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How Louis Leakey used Kikuyu as his trump card

Leakey Family: From left Richard Leakey, Mary Leakey, Philip Leakey, Louis Leakey, and Jonathan Leakey. [File, Standard]

On July 20, 2022, with the country deeply gripped by election fever, Kamoya Kimeu, Kenya’s well-known fossil hunter died. He was estimated to be 84 years old. Kimeu’s life mirrored that of the country’s famous paleontologists, the Leakey family.

In a previous interview, Kimeu stated that one of the things that attracted him to the Leakeys was their proficient knowledge of the Kikuyu language. In fact, Loius Leakey decided to interview Kimeu for his first job in Kikuyu.

The exploits of the Leakey family in Kikuyuland are legendary. Louis’ father, Harry, had come to Kenya, then British East Africa as a missionary and went on to set up a Church Missionary Society (CMS) mission in Kabete in 1902.

The local Kikuyu nicknamed him ‘giteru’ due to his long and bushy beard, so bushy that a rat in the dusty mud hut had made a “hearty meal out of the moustache” without his knowledge! It was here that Louis was born in 1903.  Louis grew up largely under the influence of his Kikuyu agemates to the point where he was initiated into ‘riika ria mukanda’ or those circumcised at the time of the new ropes.

It was the local elders who arranged for him to get initiated in a secret ceremony after which he was given the name ‘wakaruigi’, or the son of the sparrow hawk. He would later name his fist child Priscilla Muthoni. Virginia Morell, in the book Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings quotes Louis as saying: In language and mental outlook, I was more Kikuyu than English, and it never occurred to me to act other than a Kikuyu.”

Like the Kikuyu boys his age, Louis moved out of his father’s house to build a mud and wattle hut in a small corner of the farm where he started keeping birds’ eggs, nests, skulls and stones, perhaps signaling his future occupation as a fossil hunter. He disliked his school years in England where many viewed him as a boy “yet I had built myself a three-roomed house and lived in it for two years”. 

At Cambridge, wrote Morell, Louis convinced college authorities to accept Kikuyu as one of his two modern-language requirements and went ahead to produce a testimonial signed with the thumbprint of Senior Chief Koinange.

He also trained his teacher in Kikuyu with the other students alleging that he was examining himself in Kikuyu. He startled many when he prayed for a meal at Cambridge in Kikuyu instead of the usual Latin. He dropped out of college in 1923 and went fulltime into fossil hunting a year later.

Louis died in 1972. His son, Richard, continued the family legacy before his death in January 2022, aged 77.