I watched Wit nine years ago, decided to see it again and again found it excellent. Emma Thompson is totally engaging and believable as professor Vivian Bearing, a loner in her late forties, without family and seemingly friendless, a brilliant scholar, lover of language and words and the poetry of John Donne, demanding of herself and of her students. The excellent Mike Nichols directs.

The movie begins with Vivian sitting in the office of Oncologist Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) as he tells her in cold medical technical terminology that she has advanced stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. He describes the extent of her disease and enrolls her in his full dose, eight cycle chemotherapeutic protocol, with little mention of the pernicious side effects. Stunned but respectful of expertise, and maybe hopeful, she agrees to becoming a subject in what is an experimental treatment. He is both her physician and a clinical researcher set on making a significant, and publishable, contribution to medical science.

We next see Vivian in a hospital bed. (Thompson shaved her head to play the role.) Dr. Jason Posner, (Jonathan M. Woodward) is her main medical provider, a new M.D. in clinical oncology whose clinical skills as doctor are seriously lacking. Nevertheless, it happens that as an undergraduate student, to round out his educational experience, Jason had taken Vivian’s introductory course in 17th century literature and received an A- from her. This, and his real goal of doing research in a lab, discovering why cancer cells divide as they do, resonates with her.

The one role in the film I find problematic is that of Susie Monahan, R.N., B.S.N., the primary nurse for the cancer inpatient unit at the University Hospital. Audra McDonald is fine in the part, except she obviously is not a nurse. If she were she would have known how to convey an image of the nurse as both a sympathetic caretaker and a highly skilled, highly educated member of the medical team treating Vivian for cancer. And why is she Susie rather than Susan or Ms Monahan?  In this blog, The Truth About Nursing, nurses challenge the stereotypical view of nurses as relatively unskilled woman workers whose main function is to give personal care to someone who is sick, of nurses as simply the doctor’s helper. (One of my blog posts on the history of medicine is relevant here)

We meet characters in Vivian’s previous life through flashbacks with students and her classroom, with her English literature mentor, Dr. E.M. Ashford, (Eileen Atkins), and with her father, played by Harold Pinter.

I recommend you read Derek F. Amanatullah’s “The Importance of a Physician’s Wit: A Critical Analysis of Science in Medicine“. I read it several times. He added in an Acknowledgement – “Thank you to Margaret Edson for writing Wit. It has been my pleasure to read this play as well as see it in the theater and on screen. As an aspiring medical scientist, I have had few works impact me so deeply and profoundly.”

Margaret Edson is a teacher well-schooled in literature and the theatre and wrote Wit as a play for those who love words and the meaning of love and life. Still, she had to have been influenced by her mother’s experience as a medical social worker and by her own brief time as unit clerk in the AIDS and cancer treatment wing of a research hospital. She observed well. Throughout the film we see hospital staff, parts of the hospital, medical students, and how the system functions.

From this comment on the play, seen on stage last year – “Margaret Edson’s “Wit,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999, is the best play ever written about cancer. In fact, I’d say it’s the best play ever written about hospitals, too, and about the loss of control we all fear or feel, once we find ourselves down that rabbit hole, pushed, prodded and studied by others for whom we are, inevitably, a workplace assignment. …  For ourselves, of course, we’re just all we have ever known.”  The reviewer thinks hospital care has changed for the better since 1999.

Yes. Hospital care has changed somewhat, but the medical establishment’s thinking about treating the elderly and seriously ill with heroic measures, such as surgery and chemotherapy, with their often devastating side effects, has changed even more. I responded to Vivian accepting Susie’s advice on adopting a Do Not Resuscitate order. DNC means that in case a very sick/elderly patient’s heart stops, the usually ineffective cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) should be withheld. Vivian wants a natural death, to stop the treatments that are keeping her barely alive, miserable and in pain, and Susie become the sympathetic care taker she needs. Today, in the U.S., Hospice is available for someone like Vivian (given she stops being a research subject). It is a service covered under Medicare, the government medical insurance for the elderly, for people who are nearing the end of life and turn away from further curative medical care. It is care provided by a team of health care professionals who maximize comfort for the terminally ill person by reducing pain and addressing physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs. To help the patient’s family, hospice also provides counseling, respite care and practical support. Unlike other medical care, the focus of hospice care isn’t to cure the underlying disease. The goal of hospice care is to support the highest quality of life possible for whatever time remains.

I have a DNR order in my will. I intend to avoid the sort of medical treatment that simply puts off the inevitable for a few months. I hope for a natural death with a good quality of life to the end, turning, if necessary, if sick and in pain from an incurable illness, to palliative care rather than curative care.

