe who flaunt their superior brains and uncanny powers of deduction. Usually her solving of a problem (there are few actual crimes involved) is accomplished by her willingness to point out the obvious and the quiet courage to see a problem through to its end, even when this means overcoming one’s own fears and personal shortcomings. Sometimes appealing to the innate decency and goodness of the perpetrators does the trick, reminding them that everyone in Botswana is Botswana, no matter what their station in life, and that they are letting their nation and fellow citizens down by behaving poorly. In other words, Precious Ramotswe is exactly who we need in America right now, someone to remind us that we are all in this together.

The universal decency and worth of people is a given in her world, each man, woman and child a unique jewel in the greater mosaic of the world. The quaint, unworldly and idealistic notions portrayed in these novels is not unlike the ethos of America in our not-so-distant past, before wealth and technology propelled us into being the No.1 Men’s and Women’s Super Power, a mantle we have worn uneasily since the Second World War. In our true essence, America still is a rather young, naive nation filled with decent, moral people. The high tech and privileged world we inhabit hasn’t really changed that, but it has brought all sorts of unworthy people into prominence. What we need is a Precious Ramotswe around to remind us of who we really are.

America was founded on the notion that ordinary people have enough goodness, wisdom and sense of fair play to run their own affairs, both in our government and our private lives. When gaps in our goodness were found, we took steps to correct them, and to make sure that every American shares the benefits of America. The potential to rise quickly in wealth or political power by the application of extraordinary abilities has just been reaffirmed, not only by the election of Barack Obama but also the amassing of great wealth by the likes of Bill Gates and other techno-wizards. The 8 years of rule by barbaric thieves and warmongers has been repudiated, and the economic suffering brought on by the recent financial collapse is being acknowledged as the consequences of cheating.

Mma Ramotswe reminds us that we all have a conscience, both a personal one and a national conscience. We Americans are America, and what we do reflects on who we are as a nation. When we act poorly, we hurt our brothers and sisters. When we act well, we help everyone and enhance the general welfare of our country, in any endeavor we undertake and at any level of society. A floor left unswept, a kindness not performed and a lesson not taught hurts us all. This is the sort of simple truth that gets lost in the sauce far too often, and the fact that we inhabit a dangerous, complicated world is no excuse not to be on our own best behavior. LIke we teach our children: if you act like your enemy, then there is nothing that separates the you from him. If someone’s behavior repels you, do not copy it. Why is that so hard a concept to grasp?

Precious Ramotswe knows better, and so do we all. It is up to each of us now to do better. To Mma Ramotswe, what she does and how she behaves is nothing especially noteworthy, only what is to be expected from a good person. And so, for ourselves, for America and for all our brothers and sisters we need to do better. And who would our brothers and sisters be? Everybody everywhere. And so the question, when confronted with any problem great or small, is this: What would Precious Ramotswe do?

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