A Turkana Man Finds a Career in Science

By Michael Ruiz

Francis Ekai

Francis Ekai began fossil-hunting in 1999, a career he says helped support his entire family. Although he takes pride in being a part of Richard Leaky’s work, he said working at the Turkana Basin Institute taught him many life-skills he could pass on to his relatives.

TURKANA, Kenya —As a child Francis Ekai, a member of the pastoralist Turkana tribe, watched a team of anthropologists dig up a nearly-complete fossilized skeleton near his father’s grazing land.

“I wondered what these people were doing,” he recalled. “Why were they carting off some old bones?”

He was a grown man by the time he learned how big a deal those bones had been. They were the bones of the now-famous Turkana Boy, a 1.5-million-year-old specimen of Homo erectus. The 1984 discovery by paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey and his team is the most complete skeleton of an early human ever found.

“I thought, ‘Oh! No wonder they wanted those bones,’” Ekai said. “I thought that work was so important.”

That’s when Ekai decided to change the course of his life and turn away from his ancestral pastures. Realizing, he said, the anthropological richness of his home, he wanted to join the quest to trace humanity’s roots.

Ekai’s new course took him away from the abject poverty of the region and sent him down a road that eventually would bring him into contact with Leakey again — this time not as a curious child, but as a collaborator.

Ekai first found work as a translator for a team of French anthropologists who trained him to – among other things – identify fossils. He worked with the French during summer fossil-hunting season starting in 1999, but his elders — who had never explained to him the excavations from his childhood — tried to convince him to remain a herder.

“My family tried to get me to change my mind, but the work was something good,” Ekai said. Then his family ran into what Ekai would describe only as“trouble,” and they had no choice but to let him work.

“You find a job and you stay,” he said, “and you have enough to help support the family.”

So Ekai worked hard and earned more than enough to help support his parents. Then he married his first wife. The more he worked, the more apparent it became to him that working created a better quality of life than pastoralism. He married a second and third wife, got a girlfriend, and now has 18 children — some Turkana traditions he couldn’t leave behind.

As his family grew, Ekai found that he needed a second job. In 2002, he got an off-season position as a liaison between a Roman Catholic mission and the Turkana community. Ekai’s employers took note of his work ethic and put his name in a registry of reliable field workers that is kept in the National Museum in Nairobi. That’s when his life came full circle.

In 2010, based on recommendations from the French team and the mission, Leakey himself found Ekai in the registry and asked him to join the staff of the Turkana Basin Institute, an interdisciplinary scientific research outpost co-founded by Leakey and Stony Brook University.

“They brought me in for a week to work with them in the field,” Ekai said. “Then they offered me a three-month contract, then a year, then two years.”

He is still at the institute.

“I use him for the field school, I use him as a translator,” said Ikal Angelei, a Turkana Basin Institute administrator. “Whatever I need done, I use Francis. I use him for everything.”

Francis speaks Turkana, Swahili, French and English. He has a trained eye for finding fossils, and he works in the lab, too.

“They taught me how to Internet,” he said, noting that he could never have maintained long-distance contacts if he were still that boy in the pasture, watching others work. Now he has Facebook and Gmail accounts to keep in touch with former students of the institute’s field school, a semester-long study-abroad program run by Stony Brook University’s anthropology department.

But the Internet is not all he has learned from his work.

“I learned so much,” he said. “And my children and my parents, I’ve taught them. Taught them how to plant, to fish, to live when the rain isn’t there, to get along with foreigners. How to make friends.”