From the Journal of Humanities in Rehabilitations, A creative exploration of the human experience of disability and healing – —  we have an article, “An analysis of the movie for teaching medical, and other, students” and (M. Edson, Personal Communication, March 13, 2015) Margaret Edson teiling its author :

“Wit is not a story of survival. Instead, the film deconstructs the typical tale of staying strong through cancer treatment, overcoming the odds, and surviving. The film skillfully constructs a story of repair and restoration of the individual not through treatment of the body ravaged by cancer, but by admitting one’s weaknesses, exposing oneself, and, perhaps most frightening of all, relinquishing control and, in the process, becoming vulnerable. In the end, one is left with the feeling that the main character of the play is being “healed, not cured.”


For much of my adult life, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, I lived in different counties — the U.S., Somalia, Turkey, India, France, Indonesia, then back to the U.S. — but really and essentially I lived between two worlds, one world as a wife and mother, and the other as an anthropologist concerned with primary health care for women and children. My family life happened in modern urban neighborhoods of families where the men, and a few women, were lawyers, doctors, highly placed government officials or business managers, and the women were well educated. It was an upper middle class lifestyle, much the same from country to country. My other world, the one I chose to know, was traditional, rural, village or small town, farming the economic base, and close to or within easy access from home. In my modern world, as wife and mother in a cross-cultural marriage and working part-time, I was unusual but acceptable. In my traditional world I gained acceptance as an outsider. Inside the community there was no place for a woman like me, independent and individualistic, even when her husband understood and supported her. (I am in tears, remembering Ravi, as I write this.)

With this stated, I note here that I write often about women’s changing roles and in this post express my take on why traditional roles for women are so few and so narrow but how recent technology has changed the ground rules for what a woman can do and be. However, attention must be paid; change means educating girls for the future, for the modern world. In an essay, here, I describe an experience in rural India, in the late 1980s, where I happened to fall into a long conversation with a thoughtful, intelligent man, a farmer who had, as a boy, attended a local English-medium school. We were sitting at a government station, the center of the newly installed irrigation system. I was waiting for the jeep to take me back to the health center and he was waiting his turn for his fields to be watered. At one point I asked about his children and learned that he sends his sons, but not his daughters, to school. He explained why, and given the nature of farm work and the necessary division of labor, what he said made sense. Nevertheless, given the new agricultural technology in play at that very moment, I questioned his wisdom on not preparing his daughters for the future world of work, and his response was interesting. (I visited his village and took the photos shown with the essay.)

I wish this beautifully made film,Girl Rising, had been available to show him and others in his village. It is about beautiful girls from around the world, showing how we can make the future better for everyone, economically and socially, through a direct and doable change – by educating our girls as well as our boys.    Here for the film/video.

Here for the amazing full cast and crew, people such as Meryl Streep, Sammy Sheik, Freida Pinto, Lian Neeson.

Here for why and how the video was made —  “Early marriage, gender disparity and regressive social mindsets are common stumbling blocks that girls from poor backgrounds face around the world.  Girl Rising spotlights the stories of nine such girls who overcome their unforgiving circumstances by believing in their own power and potential. Join Senior Producer of Girl Rising, Martha Adams and Filmmaker and Writer of the Indian story in Girl Rising, Sooni Taraporevala in conversation with Former Head of the Social Communications Media Department, Sophia Polytechnic, Professor of Film Appreciation and Dancer, Jeroo Mulla, as they journey around the globe to witness the strength of the human spirit and demonstrate the power of education to change a girl, and the world.”


“Marshall” gives us a young lawyer fighting against formidable odds for justice under the law, a story from the 1940s based on actual events in the life of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

In Matt Zoller Seitz’s review the movie is alternatively “ … a legal potboiler …  (paying) attention to issues of racial, religious and gender discrimination … (while) giving us an entertaining film about a couple of guys who are in way over their heads. … (then) …… the further away from the courtroom we get, …“Marshall” starts to feel like a detective thriller with subtle Western movie accents:  … the movie’s terse, one-word title positions its hero as a tough, smart sheriff trying to clean up a corrupt town …  “

In the Peter Debruge review, the movie … “treats Marshall as a rich, three-dimensional character, encouraging Chadwick Boseman to imagine him as Denzel Washington did Easy Rawlins in “Devil in a Blue Dress,” or the way Spencer Tracy brought depth to Henry Drummond in “Inherit the Wind.” By approaching Marshall as an idealistic young trial lawyer, the film stands on its own as a compelling courtroom drama, complete with surprising revelations — and while we hope things will go his way, this case could just as easily prove the one that motivated his future crusade (much as Finch failed to exonerate Tom Robinson in “Mockingbird”).

Until the movie, all I knew of Thurgood Marshall was his appointment to the Supreme Court. My husband, Ravi, and I were concerned with civil rights generally, but not with the law or specific rights under the law. Besides, Marshall was appointed in 1967, the year before we left home for our expatriate life. I realized only recently that it was Marshall who had, in 1954, argued and won the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case before the Supreme Court. We celebrated the decision as a victory for schools and education, quite unaware of it being, as well, a landmark case that would shape future legal decisions.

