Living late into one’s fourth stage of life may be a blessing but it also means having outlived nearly all one’s friends, and in today’s mobile society, being an elderly stranger in a world of strangers. For me, the reality is not ideal but it’s all right. I am neither alone nor lonely, but still, when Lenore, the daughter of a dear friend from the past, remembering my involvement in India, reached out to me, I was pleased. It connected me to pleasant memories. (written of here) Even more pleasing was discovering that Lenore had grown up to become an artist and filmmaker and a passionate environmentalist with a particular passion for saving tigers in the wild, which led her to India.

She emailed me her video of experiences in two of India’s national tiger reserves, plus photographs taken along the way, one of which tells me definitely I will like her. The girls gather close to her, happy and smiling and having fun. Obviously, they and all the individuals shown in the film’s interviews feel they can trust Lenore and her instincts.

Click here for the video  People of the Wild Tiger. It is twenty-some minutes long, easy to watch, as I did, several times, and I was impressed. I was watching a movie in which the central character is an idea, a vision of ourselves as companions and custodians of other creatures in our environment, in this case of the tiger, an idea expressed first in a quotation from the Mahabarata, observed throughout the film in images and actions, and in the denouement expressed again in a most touching and tender connection between tiger and human.

Numbers stated in the video’s initial scenes are worth repeating in print. “Although thousands of tigers are kept in zoos, circuses and as pets, and more than 10,000 are held in cages in Chinese and other Asian tiger farms to be used in traditional medicines, across the world fewer than 3000 tigers live free and wild in their natural habitat.”

Lenore continues from there to tigers in India and into a culture quite different from her own. Change is under way, but until quite recently, the dominate assumption in her American culture, traceable back to Aristotle, has been that we, as humans, are superior to all creatures in nature and may rightfully use them for food, clothing, labor, amusement, whatever we please, as if we ourselves were not part of nature. (I wrote here of communication with animals.) She wrote, “The video features interviews with my contacts in the fields of conservation: naturalists, entrepreneurs and educators who are making heroic efforts to save these seriously endangered animals … I am captivated by the spiritual side of the project. The Indian people’s reverence for animals goes back to prehistoric times, and is very much intact today. Ancient religions are practiced by tribes, and India is also the birthplace of many nature-centered major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism, presenting celebrations almost every day.”

Lenore had been an eco-tourist in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, but the tour to India sparked her “new video mission,” and she became a traveler rather than a tourist, observing and learning without judging. Regarding her visit to Varanasi (Benares to me), kept brief because she saw no connection to the tiger, only temples for elephant and monkey gods, she emailed me, “I included some shots of Varanasi because I am so in love with the light (for photos), the wafting incense and sounds, and the feeling of ancient religions, mostly Hinduism.” She shows a typical narrow Benaresi street, funerary scenes on the ghats, and with people in the background, a pigeon bobbing about in the space in a wall where a stone should have been. As narrator, Lenore speaks of Mother Ganga, of the holy Ganges river dying from human waste and chemical pollution. Many hundreds of towns and cities along the Ganges’ banks pour raw sewage into the river and industries dump in all sorts of waste. Plastic junk collects in and covers the water. In 2014, a government ministry was formed and funds were allocated to have the Ganga clean by 2020, but there is failure at all levels of government. Funds go unused, long-term plans have not been developed and far, far from enough action has been taken.

Lenore’s visits in India took her first to Kerala during the harvest ceremonies, which includes on the fourth day the Pulik kali, a popular folk dance performed by men painted and costumed either as tigers or as hunters and (from what I read) they act out scenes such as a tiger preying on an animal or a tiger being shot in the tiger hunt, the ruling elite’s antique sport. The Puli Kali is great fun for all but it celebrates the past, not the concerns of environmentalists.

I remember tales of the fearsome Bengal Tiger from my childhood. And from an article published in 1924, American Brigadier General William Mitchell reports that tigers posed a major threat in central India, killing 352 people in the villages surrounding the Surguja district in 1923 alone. “Tigers have been known to cause whole districts to be evacuated,” he writes. “There is a record of one beast which so terrorized a community that 13 villages were evacuated and 250 square miles thrown out of cultivation. Another completely stopped work on a public road for many weeks, while it frequently happens that mail-carrying is suspended on account of tiger activities. … …  Tiger-hunting is regarded in India as a royal sport, and he who is successful in bagging this master of the jungle is looked upon as a public benefactor.”

Lenore’s first tiger reserve is in the Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, the BRT Wildlife Sanctuary

Men on their way to hunt for honey

and she fell in there with people who take me back to my anthropological past. They are the Soliga, an ethnic group (under Indian law, a “tribe”) of some 20,000 persons who descend more directly than most other Indians from the original hunter-gatherer Out of Africa migration, c. 70,000 years ago, and are related genetically to the Australian aborigines. They are people who remained through the millennia isolated in their remote, densely forested mountainous area, living in small communities, practicing slash and burn agriculture with ragi, a type of millet, gathering foods from the land, practicing a religion of deities and spirits from nature. They lived peacefully, and except for exchanging items such as honey and bamboo with nearby villagers, probably for clothing and metal tools (the tool for grating coconut had to be a trade item), until 1972 remained essentially invisible to outsiders. It was in that year that the government designated their territory a wildlife preserve, and in 2011 a tiger reserve.

In 1974, members of the community were forced out of the reserve but more recently the government has reassessed Soliga rights to the land. They can no longer be evicted, they may cultivate crops, and they may collect, use and sell forest produce within the Sanctuary. How I would love to have been with Lenore, interviewing and observing. Over the years, working on health care projects in rural areas where development/modernization was happening, it seemed to me that the experts in charge of introducing change should have consulted more with the local people, the true experts on that environment. (I wrote of this for Bali)

The Soliga know their wildlife, which Lenore wonderfully captures in her filming, and they are able and willing to protect their tigers. Here for a note on the Soliga contribution to saving our biodiversity.  Included is the Soliga’s deep knowledge of controlled fire for preserving the forest.

In Lenore’s second tiger reserve, the Ranthambore National Park, she interviewed and filmed the Mogya, another “tribe,” a people who until recently lived isolated in the forests, only marginally in contact with nearby villagers.  A brief history — Before and during the British imperial era, the Ranthambore forest was owned and managed by the Maharajah of Jaipur and held by the Kingdom’s royalty as their private hunting ground (mostly for tigers), taxing the villagers for access to the forest. In 1953, the Rajasthan government acted to protect the forest and in 1955 declared the entire forest the Sawai Madhopur Sanctuary. In 1973, the government of India initiated Project Tiger and the Sanctuary was declared a tiger reserve area. In 1980, with the enlargement of the park, the farmers of more than 12 villages were shifted out of the Sanctuary.

The Mogya also lost their homeland. They had been semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, practicing no farming of any sort. The men tracked and hunted hares, boars, other animals for food and during harvest time moved to the villages to guard the crops and people from wild animals, and perhaps, to work as laborers. After the park was established, the Mogya became totally displaced, living in poverty, without good housing, without schools, in poor health, involved in crimes to earn money, which included poaching tigers for a poaching mafia.

A Mogya man

Which takes me to Lenore’s interview with Divya Khandal. Divya and her husband, Dharmendra Khandal, are examples of India’s wonderful tradition of volunteers and volunteer organizations. She created a women’s cooperative craft enterprise, Dhonk, to teach the Mogya and the villagers, women and young men, job skills and to provide them and their families with an economic alternative both to poaching and to over-grazing. The workers have good pay and good working conditions and are encouraged to become partners in promoting sustainability and protecting the forests. Dhonk shares part of its profits with the Ranthambore NGO Tiger Watch.

