The Fossil finder and the Kingmaker

By Mark Nicholson

Two well-known and very different Kenyan characters died on the same day this month, 2 January. Charles Njonjo was a few days short of his 102nd birthday and Richard Leakey was 77. I am almost reluctant to use the word ‘died’ because so many in Kenya these days prefer to say ‘passed away’ or just ‘passed’ as if somehow it sounds less final. When one reads the obituary notices in our newspapers, it is equally common to see the phrase ‘Promoted to Glory’ above a picture of the deceased. I have yet to read of anyone being ‘Demoted to the Burning Fires’, which I suppose is good news to those who might deserve it.

Of the two men, Leakey was better known internationally as a conservationist and archaeologist but Njonjo was better known in Kenya as a shrewd politician and kingmaker. Both were born in the same up-market suburb of Nairobi called Kabete; one was a Gikuyu, the dominant tribe in Kenya, and the other a British-Kenyan whose grandparents arrived in colonial Kenya as missionaries and who became immersed in the Gikuyu culture.* Both eventually became involved in politics and politics brought them both down.

Charles Njonjo was the ultimate patrician of Kenyan politics. He was always perfectly turned out in a Saville Row pinstripe suit with a rose or carnation in his buttonhole and a gold chain across his waistcoat. He was so grand that he became known by the soubriquet ‘the Duke of Kabeteshire’. After a privileged education for a Kenyan of his day, he was awarded a scholarship in England to study public administration, but his real ambition was to study law. After several years in London he was admitted to the Bar at Grays’ Inn in 1952. Eleven years later he became the first African Attorney-General in Kenya which gave him immense power. In 1976, he was involved in secret talks with the Israelis in planning the audacious raid on Entebbe in Uganda during which Israeli hostages were rescued. I remember well the strange noise of several Hercules transports flying into a closed Nairobi airport in the early hours when I was coming back from a party. The raid would have been impossible without the complicity of the Kenyans allowing the Israeli planes to be refuelled on their return to Tel Aviv.

In 1972, aged 51, Njonjo married an Irish lady, Margaret Bryson, which produced a happy marriage for the next 50 years. In 1980, he was made Minister of Justice. Two years later there was an attempted coup against the second President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi. The coup was unsuccessful. Njonjo was indicted for treason and subversion as one of the main conspirators but he was pardoned on the basis of his earlier service to the country. There were even rumours that he himself wished to be made President. In 1998 he was made head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, a post earlier held by Richard Leakey for five years.

Njonjo of course became very wealthy from his various political appointments. He was very close to all the Presidents and played the unofficial role of kingmaker. In recent years he tried unsuccessfully to clear his name from a number of high-profile scandals but in Kenya, politics means wealth. None is untainted as the temptations are just too great.

Richard Leakey in contrast was by reputation fairly incorruptible. A cliché that definitely applied to him was that he did not suffer fools gladly. He certainly would not have appreciated being ‘promoted to glory’. He was brave, combative, uncompromising and would never shy away from controversy. He was also physically tough having survived serious accidents, kidney failure (receiving a donor kidney from his brother, Philip**) and a potentially fatal plane crash when he lost both legs, piloting his own plane alone. The latter incident was almost certainly an attempted assassination but it has never been proved.

Being part of such a well-known family of paleoanthropologists and archaeologists, he was brought up often spending months in remote areas of East Africa. The Leakey family, led by his parents Louis and Mary contributed much to the study of humankind’s evolution and the history of primates in Africa. When Richard was six, his parents were excavating in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Richard’s mother discovered the fossilized skull of a hominid that became known as Zinj, which physicists estimated to be 1.75-1.9 million years old. Richard and his two brothers, Jonathan and Philip, each discovered hominid skulls in their own right. In 1952, Richard’s brother Philip discovered one of the first Homo erectus skulls. Later on, Richard moved north to Koobi Foora on the shores of Lake Turkana where his research assistant Kamoya Kimeu discovered a complete skeleton of a child known as Turkana Boy, another H. erectus. A few years later the team discovered a a much older skull which became known as the Black skull (Australopithecus aethiopicus) dated at 2.3-2.7 million years b.p.

In 1989, Leakey was made head of the newly created Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). It was unusual for a person of European descent to be made head of a parastatal but Leakey charged into the role with vigour and determination. It was a time of widespread poaching and he turned the KWS into a paramilitary force that allowed his rangers to shoot and kill poachers on sight. The following year twelve tons of ivory were publicly burnt as a symbol against elephant poaching. I was one of many against such a display. Not only is ivory very difficult to burn, requiring large quantities of fossil fuels to ignite it but more importantly the ivory should have been sold and the proceeds used for paying more anti-poaching teams. It is doubtful whether burning ivory actually depresses the ivory trade; indeed it is more likely to increase the price.

In time, Leakey’s pugnacious and incorruptible nature made him many enemies. After leaving the KWS, and recovering from his plane accident, he was appointed head of the Civil Service which brought in more international funding. But the stint was short-lived and he was sacked after two years.

Leakey continued to support research in Kenya and routinely gave provocative and interesting lectures. He was the main founder of the Kenya Museum Society and strengthened what is now the Kenya National Museum. He started and chaired several conservation NGOs in East Africa and held academic posts in the USA.

He was a well-known atheist and described all religion as a hoax in the same way that both Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have described faith as humanity’s oldest confidence trick, a combination of wishful thinking and childhood imprinting. Such views are the norm in all the natural sciences be they physics, geology, the neurosciences or evolutionary biology but in Africa, religious faith remains strong and his outspoken opinions were unpopular. Leakey’s argument was that his family contributed to the ever-growing and convincing evidence that our ancestors have been around for at least 3.3 million years and clearly diverged from other primates about 6 million years ago.

I met both men over the years on various occasions but I did not know them well. Of the two, I have no doubt that Njonjo would have been more congenial company but Leakey more intellectually challenging.

I end with an interesting quote from Richard’s father, Louis, in his book Adam’s Ancestors:

We know from the study of evolution that, again and again, various branches of animal stock have become over-specialized, and that over-specialization has led to their extinction. Present-day Homo sapiens is in many physical respects still very unspecialized ... But in one thing man, as we know him today, is over-specialized. His brain power is very over-specialized compared to the rest of his physical make-up, and it may well be that this over-specialization will lead, just as surely, to his extinction.”

*In fact, Richard's grandfather, Harry, secretly enrolled Charles' father, Josiah, in Kabete Mission School, much to the anger of Josiah's father who wanted his eldest son to look after the family's cattle.

**Philip and Richard had been estranged for ten years. After offering his kidney to his brother, Philip said “Now I won’t be able to hate his guts.”