Every time I go to Kenya I make a point of touching base at Hillcrest Secondary School. It played an important part in the life of our family for over twenty-five years.
On the first day of my recent holiday, I found myself there again. It was a sad occasion as Glyn Duffield, a teacher for over thirty years, had died of a heart attack on his way to school. His memorial – true to African tradition – was late in starting. Two hours followed, of reminiscing by friends, students, and fellow teachers; many poignant tributes to a much-loved and brilliant maths teacher. It was a secular affair, as Glyn was an unbeliever. But it became more prayerful as the occasion progressed. I hadn’t realised that Glyn had such a musical influence on the students, and they did him credit with the quality of their emotional performances.
A fortnight later, in response to an invitation to attend the opening of Hillcrest Sixth-Form block, I arrive again at the main entrance.
Conceived about thirty years ago and now all-but finished, the block stands proud, overlooking the left side of the playing fields. I am the first to arrive. A somewhat distracted lady oversees the tying of tapes across two banners. Something has gone wrong.
I wander towards the building, peering into the dining hall laid out with rows of seats facing a rostrum. I climb the stairs to the second floor, smelling new paint. The common room is pleasantly decorated and furnished. The study room equally well designed for groups or singles. Classrooms await action. The students will start using all facilities next week, I am told by a passing teacher.
By the time I complete my solitary tour, others are being shown round. I pause to take a photo of people arriving under the banners below me, then descend the stairs to claim a welcome soft drink. There are no chairs. I go to sit down in the hall, but some students wander in, and I am politely directed back outside.
“We’ll bring you some chairs.” But none are forthcoming. About thirty or forty people now stand around in the dappled shade, holding glasses, or cups of tea.
There is a flurry of activity, and Dr. Richard Leakey arrives. He is escorted without preamble into the hall, and the doors are closed. We wait while he addresses the sixth-form scholars. Tasty bitings appear with appetising dips, and I lean heavily on a high circular table. There isn’t even a wall nearby to sit on.
At last the doors open and Leakey reappears. A remarkable man, able to walk by himself on prosthetic legs on level ground; his face heavily marked with skin cancer. After a few words from the new Headmaster, Leakey marches to the tapes armed with a pair of scissors and with his back to us, quickly cuts through them. A smattering of applause, then we are herded into the hall with the students and treated to a half-hour lecture by this international celebrity. He hasn’t lost an iota of the charisma I remember from my days with the Kenya Museum Society nearly forty years ago. His theme is twofold.
Pre-history. Africa, and Kenya in particular, has been proven as the origin of the human race. The first men were black, not white.
Leakey doesn’t want to go into religion, but is quite clear that man evolved from apes, admitting that some faiths have now acknowledged evolution. He talks about that fine line between an animal and a thinking human being who can make a tool to cut animal skin and flesh, so he can eat. But animals can also think and feel emotion.
Leakey doesn’t believe in God, or that man is “made in God’s image.” That has always been his stand. But he seems to have softened somewhat. He talks about that fine line being the ability to use “imagination”, to think and plan ahead, which leads him neatly into his second point.
The environment. Preserving the elephant; the conflict between man and animals: which should we put first?
Ourselves – man – undoubtedly.
We have created ever diminishing areas for the environment and wildlife. Elephant and rhino poaching has decreased to minimal figures over the past three years. But there is nowhere to go for the animals. They cannot roam free as they used to; they are confined to “islands”; and – as is the case with all islands – the road to extinction is rushing ahead. There is nothing we can do about it. We have to accept it.
Like global warming, he says. It is happening. It cannot be controlled. It is too big.
BUT – Leakey turns to the students. “It is up to YOU – the younger generation – to use your imaginations. Think of ways hitherto undiscovered, to cope with the big changes which are looming ahead.”
Leakey and his generation are too old now. The human race has reached the pinnacle and is now on the descent to extinction – maybe in tens of thousands of years’ time. But in the meantime we have to learn to cope with the changes around us. The way is already being explored. Genetically modified foods, DNA and genomics, immunology. Diseases are now evolving and immunising themselves against known vaccines and remedies. There is much work to do. Students are now at the cutting edge. Africa, and in particular Kenya, lies at the forefront.
“Don’t leave Kenya,” Leakey tells the students. “Let your parents go back to Europe and the US. You stay here and be at the forefront!”
In answer to a question on what he considers his greatest achievement, Leakey points to the future.
His new “cathedral” will be a museum in the Lake Turkana desert, designed to celebrate human evolution. Daniel Libeskind, the architect who rebuilt the World Trade Centre, started working on it last year. Leakey wants a completely new look, an interactive monument to evolution. Construction is expected to start in 2019, and I thought I heard him say the estimated cost was over eighty million pounds.
Coming from a Christian base, I am also optimistic about Africa, and the opportunity its people have to surge forwards. The theme is followed in my novel Grass Shoots. Have you read it yet?