Dharmendra is a conservation biologist and works with Tiger Watch. In 2003 he did a survey in Ranthambore park and discovered that more than 18 tigers were missing. Two years later a government study showed 22 tigers missing, so he talked with Mogya men for intelligence on poaching activities, which enabled the police to conduct raids on poachers, recovering guns, traps and tiger flesh, bones, paws, and also led to Tiger Watch funding Dharmendra’s plan for saving the tiger. He enlisted Mogya men who had worked with the poachers to help him and the police destroy the poaching criminal network, then reached out to the community with employment in the park for the men, employment in Dhonk for the women, schools for the children and health facilities for all the family. As a direct result, both a people and the tigers in the park are far safer than before.

The final scenes in Lenore’s video are beautiful.


In the previous post, “Rice and Slavery in Colonial America,” I wrote a brief paragraph on the Niger Inland Delta, locating it near the fabled Timbuktu, then moved on to the rice plantations of South Carolina. But “inland delta” was a puzzling phrase. A delta in the middle of a country, not at the coast? And on the map, besides this curious delta, the Niger’s course looked strange, coming out of nowhere, turning around in the middle and crossing three climate zones, desert, savanna, tropical forest, twice. And a Neolithic in Africa based on rice rather than the crops (yams, millet, sorghum, bananas, etc.) and animal husbandry of the Bantu expansion?  And the remarkable mud brick/adobe architecture of Timbuktu? I knew of adobe but the grand buildings and the houses in the Niger River Bend are beyond anything I could have imagined. How did all this come about?  So many questions.

First the river that made it all possible —

The Niger has its source in Guinea, in the middle of an irregular crescent of highlands and mountains that stretch from the border with Senegal down to Ivory Coast. The Gambia and the Senegal Rivers flow north and west to the Atlantic, while numerous other rivers, further south, flow westward to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast. The Niger flows northeast to the Bend near Timbuktu, bringing water to the Sahara desert and then, oddly, it turns south. Originally, the upper Niger flowing to the Bend emptied into a lake fed by hills that were, as well, the source of a river flowing south to Nigeria, into the Gulf of Guinea. However, over time, from 4,000 to 1000 BCE, as the Sahara dried into a desert, the lake disappeared and the two rivers joined, becoming one river with a most unusual course.

And the Inland Delta  —

Like the Nile, the Niger floods yearly, beginning in September, peaking in November, finishing in May, all of which floods a huge region where the gradient of the land suddenly decreases, resulting in a land of braided streams, marshes and enormous lakes. It is the Inland Delta, an area extremely productive for both fishing and agriculture.

And the Neolithic –

The Inland Delta gave the world a Neolithic, an agricultural revolution, a transition from the original nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life to growing domesticated crops and keeping domesticated animals, people living settled in a village, making pottery, basketry and (sometimes) cloth. I had never before read evidence of a Neolithic in Africa based on rice.  I briefly defined elsewhere, here, (scroll down to the map of China) the Middle East Neolithic based on wheat and cattle, sheep and goats that began before 9,000 BCE and the two Neolithics in China, one on the Yellow River, based on millet, then wheat, and the other on the Yangtze, based on rice. Pigs and chickens come from China. All three of these Neolithics were followed by the growth of cities, categorized as a Bronze Age and later an Iron Age. I wrote here on the Ages and present a diagram for the history of the technology and of the world growth of population that resulted.

For the Neolithic along the Niger River, the domestication of an indigenous species of rice, unrelated to Asian rice, began at the inland delta circa 1500 BCE. (Here for information on African rice.)

Farming villages based on this rice, and maybe cattle, certainly with fish, eventually supported a growing population that became the base for cities and the medieval kingdoms of the Western Sahel. The Niger Neolithic had pottery and basketry but I find no evidence of a fiber for spinning and weaving. In the Tigris-Euphrates Bronze Age, before linen, the Sumerian people wore skin clothing, pictured here, where I discuss my love of all sorts of cloth. Perhaps it was the same along the Niger. Cloth would have became available early on though trade. I haven’t yet seen paintings, but the terracotta sculptures dating from medieval times are fine art.

The Neolithic everywhere was based on stone tools adapted to farming but in the Middle East and in China the invention of metal tools changed the societies, the first metal being copper, then bronze, a copper-tin alloy. Metal hoes and axes for working the soil, clearing land and cutting wood improved productivity and efficiency. Metal arrow heads and spears for hunting and hooks for fishing further added to the food supply. Population increased. Trade increased in type and volume. Crafts became specialties and people became separated into social classes. Central village grew into cities. Metal weapons influenced warfare and the rise of chiefdoms. In the Fertile Crescent’s river valleys Bronze Age state societies were established by 3000 BCE.

By the 12th century BCE, iron tools were being used in the Middle East. Iron ore is more widespread than copper or tin, enabling more farming areas elsewhere to support denser populations and for more cities and civilization to develop. The technology soon spread throughout the Mediterranean region, to South Asia and further east. It reached Northern Europe by about 500 BCE.

Great Mosque of Djenné

Sub-Saharan West Africa had, and has, few sources of copper and I’ve read of none for tin. However, the working of iron was early in Africa, and the knowledge and skills may well have developed independently rather than by diffusion from the Middle East. It occurred to me that smelting and working iron requires large amounts of charcoal and in the Niger River delta area wood is a scarce resource, which is probably why logs and sun-dried mud, not fired clay, bricks were developed as the construction materials.

Timbuktu Mosque

Moreover, adobe functions well in the environment. The walls absorb heat during the day, keeping the interior cool, and release the heat at night, which can be welcome; nights in the desert are cool, even cold. Adobe walls breathe and they regulate humidity, keeping it in a range that is ideal for storing books. Timbuktu is famous for its Islamic university and today for the ancient texts stored in its adobe walled, termite-free library buildings.

The elements essential for cities and civilization to develop were present along the rivers, especially along the Niger Bend. Here for an article on an important archeological site near an ancient city, Djenné (adopted by UNESCO) that has some of the most famous example of the region’s remarkable architecture.



Archeologists Susan and Roderick McIntosh have determined that the rice-growing Djenné-Djenno town dates from 250 B.C. to 900 A.D. and grew in size as a result of regional and local trade. It can no longer be assumed that complex societies and long distance trade came to this region in the 7th and 8th centuries with the arrival of Arab influence. The archaeological evidence supports that Djenné-Djenno was part of a pre-Arab trans-Saharan trade network. The city’s location in the delta made it a center for trade – for the rice it grew and the Saharan commodities such as salt, gold, copper ornaments and dried fish. Djenné-Djenno would have been in the trade networks of Timbuktu and other large urban centers with traders from North Africa and the Mediterranean and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

This video shows how mud brick buildings are constructed and maintained. (Would that communities in other societies had that level of civic involvement.) Under “Description” is an explanation of the history of the Djenné towns. Photos of the buildings can also be viewed.

Islam and the Great cities —

The camel had been introduced into the Western Sahara in the 3rd century C.E., making possible the growth of trade with Morocco, primarily in salt, gold and slaves (household workers, not the devastating New World plantation slavery). The medieval empires in the region, first the Ghana Empire of Mauritania, 700s C.E. to middle 1200s,

archer 13th-15th century

followed by the larger Mali Empirec. 1230 to 1670, grew and dominated through control of the trade routes and the sources of gold and salt.

During the 9th century, Muslim missionary sects and Muslim Berber and Tuareg merchants introduced Islam into West Africa.  (The Berbers are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa, primarily inhabiting the Maghreb, the area inland from the Mediterranean, and the Tuareg are a nomadic people of the Sahara.)  Widespread conversion to Islam linked the region’s diverse communities to one another. It brought them a unifying religion, and with using Arabic as a common language, it turned them into literate societies. (as Christianity and Latin had done in Europe) Cities, including Timbuktu, Gao and Kano soon became international centers of Islamic learning.

