Tuesday, 17 April 2018

O is for Old men ...and Olduvai...

is for

Osibisa, the Afropop/Highlife African heritage band formed in Britain by an expat Ghanaian, I'm giving you their Ojah. They became popular in the years I was growing up in Nigeria and toured India in 1980, though I never got the chance to watch them perform live. 'Inspired' some Bollywood tunes as well, if I'm not mistaken. But all happy memories, happy listening!

And Koffi Olomide from DRC, one of the top ten richest musicians from Africa with Obrigado. His music’s popular, he has many gold albums to his name, but the man seems unpleasant - a pretty unsavoury reputation for assaulting people. Don't quite get why making great art and/or having oodles of cash should give anyone a free pass to be obnoxious to their fellow humans - thoroughly disapprove.

Olduvai and Old men -  On a July morning, Mary Leakey, the British-born, palaeo-anthropologist wife of Louis Leakey, left her husband back in the camp because he was unwell, and drove out alone to the dig. That day she came across a bone fragment she said ‘looked like part of a skull’ with a ‘hominid’ appearance. She dusted the topsoil away to uncover two large teeth set in the curve of a jaw. Excited, she went back to the camp and told Leakey, 'I’ve got him!' Further fragments were uncovered in the following days and were pieced together by the Leakeys to form the skull of one of the oldest hominin fossils at 1.75 million years. Louis Leakey called it Zinjanthropus boisei - it was commonly known as 'The Nutcracker Man' on account of the strong, large molars. They thought it was the fossil of ancestral humans, which later on turned out it wasn’t. A cousin species.

But what this fossil did was to establish the origins of humans firmly in Africa, something Louis Leakey had been convinced of since his childhood. Prior to this, most palaeontologists were of the opinion that the species Homo had originated in Asia. This fossil laid that to rest and proved Darwin to be stunningly accurate in his prediction ancestral human fossils would be located in Africa, because that is where our closest relatives, the other great primates resided.

This find propelled both the Leakeys and the site to worldwide fame. The year was 1959 and that dig was in Olduvai Gorge in the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania.

Olduvai, a misspelt version of Oldupai, a Masai word for the wild sisal which grows there, is a steep ravine about 30 miles in length and around 300 feet in depth, too small to be a canyon. It lies between the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti Park, and about 40 km from Laetoli, another important archaeological site. Olduvai was formed around 30,000 years ago, the result of geological activity and rivers shaping topography. The oldest layers go back about 2 million years.

The Olduvai Gorge is inextricably linked with the stories of Louis and Mary Leakey, their pioneering work and deep involvement in East African palaeontology.

For Louis Leakey it started at birth, born to missionary parents in Kenya in 1903, and brought up among the Kikuyu tribe, he grew up more Kikuyu than British. It seeded a love of the wildlife and wildernesses in him pretty early. Out looking for birds in the grasslands, he found prehistoric stone implements. For a time he thought of ornithology as a career, but his interests were too wide-ranging to settle on a specific course – he studied rock art, and fossil bones, and stone tools, and tribal customs.

He set up research stations to study primate behaviour, surmising that clues to human evolution would come from them. He published widely, sometimes before he had compiled enough evidence to support his claims. This was possibly why he never earned the recognition he craved all his life from the British scientific community. He was flamboyant, passionate, supremely unconventional, and a showman par excellence.

He went back to Africa from Cambridge to look for hominid fossils at a time when most academics thought that Asia was the place to look for them, since two such fossils had been discovered, first in Java and then in China. But Louis was always convinced humans had evolved in Africa, as Darwin had predicted, and it was Louis and Mary’s work that uncovered the tangible proof. Both their work was primarily centred in Olduvai.

Mary’s involvement with Olduvai was just as deep even if it wasn’t lifelong. She was born in London and spent some of her early years travelling with her family in USA, Egypt, Italy and France. In France she was exposed to the work of archaeologist Elie Peyrony and developed an interest in the subject. However, she did not do well at school and therefore a formal degree was impossible.

She met Louis Leakey through an archaeologist friend as an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestor in 1934. They became romantically involved and Mary moved in with him causing a huge scandal, as at the time Louis’ wife, Frida, was pregnant with their second child. This ruined Louis’ chances of a career at Cambridge and probably his chances of formal recognition for his work. They married after Frida divorced Louis in 1936.

Mary Leakey did most of the fieldwork for the team, both at Olduvai and at Laetoli – she uncovered the Proconsul (a primate ancestor) fossil as well as the Nutcracker Man, as also the Laetoli footprints, a trail of fossilised prints of early hominids which showed bipedalism. She published jointly with Louis, however much of her work she allowed to be credited to her husband. Louis was a serial philanderer and this undermined their marriage, but it was a difference of professional opinion on artefacts recovered from a site in America that was the final straw in their estrangement.

