Sunday, October 23, 2011

Week 6 - The Life of Francis

Me in traditional Turkana garb
Sieving for small fossils
This week was the second week in our paleontology module. Main activities includes more fossil hunting, a research project, and an exercise in visualizing geological time (using toilet paper!). A lot of important fossils are very small, like teeth, bits of cranium, and rodent fossils. So paleontologists sieve the area to recover anything they might have missed while walking around.
The entire 4.5 billion years of Earth's history scaled to the size of a roll of toilet paper

But this week I wanted to redirect your attention from our activities to one of the staff -- Francis Ekai Emekui.
Francis on top of a mountain

Francis has been many things to us in the last six weeks: he is our guide when we leave the compound, he delivers our food from the cooks, he helped me conduct my interviews two weeks ago, and he always has cookies in his bag for when we get hungry out in the field. Additionally, he's a great guy to talk to.
Francis is 36, and has lived in the area for the majority of the great archaeological and paleontological discoveries. He remembers following scientists around during the excavation of Turkana Boy, when he was just 12 years old!
Francis celebrating after finishing sieving
He was born in 1975 in Nariokotome, which is a few hundred kilometers north of here. His father, Ikai Emekui was a goat herder with around 200 goats, and had two wives in addition to Francis' mother.
In 1999 he started working with local researchers a few months out of the year, and in 2002 he joined a team of French fossil hunters. Francis has a great eye for fossils, and so he was hired as a surveyor, to go out into the field and seek out potential places to excavate. He worked with that team for eight years until he was recruited to work here in 2010 by Richard Leakey.

In addition to his services to us, his main duties are to find, clean, and organize fossils. Like his father, he has three wives, who he only gets to see two or three times a year for the few weeks when he isn't working.
In response to my asking how the area has changed, he says that tradition is waning. When he was a kid, everyone wore only the skins of animals, and subsisted mainly on a diet of goat milk and goat blood. Now western cloths are pervasive, and many people buy food from Lodwar instead of getting it from their animals.
The life of Francis is an excellent example of how institutions like this can affect positive change in the area, both in the realm of scientific knowledge, and social aid. By employing local people like Francis, and training them in a specialized skill, TBI is contributing to the long term growth in this area instead of just exploiting the available scientific evidence.

Back to the group, this morning we went into the nearby town Lodwar to shop for a few things. Almost everyone ended up buying traditional cloths.
Tomorrow we start a module on human evolution and the great discoveries of this area.


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