A search that began with rice and slavery in America lead me to learning something of the ethnic origins of a good number of African Americans. I conclude with an excerpt from “Archeological Findings in the Middle Niger,” an article on modern archeology and Middle Niger history I highly recommend. It is short and a good read.

“Through dating techniques, McIntosh and his team (of archeologists) have determined that the earliest cities of the Middle Niger date back at the latest to the mid-first millennium BC. Evidence from artifacts reveal that some cities were of comparable size to the London and Paris of the time, with enormous populations, sophisticated trade and crafts, and large-scale production of goods.”

“The past is a major part of how the people of Mali see themselves today, and Malians are enormously proud that they were part of the original civilizations of the world,” McIntosh explains. “They are especially proud of having the first city that emphasized democracy and decentralization.”

“Though these findings (of sophisticated iron work) may seem technical, such archaeological data have proven quite important to the inhabitants of West Africa. Unlike the United States, other countries are extremely invested in their prehistory. Of the handful of original civilizations throughout the world, only two were previously known to be in possession of iron. With the Middle Niger serving as the premier example of ancient democratic organization, McIntosh’s findings have instilled the Malians with a tremendous source of national pride.”




I am elderly, in the fourth stage of life (explained here), but still have my mind, the internet for information and a computer for writing, all of which makes it possible for me to connect with the world I now live in and occasionally to use past experience for understanding the present. And due to a recent email exchange with a North Carolina friend this happened again. I had written to him, as someone who had also been a teacher, about an experience I had, many decades ago, with a group of youngsters, and his response set me on a long, circuitous path to revisit my time in Bali and use the knowledge acquired there to better understand unfortunate aspects of my own country’s culture. The friend in the email exchange is African-American and the unfortunate matters we discuss relate to the Black-White divide in American life (named in this essay) that affects all our social interactions.

The incident I wrote about happened in the mid-1960s, at a time when Ravi and I were with the university and teachers in the Black schools on the other side of town went on strike against the city, demanding better facilities, supplies, etc. for their students. I was not involved in city affairs and knew little about what the teachers were doing but somehow they knew me and asked me to teach in the Freedom School they had organized to keep their students occupied and learning while the strike was on. The “school” was held in a huge space contributed by the Lions Club or some such organization. Lots of kids participated. I met with a group of twelve- or thirteen-year olds for about three days, presenting materials on subjects I thought they would benefit from knowing. I took visual materials on human evolution, which was new to them, and for other anthropological subjects presented materials on various cultures. What I remember most vividly was their reaction when I described African cultures. They insisted, quite actively, that Africa was a primitive place, like a Tarzan movie, where people live in trees, like monkeys. I insisted that I had just returned from living in a thousand year old African city and described for them the ancient Mogadiscio and other traditional cities in Africa I knew from anthropological studies. (Mogadiscio indicated here on a map by Fra Mauro di Venezia, 1460) The children took it in quietly, unusual for them. Another of the volunteer teachers, a Black guy from Chicago, come over and listened, saddened by the children’s responses. It was a lesson for me.

My friend, a man in his seventies, raised in a middle-class family in a middle-class Black community, well-educated, retired from a high-level managerial position, responded by email. “Thank you for informing the children about African cultures. I have emphasized “cultures” because while it may not have been your first objective to instill in them pride of ethnicity and/or ancestry, that you even imparted the notion of an African “culture” was very important, for I know very well where their minds were about Africa (very much where my mind probably was when I was their age). Via a number of different inputs, some subtle and some not so subtle (very overt and direct) I was under the impression that Africa and/or Africans had no culture, no way of life that could be thought of as “cultured,” meaning “refined” or orderly or provident. And this was true of virtually every “Negro” I knew. We didn’t want to have anything to do with Africa, did not want to have any connection with it in any way, for it had been imparted to us that it was a place of ignorant and backward people who lurked and lived in the jungle as wild animals for all intents and purposes. While what you imparted to them was incomprehensible, it also probably made a lasting impression that did have some modicum of a positive effect, not the least reason being that they heard this from a White woman (this gave it an important degree of legitimacy, even as it was incomprehensible). They couldn’t believe it, and some didn’t want to believe it, and others were afraid to believe it — afraid that to begin to believe would all too soon dissolve into disappointment. That small bit of information you imparted, however, was retained by at least a few, and may have been the first spark to strengthening some young man or young lady’s  ancestral self-esteem. Again, thank you !!”

The Thirteen Colonies

His response arrived while I happened to be browsing through Joseph J. Ellis’s “Founding Brothers, The Revolutionary Generation,” a book analyzing critical actions taken by our “Founding Fathers” following the American Revolution and after the American Constitution had been adopted. I read the chapter on slavery and the compromises made by Northern states to the Southern states’ demands, where the narrative begins with a presentation in Congress, in 1790, by Representatives from New York and Philadelphia that called for the slave trade to be ended immediately, and that raised again the possibility they might call as well for slavery itself to be abolished. I had expected the Representatives from South Carolina and Georgia to argue for keeping slavery, but not being well-schooled in American history, was completely taken aback on learning that Southern slave-worked plantations at the time were not growing cotton. The cotton gin, the devise that made growing cotton so very profitable, had not yet been invented. Eli Whitney patented it in 1793. These two states, especially South Carolina, had become enormously wealthy from rice plantations, from exporting rice known as Carolina Gold (for more information here and here ) to Britain and Europe, rice grown by African slaves on plantations in irrigated fields. The Representative from Georgia informed the Northern Representatives  “that rice cannot be brought to market without these people (the Africans),” and “ … such is the state of agriculture in that country (S.C. and Georgia), no white man would perform the tasks required to drain the swamps and clear the land, so that without slaves it must be depopulated.”

I had discovered that rice paddy agriculture, a mode of agriculture I had observed in Indonesia, was part of American history and that it was brought to the rice plantations of South Carolina by slaves from Africa, possibly by the ancestors of my young students and my friend in North Carolina.

I’ve written on my blog of having worked several times during the 1980s in Bali for UNICEF and other organizations, evaluating rural health care programs, and of always being thoroughly charmed by the Balinese and their lives filled with lovely rituals and wonderful folk art. It was in later years, as I wrote of my experiences, that I seriously addressed the question of why this village culture was so different from others I had known and finally found the answer in analyzing their agricultural system.

Rice grown with irrigation produces an abundant supply of food that can be stored and traded as well as consumed. The Balinese had developed their own paddy rice system, the components of which were forests that protected water flowing from the mountain tops; terraced rice paddies connected by a system of canals, tunnels and weirs; and the people from the village communities using handmade tools to build, plant, harvest, drain and maintain it. No one person controlled the system; it was owned by all the communities and managed by the landowning families whose representatives gathered at the temples to keep informed and to make decisions for each year’s work plan, on the work to be done by members of the families. It was a system in which upstream owners of land shared equally with downstream owners because they would lose if they did not; all of the owners had to coordinate planting and fallow in complex ways to control the flow of water and to prevent an outbreak of pests that would destroy all the crops. Everyone contributed equally to the inputs and benefited equally from the harvest. They all shared in the prosperity and the leisure time for other aspects of their culture.

Paddy rice agriculture is practiced throughout Indonesia and in other Southeast Asian countries as well. The terraced rice paddies of the Philippines’ Ifugao villagers, for example, are widely admired for their beauty, while the culture is known to anthropologists because of its unwritten complex legal system for running their irrigation system, with rules and sanctions to enforce it, rules for sharing the produce, a system of justice, all of it overseen by a council of elders who represent the community, all of it integrated into their religion and broader sense for justice and morality.

cultivating rice along the Niger

The rice grown on South Carolina plantations came from Asia but the technology, the essential knowledge for how to grow it, came from the colonial masters having watched their slaves grow rice for their own consumption, perhaps with grains they had smuggled in from their homeland. That rice would have been a species domesticated some 3500 years ago in the inland Niger Delta, making possible, along with the system for its cultivation, a productive agricultural system that also spread to Senegal/Gambia and an area of Sierra Leon.