Mary Leakey continued the family’s anthropological work after Louis’ sudden death in 1972. She passed away in 1996. For sixty years this husband-wife pair dominated the search for human origins in Africa. Often known as the first family of African palaeontology, several of Louis and Mary descendants carry on their work in East Africa. Read more about that here.

From the Safaris

~ Thank you for watching! ~

Books n Stuff

Ben Okri (1959 - ) is a Nigerian author, poet and essayist. His work is difficult to categorise, but he is certainly among the most important and internationally acclaimed post-colonial writers from Africa. He published his first novel at the age of 21, and subsequently bagged the 1991 Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road. Together with Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches, it makes the trilogy he is most famous for. The Famished Road is also one of the first books my husband gave me as a gift, thinking I would be interested in an Nigerian author and of course he was right – I cherish my copy!

The Famished Road is a long book – and it’s a book you either love or dislike, no middle ground. It’s kind of underpinned by Nigerian mythology – the main character is an ‘Abiku’ – a spirit child that is ‘born to die’ and unless the reader is familiar with that it can be a bit of a puzzle to get da ole head to wrap around that. Fortunately I had to learn not one, but two poems titled ‘Abiku’ at school – by Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark respectively – and so I knew exactly what an Abiku was.

Ben Okri went on to win several awards after The Famished Road and he was awarded the OBE in 2001. He’s written some poetry too. Check him out if you like magical realism or fantasy.

Gabriel Okara (1921-) is a Nigerian poet. I read his poems at school, which is a long while ago now. He is the first West African poet to write and publish poetry in English. In 1953, his poem ‘The Call of the River Nun’ won an award in the Nigerian Festival of Arts. He published also in the Black Orpheus literary journal, and by the 1960’s had established his reputation as a notable poet. Here is an excerpt from ‘Piano and Drums’ taken from my school text shown on the left. Amazon gave me this result, different cover, different edition –

When at break of day at a riverside
I hear jungle drums telegraphing
the mystic rhythm, urgent, raw,
like bleeding flesh, speaking of
primal youth and the beginning,
I see the panther ready to pounce,
the leopard snarling about to leap
and the hunters crouch with spears poised;

Very evocative! And I notice, after all this time, he didn’t capitalise each line, unlike Wole Soyinka and J.P. Clark, who are younger actually. How nifty is that?

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2018


  1. No arguments about the entitlement of the rich and the famous to behave badly. Opprobious behaviour.
    Hooray for Mary Leakey, working in what was undoubtedly considered a man's world.

    1. A true lover of science too - she let most of the credit for her work go to her husband, she wasn't in it for name and fame, unlike her husband.

  2. Hari OM
    Oh I was hoping you would pick Ben Okri!!! One of my faves. The Leakeys were large characters (as son Richard remains) and could be controversial - but there is no doubt of the contribution to paleontology. YAM xx

    1. ..and Ben Okri is right here :) Louis was definitely more controversial than Mary methinks...

  3. Leakey's parents were missionaries and yet he tried to prove the evolution of man? Yeah, go figure.

    1. At the time religion and science did not seem so incompatible...peaceful and happy coexistence was possible despite differences...in many spheres.

  4. So much information, I don't even know where to begin with my commenting...I really love the Osibisa tune!
    Melanie's Stories

    1. Osibisa was part of my growing up years :) love them too.

  5. Sometimes I think that power corrupts, as the saying goes. Other times, I wonder if it's really fame and/or fortune that make some people turn into jerks, or if these people were just born that way and said fame or fortune both enables their disgusting actions and makes these actions more noticeable to the public at large. Let's face it, there are plenty of rich and famous people out there who aren't unsavory individuals.

    1. Ya, the kind, sensible rich vastly outnumber the nasty ones. I don't think people who are fundamentally compassionate turn into horrible mean demons the minute they get rich...nice folks mostly remain that way... ghastly mean folks might get nastier with fame and fortune, but the trait was there to begin with, the fame and moolah just shows it up more because they are more in the public eye.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Right. Danny Bonaduce, a star at an early age, on TV's The Partridge Family, was once asked why so many child stars end up as drug addicts, or in trouble with the law, etc. His reply was that he thinks some people are just screw-ups no matter what their occupation, and if the "screw-up" is a child actor, he'll be a screwed-up child actor! Bonaduce pointed out people like Ron Howard, who was a child star yet turned out to be a responsible, successful adult.

  6. Replies
    1. Glad you liked it, and thanks for your support at this A-Z.

  7. Hi Nila - loved Obisisi - delightful to listen to ... won't bother with the other one - I must read some of the African authors ... I'm a poor reader - perhaps I'll look for some while I'm out here.

    THe Olduvai Gorge ... so interesting to see it and read up about it ... but the Leakeys too - I didn't know their back story as such ... amazing sometimes what happens and is found - cheers Hilary

    1. The Leakeys were trail blazers of their time - always in the news, sometimes for the wrong reasons.