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Prayers ‘saved’ Leakey, who believed there was no God


A select group of Christians and Muslims were mobilised from all corners of the country to go for a vigil dubbed “Richard Leakey Prayers”. [File, Standard]

As the man who believed there was no God writhed in pain at St Thomas Hospital in England in July 1979, there was a wave of insurrection back at his office in Nairobi.

A cross-section of staff at the National Museum of Kenya were busy praying to the patron saints, holy spirits and other spirits that hovered over Africa, beseeching them to spare the life of their director, Richard Leakey.

His kidneys had failed again and Leakey’s staff feared that if their boss died, they would lose their jobs and the institution they had been serving would cease to exist.

As a select group of Christians and Muslims were being mobilised from all corners of the country to go for vigil dubbed “Richard Leakey Prayers”, another group had other plans.

A traditional doctor who had conducted rituals which saw the sacking of a top researcher who had been investigating Leakey was also conducting his own prayers. The staff who had enlisted his services were confident that their witchdoctor had potent charms that would insulate Leakey from death.

According to details published in Richard E Leakey: Master of Deceit written by Eustace Gitonga and Dr Martin Pickford, the prayers were timed to take place a few weeks before the kidney transplant.

“The church ceremony took place on a Saturday afternoon in a Catholic church at Kimondo village in Nyeri district. The prayers were conducted by a white missionary in the local Gikuyu.

Staff had been ferried to Nyeri from Nairobi, Kitale, Mombasa and Kisumu in buses belonging to the National Museum of Kenya.

The cleric gave a moving sermon of what Leakey had achieved in his life and his qualities, which had endeared him to many people around the world.

Gitonga and Pickford, who had once worked under Leakey but had been fired, describe how the controversial director had to wait for weeks for his brother Phillip Leakey to wind up his political campaigns for a parliamentary seat in Nairobi before he could travel to United Kingdom to donate a kidney.

But as he waited for the promised kidney, Leakey was waging a different type of battle. He was trying to oust Prof Bethwell Ogot as head of The International Louis Leakey Memorial Institute for African Prehistory.

Leakey’s brother Phillip finally made it to St Thomas and gave his kidney to save his sibling although he would often chide him not to take ‘his kidney’ to opposition rallies for Philip was firmly in Kanu. 

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