(Dakar, Senegal: October 6, 1999:) For the past couple of days we have been fighting the African bureaucratic system trying to get our ocean-going cargo container released from the Senegalese authorities. It is interesting to observe my friend Mohammed Cissé. He has been living in the USA for the past few years. Now, upon his return, he is going crazy trying to cope with the African way of doing things. His tolerance threshold is very low, and he becomes impatient with his countrymen.
“Here, everyone makes excuses for why things can’t be done. In America, when we see a problem, we simply figure out the quickest and most efficient way to solve it and get on with what we’re trying to accomplish,” mumbled Mohammed as we were standing in line in one of the hot hallways.
I then related to him a vivid memory from my childhood. One day when my oldest brother’s tennis shoe was untied and the shoe tongue was flopping in front of the shoe, my dad said, “Bill, fix your shoe.”
Bill answered, “I can’t. I lost my shoestring, and the tongue just comes flopping out.”
My dad then sat Bill down and explained, “We don’t say “I can’t” in this house, so instead of insisting that you can’t fix the shoe, I want you to come up with ten solutions to the problem.”
Before long, Bill and my dad had figured out ten ways to fix the shoe using baling wire, an old electrical extension cord, twine, cotton rope, and a few other objects.
Then my dad said, “Next time, it would be a whole lot easier if you simply find one good solution to your problem instead of saying “I can’t” and having to spend time figuring out ten ways to fix it.”
Mohammed and I both had a good laugh over the story, but we both understood that most of the world still follows the “I can’t” model, and more time is wasted on explaining why a situation is impossible rather than just solving the problem and getting back to business.
Mohammed carried the conversation a little further. “When you first go to America from a Third World country, you are totally overwhelmed by the beauty and cleanliness of the cities and countryside. You can’t believe that any place could look so good—and my first stops were in New York and Washington, D.C.! But I was still overwhelmed by the beauty.
“Then,” he went on, “the next thing that hits you is the infrastructure. The public transportation actually works. The trains, the buses, and the taxis run on time and get you where you’re supposed to go. The service stations are clean and convenient, and the public restrooms have toilet paper, soap, and towels to dry your hands.
“Next, you start realizing that the electricity works all day and all night long. And there is clean water you can drink right from the pipes in your house or even at a store. The sewer runs through underground pipes, and you can’t even smell anything even if you try.
“The next thing you start to realize is that things are organized. People don’t realize it, but they too are organized. Things run properly. People get to work on time. If you say you’ll be somewhere at a certain time, people will already be there expecting you, and you had better not be late. People actually live by lists of things to do and know when they are to do each task. It’s a wonderful and beautiful thing to experience, but it’s a shock. A culture shock. And because of the organization and structure, people are confident and move quickly from one place to another with an attitude that they know what they’re doing and what can be expected. When I first arrived in America, I was just amazed.”
Then Mohammed said, “As you probe even deeper, you realize that the basis of the American system, which is totally different from the Third World cultures, is that the country is run by the rule of law. People know clearly what they are to do and what they are not to do. If they decide to do what they should not do, they know they run the risk of getting caught and paying the consequences. But everyone knows that it’s the same for everyone, and they can learn the rules.
“In a Third World society, there is no rule of law. There is a rule of politics and powerful people. But the rule changes all the time. You can never really be confident when you try to operate your life with an uncertain set of expectations. Someone else can get by with doing what you can’t. If you have influence and money, you can do just about anything you want and keep someone else from doing what they want even if it’s the same thing. Operating under a known rule of law also helps the American people move about with an air of confidence. They know what they can do. I don’t think Americans have ever stopped to think out why their society works differently from other societies. They just grab it and go for it, and the factors work whether they understand them or not.”
As we continued our talk, Mohammed pointed out another interesting factor. “In Third World countries, no one has hope. Everyone knows that because of factors outside their control, things could get worse—and sure enough, they get worse. There really is no idea of a bright tomorrow for their families. The families have experienced for generations the same disappointments and cruel setbacks. But in the USA, the Americans have hope. It is a spirit of knowing that if you risk everything on a venture and lose, you could pull yourself together and start over again and make it work. Everyone in America knows their children will experience new conveniences their parents never dreamed of enjoying. I think hope is there as well as confidence because of the rule of law and organization.”
I wanted to add one more unique component to Mohammed’s observations. “No another society in the world is as generous toward others as America. Who is the first on the scene when disaster strikes? Who continues to underwrite the charities of the world even when world organizations abuse American generosity"?
Next Week: The Formal Presentation