Incidentally, the inland Niger Delta, a remarkable part of the river, is located upstream, in Mali, not far from the ancient Timbuktu, a city I described to my young students so long ago. The drawing is by Martin Bernatz (1802–1878) after a sketch by Heinrich Barth (1821-1865).


From having experienced the sort of society and culture that results from village communities with a long history of highly productive paddy rice agriculture, I can imagine everyday life in Senegal/Gambia and in the other farming communities before the European slave traders discovered it. I am certain the people there had developed an admirable culture, one that was well-governed and just and with the arts as part of daily life, one that African-American children, their descendants, could be proud of and find joy in discovering and claiming.

As I wrote in a blog post here, until late in the 19th century, Bali was protected from invaders. By contrast, by the 15th century, the Portuguese, sailing on the Gambia and the Casamance rivers into the countryside, invaded and captured people to work as slaves in Spain and in Portugal. They were the first Europeans in the slave trade for the New World, bringing on forces that greatly damaged Senegambia culture and the people themselves as individuals. (I haven’t read accounts of the damage done by the slave trade to communal life in West Africa. Perhaps I shall.) From 1445 to 1600 more than one million persons were captured and shipped from West Africa, particularly from the Senegambian region. In one ethnic group, the Jola, elders say that in the past the music of their Akonting, a string instrument, sounded so very sweet to the devils that when the musicians played in the rice fields at night, after the day’s work was done and it was time for music and dance and palm wine before going home, the best Akonting players did not come home. On the following day, when the people went searching for them, they saw prints of shoes on the ground, which they believed were from devils’ feet because in those days Jolas did not wear shoes or even know what shoes looked like. They say this is how the Jola Ekonting came to the Americas.

The following is taken from Drew Gilpin Faust’s NYT review of  Judith A. Carney’s book, “Black Rice.”

“In order to understand the role of Africans in rice history it is necessary to think of rice as a ”knowledge system” — not just a plant or a seed but an entire complex of techniques, technology and processing skills. Africans imported as slaves into Carolina possessed this knowledge, and used their understanding to guide phases of evolution in American rice production.

“Thus, after a vast increase in importations of slaves between 1720 and 1740 provided the necessary labor, Carolina rice cultivation, which had begun with upland or rain-fed culture, shifted to higher-yielding inland swamps. The newly arrived Africans created embankments, sluices and canals almost identical to patterns of West African mangrove rice production. With another influx of slaves after 1750, cultivation moved to still more productive tidal flood plains, which required such a large-scale deployment of floodgates, canals and ditches that rice fields became, in one planter’s words, a ”huge hydraulic machine.” This transition, Carney writes, depended on ”the large number of slaves imported directly from the rice area of West Africa who possessed knowledge of the crop’s cultivation.”

“Carolina planters even knew which African ethnic groups were expert in rice growing and explicitly favored them in their purchases of new slaves. A newspaper in Charleston, for example, advertised the sale of 250 slaves ”from the Windward and Rice Coast, valued for their knowledge of rice culture.”

“The knowledge system Carney describes called for different roles and distinctive kinds of expertise for men and women, and these aspects of rice culture were also transported to the New World. Women played a critical part in seed selection, sowing, hoeing and processing of rice. The importance of these skills enabled slave traders to command higher prices for women in Carolina rice-growing areas than in other American slave markets.”

It breaks my heart to read and think of this.

For more information, watch the video here for the history of South Carolina rice plantations, ending with a recipe for cooking rice that shows how quick, easy cooking is done in many American homes.




I enjoyed the movie for a number of reasons, one being the sheer pleasure of watching Meryl Streep recreate Julia Child. Streep gives us, brilliantly and authentically, the extraordinary Julia, the woman who in the 1960s and beyond became, through her cookbook and her TV presence, a beloved chef and teacher to America’s middle-class women. Her “… “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” … stands with a few other postwar touchstones — including Dr. Benjamin Spock’s “Baby and Child Care,” the Kinsey Report and Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat” — as a publication that fundamentally altered the way a basic human activity was perceived and pursued. … ”

And the movie reminded me of the years, in the 1960s, when Ravi and I and our children lived (with intervals in Somalia) as a college faculty family with a circle of friends like ourselves, doing normal middle-class family things together. (pictured and discussed here)    I recognize references to “The Joy of Cooking,” the basic cookbook for my American women friends, and before discovering French cuisine, for Julia as well. I had grown up a stranger to the kitchen, so in the mid-1950s, when Ravi and I moved from student housing into an apartment near the campus, I bought a cookbook for basic information, and while deciphering the mysteries of Ravi’s home food, duplicated my grandmother’s simple dishes. Cooking Indian meant locating exotic ingredients and much experimenting and practicing, plus considerable patience on the part of Ravi and the children, but by 1960 it had become standard in our home. The other wives in our social circle, all proud and wonderful cooks, took to watching Julia on day-time TV, hours when I was at the university, teaching, and my memories of her are from them, of their delight with her and her high, flighty voice, of them laughing about the way she brushed off her on-camera mistakes, like the flipped omelet that fell on the stove instead of back into the pan. Because of Julia, we all tried new foods and recipes. My children accepted eating artichokes, dipping the leaves into lemon-butter, just like French grown-ups do. However, one day I made a cassoulet and was furious when, after all that extra time and work, the outcome was simply baked beans tasting little different from any I had made previously. I stayed with my Indian cooking and discovering other ethnic dishes.

The movie gives us Julia in Paris with her remarkable husband, Paul Cushing Child, played to perfection by Stanley Tucci.  Robert Ebert, and a few other commentators, seem uncomfortable with both Julia’s husband and Julie’s husband playing supporting roles to strong-willed women. Another anomaly for Julia and Stanley was the difference in height. She stood 6’2” and he was considerably shorter. Nevertheless, they were well suited to one another. He was a talented and accomplished individual fully capable of living with and complementing Julia in her endeavors. He adored her, and for good reason; everyone was enthralled by her unique feminine style, one that ruled the scene while never challenging the social order of men’s dominance over women. She does show off a bit, though, while learning French cooking in the totally male environment at the Cordon Bleu, the famous and central institution for foodies everywhere. Her impressive accomplishments before marriage and her bored upper-class wifedom are described here, along with videos.

Julie is nicely portrayed by Amy Adams. Chris Messina plays Julie’s husband, believably supporting Julie as she finds her true self, then angry with the toll her obsession takes on him. As with most of the movies dealing with women in the workplace, children are nowhere in mind or in sight, (The Intern, here, is an exception) although it is established early-on in Julie  & Julia that Julia was deeply disappointed in not being able to have a child.

Julie & Julia is not a Chick Flick, not of the film genre in which women star and deal with the emotional aspects of life, particularly with love and romance. Someone invented a term for an equivalent genre, the Guy-cry film, in which most, often all, the characters are male and they dwell on concepts of brotherhood, sacrifice, loyalty, and family. I wonder, though, if Guy-cry movies are truly a genre. To me, guy movies are simply all the genres together — the Westerns, Film Noir, Science Fiction. etc., etc. (I wrote here on the Swashbuckler genre.)   They are movies made by men from a male perspective, one that women have generally accepted as the valid way to view reality.

