Dr. Frederick Kyalo Manthi is is a senior research scientist and head of the paleontology section at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi. He has been involved with the Wenner-Gren Foundation since 2006, completing several post-Ph.D. research grants aiding investigation of Pleistocene-era Kenya and running workshops intended to spread human-evolution education in Kenya. He is also one of the very first recipients of WGF’s new Engaged Anthropology grant, which allowed him to bring his research back to the people of his fieldsite, northern Kenya’s Turkana Basin. As per the requirements of the EAG, Manthi has submitted his final report to the Wenner-Gren Blog, so that we can all gain some insight into his experience with this exciting new program.
Kenya has a rich prehistoric record (particularly fossil remains) that has contributed significantly to our understanding of the evolutionary history of human and non-human species. Sedimentary rocks in particularly the Turkana Basin in northern Kenya have contributed significantly to understanding the evolution of humans and many other species during the Plio-Pleistocene. A large number of Kenyans are, however, not aware of this heritage and those that are lack accurate scientific information about our prehistoric past, and how different biological species have evolved over time. Further, a substantial number of people living near prehistoric sites believe that palaeontologists and archaeologists make a lot of money from the sale of fossils and artifacts. This has become more apparent in the last few years during which some researchers (including the author) have had to deal with groups demanding compensation for the fossil and archaeological material recovered from different fossils sites. In view of these scenarios, it has become increasingly important that people living in research areas are educated about the different research undertakings in their regions and the importance of these projects to science and national development.
It is noteworthy that although paleontological, archaeological and geological investigations have been carried-out in the Turkana Basin for over 50 years, there has been minimal (if any) coordinated effort by researchers towards engaging the local people in discussions on the prehistoric remains and the sites from where the remains derive. Engagement between research groups and the local people has in the past been largely in the provision of short-term employment to a few members of the local communities. In the last six years, the author has directed paleontological investigations in the Lake Turkana Basin, with two of these expeditions having been funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. In the course of these expeditions, it continuously became evident that there was need for more engagement between research groups and the local people. With support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation through the Engaged Anthropology Grant, the author organized a very successful outreach program that took place in the Turkana County (Kenya) between the 8th and 23rd February 2013. During the outreach program, discussions centred on the palaeontological, archaeological and geological investigations that have continued to take place in the Turkana Basin to date and their importance to understanding the evolutionary history of different faunal species including humans. The discussions involved village elders who are traditionally men, men and women from different villages as well as the youth.
Preparations for the Engaged Anthropology Program
In preparation for the Engaged Anthropology Program in the Turkana County, the author communicated with the local administrators, particularly Chiefs and their deputies. Following these communications, potential venues for discussions were identified. Several schools were also identified for visit by the author. Because the author is known to most of the local administrators having worked in the area for a long time, it was fairly easy to mobilize the local people.
The activities undertaken The outreach programs were carried out largely in the Lowarengak and Lokitaung areas of the Turkana County. The programs entailed holding public meetings and discussions (commonly known as barazas in Kenya), visits to schools, and discussions with the local administrators. In the public ‘barazas’, the participants were local people (e.g., Figure 1) who are largely illiterate and thus unable to speak or write Kiswahili and English which are the two official languages in Kenya. During these discussions, a selected number of local people who speak Kiswahili and English enabled the discussions to proceed without any major challenges. In these discussions, the author together with the local leaders (and elders) and three assistants, explained to the local people about the region’s rich prehistoric record, and the need for the local people to support all expeditions in the area. Further discussions were also held between the author and the local administrators in order to strengthen the discussions held in the public ‘barazas’. The author also gave the local administrators a guided tour to a few fossil sites including those at Todenyang and the ‘Turkana boy’ site.
Visits were also made to three schools, namely, Lokitaung Secondary School, St. Josephs Secondary School and Lowarengak Primary School. The author presented lectures to the students (see Figure 2) and a selected number of teachers on prehistory and the importance of the local people supporting research expeditions in the area. The author presented a copy of the ‘Human Story’ book by the National Geographic to every school, and four other copies were presented to the area Chiefs (Figure 3) who kept them in their offices for easy access by the general public. Hand-outs and brochures that covered different topics on prehistory and evolution were also presented to different groups. Some exercise books (writing pads) were also given to different schools as a way of supporting efforts by the government and other organizations in the education of children in this very remote part of Kenya.
Matters arising from the discussions
It is noteworthy that during all the discussions held in the course of the ‘Engaged Anthropology Program’, the local people appreciated the efforts by the author to educate them about prehistory research in their region. There were, however, serious concerns that many research groups that work in the area, apart from providing short-term employment to the local people, do not involve the local people in their work. During the public ‘barazas’, the issue of how the local people benefit from prehistory research and collections emanating from this research was a big issue. In the schools visited, numerous students also wanted to know how inhabitants of areas hosting prehistoric sites benefit from prehistory research. As a way of redressing the inadequate involvement of the local people in prehistory research, teachers in the schools visited particularly those at Lokitaung Secondary School, requested that the author organizes a visit by their students to the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi to see some of the fossil collections and to learn more about prehistory. Participants in all the discussions called upon researchers to provide books and other reading materials to communities that host their research. This would help in keeping the local people abreast with the scientific findings and undertakings in their areas. It was also noted that involvement of the local communities in all research undertakings in the Turkana Basin is necessary for encouraging young people in the area towards taking careers in prehistory-related disciplines.
This being the first time that this program was being carried-out, the local people had all kinds of demands and expectations, that ranged from some of them wanting the author to pay school fees for their children to others wanting the author to construct pit latrines in schools. Explaining to the local people most of who are illiterate that the author is unable to meet most of their demands was an up-hill task.
In order to strengthen the gains made during this first Engaged Anthropology Project in the Lake Turkana Basin, it is important that more similar engagements are held in the future in other areas by not only the author but also other researchers working in the Turkana Basin. This would go along way in educating the local people about the importance of prehistory research, and the need for them to support research undertakings in the region.
The involvement of the local communities in all research undertakings in the Turkana Basin is imperative for maintaining not only the sites but also for encouraging young people in the area towards taking careers in prehistory-related disciplines. Unless people living in the area are aware of the prehistoric heritage their areas hold and the possibility of getting involved in studying and preserving it, future work in the area is uncertain. This first Engaged Anthropology Program in the Turkana Basin has laid the foundation for more similar engagements with the local people and will help in providing a conducive environment for different research groups in the Turkana Basin.