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The Immortals: The ‘ancestral passions’ of The Leakey Family

Leakey Family
 Leakey Family: From left Richard Leakey, Mary Leakey, Philip Leakey, Louis Leakey, and Jonathan Leakey   Photo: Courtesy

The Leakeys are Kenya’s foremost anthropological family, whose story began with missionaries Canon Harry and Mary Leakey settling in Kabete where son Louis Leakey was born in 1903. Canon ‘Giteru’ (meaning goatee) translated the Bible into Kikuyu as wife Mary started a girl’s school, today Mary Leakey Girls High School.

Giteru died in 1940 and was buried at the All Saints Cathedral in Limuru. Three generations of this family has been immortalised in many ways, as Virginia Morell notes in Ancestral Passions, her 1995 bio of The Leakeys.

Louis Leakey: ‘Wakaruigi’ (son of the sparrow hawk) majored in Anthropology and Archaeology at Cambridge University, where he chose Kikuyu language, but there was no competent lecturer to examine him! The author of 20 books “laid the theoretical groundwork for the science of palaeoanthropology” and convinced the world that Africa was the cradle of mankind. He died of a heart attack in 1972.

Frida Leakey: Louis Leakey’s first wife and mother of Priscilla Muthoni and Colin Leakey. They divorced in 1936. Muthoni died in 2012 at 81. Colin Leakey is a plant scientist and the world’s foremost guru on beans!

Mary Douglas Leakey: Eminent archaeologist and second wife of Louis with whom he discovered the 1.75 million-year- old Zinjanthropus that altered our understanding of human evolution. She died in 1996 at the age of 83. The co-recipient (together with Louis) of the 1962 Hubbard Medal - the highest honour from the National Geographic Society - had three children: Jonathan, Richard and Philip Leakey.

Jonathan Leakey: Set up the Snake Park at the Nairobi National Museum. The exporter of poison operates Kampi Ya Samaki tourist camp in Lake Baringo. His frog, ‘Kilimanjaro’ took part in the 32nd Jumping Frog Jubilee in California in 1959!

Dr Richard Leakey: World famous paleoanthropologist, conservationist, one-time director of the National Museums of Kenya, nominated MP, civil service head and recently appointed the chair of Kenya Wildlife Service, was the second Kenyan to appear on the cover of Time in November 7, 1977. The grape farmer runs the Lake Turkana Basin Institute, a pre-history research outfit.

Philip Leakey: Didn’t follow ‘ancestral passions’ and was Lang’ata MP from 1979 until Raila Odinga’s entry in the 1992 general elections. The mineral prospector who speaks Kikuyu and Maa co-runs The Leakey Collection, an eco-friendly African handicraft export company with artist wife Katy Leakey.

Dr Meave Leakey: Richard’s wife, headed the palaeontology department at the National Museums of Kenya and is currently a research professor at the Stony Brook University in New York. Her children are Dr Louise Leakey, a palaeontologist in Koobi Fora, and Samira Leakey a World Bank economist.



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