Thursday, January 13, 2022

Reflections of Richard Leakey

It seems that the past several weeks have featured more than the usual number of notable deaths, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, E.O. Wilson, and Betty White. Just after the passing of these nonagenarians came news of the death at age 77 of a slightly younger fellow whose work I knew less well.

Word Art from the Ngaren Museum 
My favorite librarian and I both recall hearing anthropologist Richard Leakey in a lecture hall when we were students, though we cannot recall for certain when or where this was. I remember only that he was part of a noted family of anthropologists and that he had rather a cantankerous personality. As with many notables, I seem to have learned more about him after his death than I did when he was alive.

Vivienne Nunis interviewed Leakey for the BBC program Business Daily, in the context of a career changer. In just 18 minutes, they discuss several very different phases of his professional life, which really began when he was a child tagging along on archeological digs with his parents, anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey. He lived his entire life in the English colonial territory that would become the country of Kenya.

In the first phase of his adult life, he reached into the distant past, literally uncovering the lives of humans who had lived in the Rift Valley 1.6 million years ago. He then became a noted conservationist whose audacious protests led to protection of elephants through restrictions on the trade in ivory (this benefited whales as well). His work as a conservationist was linked in complicated ways to his political life and other government service.

The most important part of the interview is the discussion of the work of what has turned out to be his sunset years. His understanding of humans across eons led him to fervent work on the problem of climate change. He sees the arc of human experience from deep prehistory to a precarious future from his lifetime in the Rift Valley, where we began and where our fate is clearly undecided. He and his colleagues have been working to capture that entire arc in the Ngaren Museum, where ground will be breaking soon on a project animated by this view of time.

Leakey was also profiled in a 2010 issue of Sierra, the magazine of the U.S.-based environmental organization. In Elephant Man, journalist Susan Zakin begins the story at the Peponi Hotel on the island of Lamu, where they were supposed to meet. His refusal to come ashore at the hotel becomes a metaphor for his uneasy status with fellow colonials. The profile she writes provides important details about the first two phases of the life Leakey discussed with Nunis last month, especially his work in environmental policy. 

Note: Their meeting took place at a time when many tourists were avoiding Kenya because of violence surrounding national elections. This coincided with my owned planned visit to the country. I had plane tickets and plans to meet a student and her family near Mount Kenya -- where both tea and coffee are produced. Just before the trip, she completely disappeared. I was never certain whether something had happened directly to her and her family or if she cut off contact to protect me.

Lagniappe 

Leakey's transition from renowned anthropologist to avid climate-change activist reminds me of a similar transition on the part of Jane Goodall, a protegée of Louis Leakey who thankfully is still with us. I point to some of her work in my 2020 post Jane Goodall: Climate, Community, Coffee. I have updated that post to include her January 2022 BBC interview, which pairs nicely with the Leakey interview above.

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