If one’s image of our world were exclusively through movies and nothing else, one would think that at least three-quarters of all humans were male and that all females were either quite young or the mother of an adult male. I haven’t yet calculated the very low rates for non-European-descent males. In the January 8, 2018 New Yorker article on sexual harassment by Dana Goodyear, ”Letter from California, Can Hollywood change its ways?” Professor Stacy L. Smith concluded that of the speaking roles in Hollywood movies, 66.5% are male (even with a trend toward more women shown in professional roles) and 74.3% of the characters over age 40 are male. (Television dramas seem better balanced.) More than 70% of screenwriters and nearly 85% of the directors are men. Smith finds the number of women on-screen remains unchanged since the 1940s, and the industry’s culture behind the camera remains similar to its on-screen culture. I detect changes toward a more modern view of women, but she views the image of women perpetuated by Hollywood as marginalized and unimportant, and further, that this image is mirrored throughout top film markets across the globe. She notes that when women direct, their films become more representative of real life.

The writer, director and producer of Julie & Julia is Nora Ephron, an adventurous film maker who also wrote novels and was a skilled cook. Each chapter of “Heartburn,” her novel about the breakdown of her marriage to Carl Bernstein of Watergate exposé fame, contains a recipe. She would naturally be attracted to Julie Powell’s 2005 best-selling “Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen,” subtitled, for its paperback edition, “My Year of Cooking Dangerously.”

Ephron uses Julie’s story to frame Julia’s story and bring it into the present. We have a contemporary young woman continually upset and ultimately disappointed with her work and career path turning for fulfillment and achievement to the master she so admires, still available to her in print and on television. Both stories are important. I especially appreciate the honor they pay to women in life’s most essential responsibility, that of preparing good food for the people we love (or maybe who just depend on us) and their defining the cook as a highly skilled craftsperson, occasionally as an artist. (I do wish more emphasis could be placed on cooking at home as a means of maintaining one’s health in this world of fast-food empty calories.)

There is a surprising, almost shocking moment in the movie. It is here for what, how and why it happened.




I wrote months ago that I see modern society as being on the threshold of the most fundamental social change since the Agricultural Revolution some 12,000 years ago, a change brought on by a technology that became available in 1960. It was the Pill, the first ever reliable, safe, convenient, affordable contraceptive. The Pill, and more recent contraceptives, give women control over when/if to become pregnant and the consequences have been playing out since, for men, children, the family, the workplace and government. All this is too obvious and complicated for further comment from me. I’ve already spelled out my thinking here, and took it into account when viewing and then commenting on recent movies that center on a woman. There’s the woman in The Intern and the girls in The Whale Rider and Queen of Katwe. And we have a new interest in women, such as the three in Hidden Figure and Gertrude Bell in Queen of the Desert, who accomplished and succeeded without being subordinate to a man who is the primary actor.

I commented on Queen of the Desert and wrote that Werner Hertzog is not the Director for a movie based on Gertrude Bell’s life, that I found Shekhar Kapur much better suited to such an endeavor. However, after revisiting his Elizabeth and seeing his second Elizabeth movie I decided he would be only a little better than Hertzog. Do we have a director who understands Middle East history and politics and Gertrude Bell’s role in it well enough to make the movie? I do not have an answer to the question.

I watched Kapur’s Elizabeth in 1998

Elizabeth in coronation robes, by Nicholas Hilliard

and accepted his interpretation of Elizabeth as a young woman in love while she learned politics and power and finally decided on the sort of Queen her people needed. I am not a student of British history, and actually know little of it other than what is relevant to its colonial policies in America and India. It was Kapur’s story-telling that made the movie memorable. The one aspect I doubted was Elizabeth having sex with Robert Dudley and never getting pregnant. How could that be? And wouldn’t infertility be considered a problem? After all, the reason for a royal marriage was to produce an heir to the throne. Still, I suspended disbelief. I was blown away by Kapur’s operatic, high drama style and the amazing concept Elizabeth expresses in the final scenes where she creates her image of the Virgin Queen. I was not aware that Kapur knew almost nothing of the period in which the movie is set, and had admitted to his ignorance.

Reviewers of Elizabeth uniformly gave high praise to Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and to the cast overall but they varied in their appreciation of Kapur’s interpretation and style of filming. Ebert is fairly positive on Kapur’s presentation of the period’s history and adds, approvingly, that Kapur …  “ … clothes Elizabeth, her court and her architecture in the colors and texture of medieval India. The film is largely set in vast, echoing halls, their pillars reaching up into the shadows. He is attentive to the rustle of dresses and the clank of armor, gives us a barge on the Thames like a houseboat on a lake in Kashmir. Action is glimpsed through iron filigree screens, dresses are rich with embroidery, hairstyles are ornately elaborated, and yet there is the feeling that just out of sight of these riches are the rats in the kitchen and the slop-pots in the halls. ”

From The Guardian’s review, “It’s tempting to suggest that if Shakespeare had come back four centuries later to make a movie about his Queen, this is how it might have turned out.”

Clearly, Kapur’s aesthetic turned off the NYTimes’ Janet Maslin.  “  ,,, (T)his Elizabeth is presented as a glamorously stressed out modern woman who must cope with a super-intense case of having it all. That the film’s Indian director … knew nothing about England’s Queen Elizabeth I when he undertook this lavish costume drama only helps to make his Elizabeth that much sassier a sovereign, slouching on her throne. His film concerns itself with elaborate appearances, anachronistically modern flourishes, Roman Catholic-Protestant intrigue, the difficulty of resolving career with personal life and the small matter of Elizabethan history, pretty much in that order.”

In the Britannia website, according to Kathryn Gillett, who studies Tudor history, “If you’re looking for a video to watch this spring, “Elizabeth” (nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture) might work as light entertainment. But keep in mind, this visually interesting, yet shadowy, portrait of the creation of Elizabeth I as The Virgin Queen is more fiction than history. … the movie goes out of its way to shock the audience with outrageous behavior that never would have happened. … … In fact, the woman who donned the English coronation robes in 1558 was a hardened and practiced politician who was not afraid of her power, and knew how to use it. She was raised in the reign of her father, Henry VIII, learning only too well how dangerous even a slight personal or political misstep could be. …”

I recently watched Kapur’s Elizabeth:The Golden Age (2007) on DVD, first as a movie and again with his fascinating commentary. In creating his mature Elizabeth, Kapur gave her a companion, an intimate friend who is much younger, very pretty and also named Elizabeth but called Bess. The implications are critical to the feminine aspect of Elizabeth’s persona. The other aspect is of Elizabeth as the monarch who ruled a nation that had broken from the Catholic Church, who ruled as a Protestant over both Protestant and Catholic subjects while being threatened by Catholic Kings in alliance with the Church in Rome. It is in the commentary that Kapur speaks of the film as operatic. He describes the marvelous buildings where he filmed and the colors of costumes to convey mood and of space to define a character. For example, scenes with Elizabeth and her women attendants are set in circular spaces and without walls (which means, I imagine, their feminine bond). He uses close-ups, which empowers the actors, then has the camera pull back, frame the scene through small, intricate spaces in the antique structures, and at times adds perspective from on high. For the wonderful locations where he filmed, check here.

I see no problem with the theatrical (movies are theatre) presentation of a character’s personality or action that diverges from historical fact, as long as it corresponds reasonably well with known history. Theatre presents a particular take on a story rooted in the culture, stories of love and romance, of family and friendship, of divisions in the society, of power and politics, reminding its viewers of the story’s cultural and personal significance and perhaps setting them to examining both from a new perspective. (A version of Romeo and Juliet. Today’s Hamilton on Broadway.) Every society has theatre. In pre-literate societies it was fables and myths. In ancient Greece, myths were enacted on a stage and the plays were preserved in writing. As colonies of the Roman Empire, Europeans inherited theatre and developed it into a major art form. I know a little of Chinese and Japanese traditional theatres. And puppet shows and dance in Indonesia. Movies are modern society’s popular theatre. Movies shape much of how most people understand history. Think, for example, of the images we have of World War II versus the Vietnam War. A good movie should present an accurate picture of the time and place in which the story is set, but viewers should also realize they are being told a story; they are not in a classroom being taught by scholars.

