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Richard Leakey: the atheist who lost kidney, legs, bit of liver but never gave up

President Daniel arap Moi and Richard: The government could fire and re-hire the strong-willed paleoanthropologist. [Archives, Standard]

For a man who never believed in God, death on a Sunday when most Christians worship their creator could not have been more ironic.

Richard Leakey's life was a life of ironies and contrasts; a form two drop-out who became a CEO of a public institution and world-famous paleoanthropologist; a man who lost his vital organs but lived to his 70s, and died with 15 honorary degrees.  In April 2019, our writer Mercy Orengo caught up with him in what was one of his last media interviews. In this re-publication, Leakey reiterated that God was the biggest lie under the sun.

Richard Leakey had several brushes with death.

When he was a boy, he fell off a horse and fractured his skull. A few years later, a puff adder – one of the deadliest snakes in the world – sunk its fangs into his fingers during a translocation gone wrong.

Had it not been for his father Louis Leakey’s swift injection with an anti-venom, Richard shuddered to think of what would have happened.

Years later, his kidney malfunctioned and doctors said his time on earth was limited.

His brother Philip donated a kidney but his body rejected it. Death loomed, with doctors giving a grim prognosis until his body adjusted; as if by miracle.

Then his liver failed. His friend donated a slice of his own.

Simply put, Leakey has tangoed with death, but his foot was always ahead of the dance. 

His most chilling experience was surviving a plane crash in 1993. He lost control of the aircraft he was piloting and it tumbled down.

He said when he was on the ground, with the engine pressed on his legs, he thought for a moment that his life was ending.

He lost consciousness.

When he came to, he was at Nairobi Hospital being prepared for amputation. He lost both legs.

His friends called his survival the hand of God. Leakey called it luck. He didn’t believe in God.

“God is the biggest fake news of all time. I am a humanist. I believe in evolution,” he says.

When pressed for a description about himself, he liked to be recognised as the man who played a leading role in establishing the place of Africans in evolution.

A passionate scientist and conservationist, Richard Leakey landed speaking engagements in world-class universities and museums. [Archives, Standard]

For a long time, people described Africans as primitive, so for him to prove that humanity shares the same ancestry was one of his biggest achievements.

The Leakeys have been involved in several archaeological findings that are acclaimed all over the world. Richard had 15 honorary degrees and more than 30 awards.

For a man who dropped out of school in Form Two aged 16, this is no mean feat.

He hated school and found it unnecessary and boring. He performed dismally and when teachers told his parents: “Richard has no potential; not even in the army with these grades,” he said he almost leapt with joy.

It meant his dreaded trips to Duke of York, now Lenana School were over.

From then, he tried different things: A tour company and the keeping snakes.

 He also boiled carcasses and sold skeletons to museums abroad.

Leakey became director of the National Museums of Kenya when he was 22 and

started his career in paleoanthropology by accompanying his father to different excavation sites.

He became chairman of KWS in 1990 when poachers ruled supreme. In one meeting, he gave them what humanitarians considered the worst advice.

“If they shoot you, shoot back. Deal with them,” he told rangers.

There was an outcry when people started complaining that KWS was killing innocent people.

Leakey was criticised for valuing wildlife over humans. In 1989, he led in the burning of 12 tonnes of ivory, significantly reducing the market price. He was winning the fight against poaching.

William Kiprono, a former KWS director who worked with Leakey, described him as a go-getter. He got what he wanted. Richard’s flaw, he said, was that he did not delegate.

He believed he could do it all and did not trust his juniors.

“He wants to do everything so it makes it hard for him to mentor people,” Kiprono said.

Others think Leakey was arrogant and unpredictable. One of the people who worked with him closely said he was hard to be around.

“He believes he knows everything. When you tell him something different, he gets annoyed,” he said.

Leakey thought it was his impatience that is often mistaken for arrogance.

“I am impatient and forceful. People take too long to move and I cannot take it,” he says.

When the translocation of 14 rhinos to Tsavo led to their death, Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala blamed Leakey, saying he had sabotaged the process because he was bitter that his contract at the KWS was not to be renewed.

“I was attacked in ways I cannot forgive. I was very upset. I do not want to revisit it,” said Leakey on Balala’s claims.

His fallout with his brother Philip who had a dalliance with the Kanu regime while Richard was in opposition under Safina party was a much-discussed topic.

Paul Muite, who cofounded Safina with Leakey, says at one point, he met Philip who told him: “Tell Richard the kidney I gave him belongs to Kanu. Kanu wants its kidney back.”

Richard hated it when people asked him about Philip’s kidney. He said it was his kidney; that once someone donated an organ, it stopped being theirs and becomes property of the recipient.

When he was appointed head of the civil service in 1999, he sacked 25,000 civil servants.

He said it was a low moment in his life as many considered him an enemy, but he believes it had to be done.

He led an eventful life and was currently working on his Ngaren project, a museum that will celebrate human evolution.

Leakey told me the project will show humanity’s journey by exposing forces that shape Earth’s climate, evolution, a timescale of human’s existence and impact.

It will be on a 300-acre piece in Corner Baridi, 60 kilometres from Nairobi.