The Court’s ruling changed America at its base, in the daily life of every child. Public schools in the U.S. are not run by the federal government. Each of the fifty States has its own public school system, governed under that State’s law and that State’s Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision declared that State laws allowing for separate African-American and White public schools were no longer in accord with the U.S. Constitution. It overturned the law Congress had passed in 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, that allowed the States to keep segregated public schools as long as the facilities for all the children were equal. In fact, everywhere segregated schools were far from equal.

Marshall’s and the NAACP’s argument in Brown vs. Board of Education centered on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that declares “no State shall … deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws.” They convinced the Court to rule in a unanimous decision that separate inherently means unequal. In effect, the decision called for admitting Black children into well-funded public schools in White neighborhoods. However, in 1955, a second Court decision ordered States to desegregate “with all deliberate speed,” a vague order complicating local situations. The principle of equality has been established but the fight for truly equal schooling continues.

Equality is written into the Constitution, America’s sacred document. Even racists recognize the principle of equality while acting against it. The NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, fought in the courts for the right of all citizens, all Americans, to equal treatment in our public institutions. Martin Luther King, in 1967, took the struggle forward to bring about economic justice as well, for the right to a decent life and equal opportunity. His Poor People’s Campaign was a multiracial effort—including African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Native Americans—aimed at alleviating poverty regardless of race.

The movie is more dramatized history than a standard biopic. Marshall was one of two children of educated parents in a middle-class family, part of an African-American middle-class community in Baltimore, a major transportation, industrial and cultural center in Maryland, a state that had been part of the slave-holding South but joined the North during the Civil War. Thurgood graduated from a segregated but good high school in 1926, then attended Lincoln University, an historically Black college in Pennsylvania, majoring in American literature and philosophy, and despite having spent much of his time on the school’s debating team and partying with his fraternity brothers, graduated with honors. Among his classmates were Kwame Nkrumah, the future president of Ghana; Langston Hughes, the great poet; and Cab Calloway, the famous jazz singer.

 After his applying to the University of Maryland School of Law and being refused because of race, Thurgood’s mother sold her gold wedding ring to pay for Howard, a high-ranked Black university in Washington, D.C. He received his Howard School of Law diploma in 1933, first in his class, a protégé of professor Charles Hamilton Houston, and upon graduation set up a private law practice in Baltimore. Among Marshall’s first legal victories was Murray v. Pearson (1935), in which he successfully sued the University of Maryland for denying an African American applicant admission to its law school simply on the basis of race. In 1936 Charles Houston brought Marshall into the NAACP as a staff lawyer. In 1940, he was named chief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund based in New York City.

Here for a good description of his career.

In the movie, we see Marshall living in NY with his wife, in Harlem, early in his career, courageously taking on civil rights cases in the South, often without pay, while also socializing with sophisticated and famous Black artists in fancy Harlem night clubs.

I was puzzled when hearing Chadwick Boseman say in an interview that the Marshall family had chosen him to play Thurgood. Boseman is intelligent but hardly an intellectual. Nevertheless, he found the great man an attractive character, one who had a sense of humor, was the life of the party, self-confident, carrying himself with a swagger. A cool dude. “[The] leading civil rights lawyer of his time is a surprising man, full of contradictions,” LIFE noted in a 1955 profile. “No solemn crusader, he is high-spirited, loud-talking and wisecracking. Profoundly devoted to a cause, he usually looks and sounds like a man who is mainly concerned with satisfying his zest for life.”  Still, everyone spoke of Marshall’s commanding presence and I wonder if Boseman captures that.

I saw something in the movie’s Marshall that was written into the role by the screenwriters, Michael Koskoff, a well-known lawyer, and his son Jacob, a professional screenwriter. It has to do with Marshall’s love of formal debate. I was on a debate team in high school, in university watched debate team competitions and became convinced that the most skillful debaters won through having, in addition to knowledge and analysis, a solid understanding of the mindset their opponents brought to the argument. Strategically placed humor was especially effective with the audience. The Koskoffs present Marshall’s social intelligence, his attention to what motivates individuals and the way they reason, how people relate to one another in the community, and he uses this understanding in selecting the jury, in shaping the defense, in addressing the jury.

“Marshall” is an excellent movie, thoroughly engaging, and since the legal case was fought in the North, in a New England courtroom, it broadens one’s perspective on the history of racism. I intend to see it again. Everyone involved in making the movie — the Director, Producer, screenwriters, and the excellent actors — all of them, did so out of love and commitment.

Do watch a video, here  Chadwick Boseman discusses the NAACP and what happened recently with football players demonstrating against police violence toward Black men.

For another — Josh Gad’s remarks are especially insightful, well-informed and well-expressed. He thinks of the movie as a superhero story about two men who wear suits instead of capes



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, including this one. It tells me definitely that I will like Lenore. 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 her and her instincts.

Click here for Lenore’s video/film —  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.