In this instance, Kapur’s Elizabeth movies stray too far from historical fact.  In fact, he seems to delight in ignoring history. In an interview with NPR he said, “I actually took what they called ‘The Virgin Queen’ and showed her in bed with a man. I quite enjoyed doing what I did, much to the initial regret of a lot of British historians, who said she was a virgin. And I said, ‘Prove it.’ ”

Carole Levine has an excellent article, “Elizabeth: Romantic Film Heroine or Sixteenth-Century Queen?” on movies and history. She compares the film with reality and begins with “Presenting history on film in a way that is both historically accurate and dramatically satisfying can be a difficult task. Last year’s Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring Cate Blanchett, is the most recent attempt to dramatize the life of one of history’s most interesting characters. Sometimes dramatic films must sacrifice historical accuracy to present the greater “truth” about a person or a time period or simply to make a satisfying story. Shakespeare’s own history plays were filled with inaccuracies but are great drama, and Kenneth Branagh’s version of Henry V beautifully recreates medieval politics and the horrors of war while presenting wonderful character development. Henry V works as both modern film and historical drama. Elizabeth, all too often, does not.”

Another quote from the article — “The script appears most responsible for the film’s failings.” Michael Hirst was the screenwriter for both Elizabeth movies, as well as for an award-winning television series, The Tudors. What went wrong?

Levine ends her lengthy and informative article with — “Beautifully photographed, with an impressive cast, the film Elizabeth can be compelling to watch but felt like a missed opportunity. I wish the script had done a better job of presenting a highly complex and fascinating queen. If seeing the film makes the audience want to learn more about the 16th-century Queen Elizabeth, however, it will still have served a good purpose.”

The Wikipedia article on Elizabeth, the Golden Age, gives us the movie’s plot, and recognizing that the film’s history of the era is heavily fictionalized, provides a list of the characters and events with particularly informative comments on each.  Additionally, it has a discussion titled Claims of anti-Catholicism. “The film depicts an important episode in the violent struggle between the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation that polarised European politics.” The article lists claims of anti-Catholicism from newspapers, men of the Church and one historian, followed by Kapur’s response: “I would describe all history as fiction and interpretation … [A]sk any Catholic and they’ll give you a totally different aspect of history … History has always been an interpretation … I do believe that civilisations that don’t learn from history are civilisations that are doomed to make the same mistakes again and again, which is why this film starts with the idea of fundamentalism against tolerance. It’s not Catholic against Protestant; it’s a very fundamental form of Catholicism. It was the time of the Spanish Inquisition and against a woman whose half of her population was Protestant, half was Catholic. And there were enough bigots in her Protestant Parliament to say, “Just kill them all”, and she was constantly saying no. She was constantly on the side of tolerance. So you interpret history to tell the story that is relevant to us now”.

Ebert and other movie reviewers considered Kapur’s style over-the-top on this second Elizabeth.  The Guardian completely pans Elizabeth:the Golden Age, in effect calling it ridiculous. A few reviewers claim the movie is biased against the Catholic Church. From another Wikipedia Kapur quote  – “My interpretation of Elizabeth is an interpretation of greater tolerance [than King Philip of Spain], which is absolutely true. It’s completely true that she had this kind of feminine energy. It’s a conflict between Philip, who had no ability to encompass diversity or contradiction, and Elizabeth who had the feminine ability to do that.”

I do not know if women really are more able than men to encompass diversity or contradiction, but psychological research into male and female management styles in organizations did show that the women were more democratic, encouraging participation, and the men were more autocratic, directing performance. Kapur never questions a woman’s ability to lead. He views women as full sexual beings who can also participate fully in public life. I wonder, given the two movies, if he thinks a woman who becomes a mother can still perform equally in a public role, one outside the family?

Whatever the faults of his Elizabeth movies, Kapur’s sense of theatre caught my imagination. I enjoyed both movies and will try to locate his The Bandit Queen (1994) to watch. I expect that, it being on an Indian woman in Indian society, he hews closer to what, in fact, actually happened to her and what she actually did.

Although reviewers of Queen of the Desert were less than enthusiastic about the movie, I watched it through to the end, annoyed at several points, but always engaged. After all, this is a biopic, a film genera often weak in story-telling, but the woman being pictured was an extraordinary individual who played a significant role in shaping the world we live in.

From Angelica Jade Bastien – “… Despite the rich biographical material of the real-life woman on which this is based and the skill of the filmmakers involved, Queen of the Desert ends up being an emotionally empty, thematically ill-defined, and listless affair. It is never able to communicate the complexity of the woman at its center. … … International upheaval, as viewed from the intimate vantage point of a historical figure as enchanting and modern feeling as Gertrude Bell, gives the filmmakers a variety of avenues to explore. But instead of hinging the emotional through-line on her ambition, proto-feminist leanings, or what made her so well-suited to navigating the tribal conflicts, the film focuses on the most prosaic aspect of this fascinating woman: her love life. …”

In his review, Peter Debruge praises Nicole Kidman’s performance, but another reviewer remarks on the fact that Kidman was in her mid-40s but had nothing done to change her appearance when playing Gertrude Bell as not yet 20 years old, then as Bell in her thirties and forties living out in the hot dry desert air that ages the skin. Still, Kidman does a reasonably effective portrayal of Bell’s personality. The movie does not take us into the years of Bell’s most important and relevant endeavors, when she was in her fifties working with a King in his mid-thirties, at a time when her health was poor. She died at age 58.

The movie’s photography is good, with impressive views of the desert and vast stretches of sand in Morocco and/or Jordon, substituting for Iraq and Syria where the action really took place. The film’s market scenes are probably from Morocco. Gertrude and Henry, the man she loves, (played by James Franco) climb around in the attractive ruins of ancient buildings, most likely in Morocco, but otherwise I remember seeing only one bit of traditional architecture.

Caravanserai interior

Traveling across the desert, Bell and her caravan stopped at walled compounds that may have been, or were intended to be, caravanserais, establishments at one-day caravan journey intervals, usually with an inn, a small mosque, a stable and facilities for the camels and horses.  One stunning view in the movie is of Bell on horseback, riding along a river that flows through a deep mountain canyon, probably in Jordan.

This colorful four-minute video from PBS is a good introduction to Gertrude Bell.

I highly recommend this article, a review of books about Gertrude Bell. The title is The Queen of the Quagmire.

Gertrude Bell was extraordinarily talented, privileged, from a wealthy and well-connected family, adored and indulged by her father and stepmother. Her grandfather was Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, a member of Parliament who had worked alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. She attended the best schools and was the first woman at Oxford to win First-Class Honors in history. In 1892, age 24, on a long visit in Tehran with her uncle, the British Minister/Ambassador to the Persian state, she became fluent in Persian and two years later published a book on Persia. During the next decade she traveled and famously climbed mountains in Switzerland. In late 1899, she traveled to Jerusalem and began studying Arabic. She also took photographs that reflect her interest in and respect for the people she encountered. I think this photo is hers.

In 1900, on a trip from Jerusalem to Damascus, Bell went on horseback through hostile country to Petra, and without permission from the Turkish authorities, into the country of a fierce people, the mountain Druze of southwest Syria. The experience is dramatized in the movie. The reigning Druze chief, who had been a student in Paris, received her as his guest and they discussed French poetry, in French. The Druze faith is a sect of Isma’ili Shia Islam. (I wrote here about Ismaili origins.)

In 1901, a months-long trek across Greater Syria resulted in Bell’s classic “The Desert and the Sown,” a book that includes her photographs and vividly describes towns, cities and the vast deserts of Arabia.

In 1902 Bell and her brother went touring by steamship and railways to British India and continued on to Mandalay in Burma, Pinang in Malaysia, Singapore, the Dutch colonial centers in Java, to South Korea, Japan and to Canada. She recorded their travels in photographs she took along the way. The last photo is from Quebec and is dated July 1903. I will return later to her numerous, interesting and informative photographs of places I have known and written about. An archive of the photographs she collected is also available on-line.

In 1905, Bell explored Anatolia as an archeologist and published her observations in a series of articles in the Revue Archéologique. In 1907, she worked in central Turkey with a well-known archaeologist and New Testament scholar. Their excavations in Binbirkilise were chronicled in  “A Thousand and One Churches.”

Bell and Lawrence

In 1910, Bell met T.E. Lawrence, a young Oxford graduate with honors in history. She was visiting an archeological site on the western bank of the river Euphrates, just south of the Syrian-Turkish border, where he was at work, being trained in archeology. This encounter and their friendship is in the movie.


The movie has a sequence that particularly intrigued me, one that took place in Hail city (or Hi’il) in which Bell tricks her way into the palace of the Emir. (The Barzan Palace in Ha’il was later destroyed by the Al-Sauds) She was again on a trek across the desert, this one a spying mission for the British to determine the military organization and strength of the Emirate of Jabal Shammar, based in Hi’il, Emirate of The House of Rashīd, against their formidable enemies, the House of Saud, rulers of the Emirate of Nejd. She enters the palace, discovers the Emir is away and is trapped there, held by the women of the harem until he returns. She acquires the needed information from the women, along the way having her hands painted with henna. When presented at last to the Emir, she cleverly wins her release and reports to the British that they should back the Al-Sauds. Ibn Saud won final victory over the Rashidis in 1921, making him the ruler of most of central Arabia. (Enlarge the map to locate Hi’il, the Rashids, and Riyadh, the Saudis.)

In 1914, at the outbreak of the war, unable to join the colonial service for the Middle East, Bell volunteered with the Red Cross in France. In 1915, however, both she and Lawrence were summoned to Cairo to serve in the Arab Bureau. In 1916, they sent her to Basra, ancient port city on the Persian Gulf, captured in 1914 by British forces because, as Winston Churchill knew, that is where the oil fields are. She was to advise Chief Political Officer Percy Cox, whom she had met in India when he was a young army officer serving as the colonial administrator to a Princely State south of Bombay. Among her duties was drawing maps to help the British army reach Baghdad. She was the only female political officer in the British forces.

A good map helps make sense of a situation, and these are great maps. Maps 4 through 8 are directly relevant here.

This is an excellent and readable article for facts and analysis of Gertrude Bell.

I can imagine the film that should have been made of Gertrude Bell, one that could honorably accompany Lawrence of Arabia. The movie would be centered on Gertrude Bell’s role in virtually creating modern Iraq.

Gertrude Bell with Faisal

She drafted the Iraqi borders, conferred with and persuaded its reluctant tribal chiefs to join the new country, worked with and assisted the thirty-five-year-old Prince Faisal to become King Faisal. (in Queen of the Desert played by Younes Bouab) It was not always an easy relationship, but as her influence waned, he continued with her, helping her set up Iraq’s archeological museum.

Gertrude with Haji Naji, farmer and friend

She was intent on keeping the people’s historical treasures for them rather than being shipped off to Europe. She also helped establish the national library and a school for girls. She loved Arabia; she wanted to live out her life in her Baghdad home and gardens. She died there from an over-dose of sleeping pills. The movie I envision would include flashbacks into her youth, into the adventures and accomplishments that prepared her for the Iraq years, including why she never married. After all, she did have two, maybe three, romantic episodes in her life. She was an attractive woman, and despite her strong will, quite feminine.

A possible plot and script for the movie are clearly embedded in this article by Chris Calder, based on “Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia,” by Janet Wallach, Random House, 1996.

I recommend, as well, this article by O’Briend Browne – “Creating Chaos: Lawrence of Arabia and the 1916 Arab Revolt.” Reading it, I at last have a reasonably clear picture of the battles in Lawrence of Arabia. I quote from it below.

Geraldine Bell’s King Faisal is T. E. Lawrence’s Prince Faisal, a friend to both. (the composite picture is from here.) In 1916, Bell was sent from Cairo to Basra; Lawrence was sent to the Hejaz as a liaison officer to advise the Arab troops who would play a vital role in the Allied victory over the Ottoman Empire in World War I. It was to the Arab Revolt of 1916–1918, initiated in Mecca by Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, with the aim of securing independence from the Ottoman Empire and creating a single unified Arab state. He and his four sons engaged in the fighting were Hashemites, of the lineage who ruled Mecca from the 10th century until its conquest by the House of Saud in 1924. “As Lawrence later wrote in his remarkable account of the campaign, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “I found Abdulla too clever, Ali too clean, Zeid too cool.” Then he met the 31-year-old Feisal, who was “the leader with the necessary fire.” It was the beginning of a long friendship based on trust, warmth, and a shared vision to lead the revolt into Syria. Assigned as Feisal’s liaison officer, Lawrence would blossom into an intrepid guerrilla fighter, operational tactician, and strategic visionary. So closely did he empathize with the Arabs that Feisal soon presented him with the silken robes of a Bedouin leader, which had the advantage of being more comfortable than a British uniform for camel riding and desert fighting.”

In Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Alec Guiness, at age 48, played Prince Faisal. Compare his appearance and demeanor in the movie with the photograph and actual history of Faisal. Guiness was too old for the part. (and his interpretations of men in other cultures has always annoyed me.) The real Faisal was a young leader in the fight for independence. He had led men into battle, participated in the disastrous setting up of a government for Damascus. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, “ … Feisal, Lawrence, and Arab leaders … expect(ed) to enjoy the fruits of their sacrifices and feats. Instead, Feisal discovered his name had been omitted from the official list of delegates. But in meetings and speeches he made his presence felt. “The Arabs have long enough suffered under foreign domination,” Feisal proclaimed, resplendent in robes of white silk and gold. “The hour has at last struck when we are to come into our own again.” President Wilson, meeting the Arab leader, said, “Listening to the emir, I think to hear the voice of liberty.”

Werner Hertzog is not the director for a movie on Gertrude Bell. Remembering Shekhar Kapur’s  Elizabeth from 1998, on Queen Elizabeth, I thought he might be the better director for a movie on a woman like Bell. I had read the negative reviews of Kapur’s 2007 film, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, and was positively impressed with his defense of the way he conceptualized the history and the conflict depicted in the movie. Having since watched the second Elizabeth and revisited the 1998 Elizabeth, I’ve reconsidered. My recent views on this are expressed in the next post.


I took the above title from this review.

This movie critic considers Queen of Katwe “irresistible” and “… if there is anyone out there capable of remaining unmoved by this true-life triumph-of-the-underdog sports story, I don’t think I want to meet that person.” I agree.

I loved Phiona, the girl who, while hauling water and hawking maize to help feed her family, continually thinks about strategies in her chess game and who goes on to win at chess tournaments and become the pride of her neighborhood, and eventually of Uganda,. She recounts, here, how in 2005, at the age of nine, she discovered the Sports Outreach Ministry Chess Academy. “I lost my dad when I was three years old. After my dad died, we had nothing. My mum had no job. We didn’t even have food. At the age of 6, I dropped out of school because my mum didn’t have money to pay my school fees, … even rent money and we were chased out of our house and started sleeping on the streets. … we didn’t have enough to eat. My brother came and told me about the chess programme and that after every game, they get a meal … So I followed him … I was always hungry … I got porridge. That was the day I discovered chess.”

Phiona is played in the movie by Madina Nalwanga, a fourteen year old girl from another poor neighborhood of Kampala, found by a casting director in a community dance class. Like Phiona, Nalwanga grew up struggling to help her family pay for basic things, like education. She sold maize in the market. When Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the mother, asked Madina to take her and the cast to the market, Madina taught them how to buy ingredients for a typical Ugandan meal and how to cook it.

I loved all the chess-playing children, loved the teacher who sustains them and loved Phiona’s fierce, courageous mother.

If the teacher were not based on a real person with a known record, one would think him an idealist invented to advance the plot, but he is Robert Katende, Founder and Director of the SOM Chess Academy, a Civil Engineer trained in IT and computers, as well as being skilled in soccer and other sports. He is an extraordinary human being beautifully portrayed by  David Oyelowo in an extraordinary performance. Katende’s wife should be honored as well. She is a talented and dedicated teacher, quite heroic in supporting her husband in every way so he could turn down a well-paid job as an engineer to work for the church and stay with his chess-playing children. I like the way he uses the Mission’s battered old bus to take the children to fancy private schools for the chess competitions, the bus becoming another character in the story.

Katwe is a market and residential area of Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Reviewers call Katwe a slum.  I dislike that word. I prefer to describe Katwe as a teeming, crowded area lacking proper urban infrastructure, where mostly poor but decent people lived. Clearly, some individuals took advantage of others but I saw no evidence of organized crime, or even petty theft. On the other hand, there is no evidence, either, that Katwe is a community with neighborly women friends or children playing together. When Phiona’s mother could no longer pay the rent and lost the simple, rude shelter she had for her children, no one came to help her. The only advice she heard was to get herself a man to take care of her – in exchange, of course, for sex, maybe housekeeping services. But without marriage. She had been married, been a wife and mother in a stable family, then left a widow when her husband, the children’s father, died of AIDS. Phiona’s older sister slipped into the Katwe mode for a woman to survive. Phiona feared this happening to her.

Mira Nair, the Director, filmed in the streets and the markets of Katwe and in the building that Katende had secured for the chess academy and that the children had helped clean and maintain. Surrounding the market area were huge stacked bundles of firewood to be sold as fuel for cooking. Nearby a man sold the easier to use but more expensive charcoal. Over 94 percent of Ugandans use wood fuel or charcoal for cooking. I thought of the consequences for the environment. In many developing countries women collect firewood from already fallen branches or from bushes and small trees (here for an exception in India). It does not threaten the forests, but for how long can it be available to meet the needs of a growing urban population. Electricity is unlikely to be available soon. LPgas and kerosene are unaffordable. Charcoal is the alternative and, unfortunately, it is made from mature trees, causing deforestation in Uganda, as in many countries worldwide. At the present rate of tree loss, this beautiful country will lose all its forests within one generation, by 2050. Here for an optimistic statement for Uganda, here for the issue of charcoal more broadly stated, and here for a more realistic picture in Uganda.

Mira Nair lived in Kampala for years. Her son was born in the hospital where Phiona’s brother is taken after an accident that actually happened, and he was treated as shown in the movie. Nair is obviously fond of Kampala. She knows the society well enough to show how middle-class women cruise in their cars through Katwe, often sit stalled in a traffic jam, car windows down, interacting with local vendors and bold, active children. Katende and his wife live in a middle-class house in what seems to be a middle-class neighborhood within walking distance of Katwe. We see children in uniforms going to school and Katende’s wife teaches in a school but who runs the schools is not explained. Nair arranged to have scenes filmed on the shore of the magnificent Lake Victoria.

In real life, Phiona Mutesi, with the support from her chess accomplishments, later returned to school in Kampala, in private schools, and is now attending Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, U.S. A friend from Uganda arrived with her, joining the small school where students dream of it becoming a chess powerhouse.  Check here and here for statistics on Ugandan education by age and gender, on health service and other matters.

I like these interviews for the insight they give us into the actors and into life in Uganda. Mira Nair chose her music with care and sensitivity to the meaning of the film. The video by Alicia Keys at the end of the article is an example of that. It is also here and is followed by the marvelous video of the movie’s song and dance, #1 Spice, that includes Mira Nair’s son. In one scene we see a woman running through the market stacks of firewood.

I end with a consideration of Uganda’s fundamental problem, its overpopulation and population growth. I could see it plainly illustrated in the movie, in watching Phiona’s mother and her older sister. (Here for a readable statement with statistics for 2008.)

Uganda’s current population growth rate is 3.28 %, compared with 1.2%, the world average. It is overwhelming this once-rich land of the Buganda Kingdom. In 1962, when Uganda became an independent country, the population was somewhere around 7,000,000 and the median age was 17 years. The current population size is approaching 44,000,000. Half of Ugandans are sixteen years of age and younger. Uganda’s median age is the lowest in the world. By 2040, in less than a generation, the population will have doubled.

Despite the reality of more children than a family or a nation can afford, virtually nothing is being done to make contraceptives accessible and affordable to women. The government has no commitment to family planning and may, in fact, be encouraging high birth rates; President Yoweri Museveni has called the nation’s population explosion a “great resource.” I read that 20 percent of married women in Uganda have access to contraception but can only guess how they get it. The churches will aid in providing education but not, it seems, in the other equally important investment for empowering women. I suspect that a basic reason why men in Katwe resist marriage is because it means continually having babies they cannot support.

A useful statistic for judging development in a country is the Total Fertility Rate, roughly, the average number of children born per woman of child-bearing age. The U.N. has Uganda’s TFR for 2016 at 5.4, down from 6.9 only five years ago.  (The CIA has 5.8 as the 2016 estimate.)  Life expectancy has recently increased, to about 60 years, some months more for women, a few less for men.

Experience shows that the TFR goes down as countries urbanize. The marginal cost of another child is much higher in a city apartment than it is on the farm. Uganda is still largely a rural country. 16.8 % of the population is urban. The 2016 national TFR may have been 5.4, but that year’s urban TFR is estimated at 4.0 while for the rural population, the remaining 83.2%, the rate was 5.9. Rural folk are more likely to have fewer schools, fewer modern facilities such as electricity, less access to modern medical care, lower incomes, etc., etc. Traditional belief systems continue, and in Uganda they seriously work against women having fewer births. Here for a study of the effects on a woman in rural life from patriarchy, polygamy, her role in the joint family, her lack of education about biology, her lack of information about and access to modern contraceptives, and more.

I searched on-line to learn about the social class of those boys in the fancy private school and found this — they come from a very small and very wealthy elite. Uganda is like no other country — potentially very prosperous but with a two-century history of colonialism, warfare, terrible corruption and dysfunctional governments it now struggles to overcome.

The 2016 Poverty Assessment here gives information for placing Phiona in Ugandan society. Her life was not unusual for city children. In 2006, 53 percent of Ugandans lived on $1.90 PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) per day. By 2013, 35 percent remained at that level. (I assume 18 percent had a somewhat higher income.) The number of people in extreme poverty declined but was still nearly 20 percent of the population. Uganda is mostly rural; being poor on the farm is more easily managed than the same income in the city but being urban means better access to schools and other positive aspects of modern life. Unfortunately, the government had made no significant improvements in sanitation, safe water, access to clean energy, or in quality education or health care. Through her talent and the goodwill of Robert Katende and his wife, Phiona miraculously escaped. From the article quoted above, she said, “I want to become a lawyer. I want to be a lawyer for kids because when I look at kids in Uganda, especially those in the slums, there is no one to speak on their behalf.” She says with emphasis: “That’s what I would like to do..be a Children’s rights lawyer.”