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The Statesman


Richard Leakey speaks about life off the grid

Richard Leakey, above, gives a lecture in the Wang Center Theater on Wednesday, Oct. 15. Leakey will be the subject of the upcoming film “Africa,” directed by Angelina Jolie. (SAHER JAFRI / THE STATESMAN)

Richard Leakey, famed paleoanthropologist, Kenyan politician, environmentalist and professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, spoke about “living off the grid with good access to energy and water,” on Wednesday, Oct. 15 at the Wang Center Theater.

“For a long time I never knew what a grid was, that’s where I’m coming from,” Leakey said. “And the reason for this is, in Kenya, most of my time had been spent in areas where we were not connected to any resources—power or water.”

Leakey, who is the chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute as well as WildlifeDirect, Inc. and Transparency International Kenya, has provided the scientific community with significant evidence regarding human evolution and has been an avid activist against the illegal practice of ivory poaching and the international trade of ivory in Africa.

Stony Brook University Provost Dennis Assanis described Leakey as “a very unusual person,” “a celebrity” and “one of the world’s most courageous and articulate advocates for wildlife and nature conservation.”

“Richard has been an inspiration to our students and faculty alike with his extraordinary knowledge, and, more than that, his passion for life,” Assanis added.

Apart from being thrown into fame based on his scientific research and findings, including that of “Turkana Boy,” an ancient and nearly complete skeleton of a Homo Erectus, Leakey has recently received much attention for an upcoming Hollywood movie.

The film, “Africa,” will portray Leakey’s life, specifically his battle against poachers, through the direction of Academy Award-winning actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie. Leakey was enthused to speak about his experiences in Kenya, however, he did not comment on the production of the movie.

“It is certain, as anything is certain in Hollywood, that a movie will be made about a period of my life where I worked hard to stop elephants from being poached, but I can’t tell you more,” he said.

Leakey’s lecture was part of the Provost Lecture Series as well as a “special lecture series on energy and climate change and sustainability,” between Stony Brook University and the Brookhaven National Laboratory, according to Assanis.

Obtaining energy in Kenya is done through a particularly different process than that in the United States, which Leakey explained fully to the audience of students, faculty, staff and community members.

Among the most important elements of safely “living off the grid,” Leakey said, is having the ability to make fire, obtain clean drinking water and utilize alternate sources of power, such as solar energy, wind energy and created from various pumps and generators.

“I still don’t live on the grid in Kenya,” he said. “I’ve been entirely self-sufficient in my energy needs and my water needs since I first built my home nearly 40 years ago. When I’m in Kenya, outages and power shortages simply don’t affect me. I often wonder why more people don’t opt to get off the grid, but, then thinking of the capital investment, it’s not cheap to be green.”

Apart from finding alternate sources of energy for himself and his team, Leakey is involved in extensive efforts to bring energy to local villages surrounding the Turkana Basin Institute and also invested in a mobile clinic to help the local residents.

“They simply don’t have access—it’s a real issue for this part of the world,” Leakey said. “The water is not always where people live, and we had to build an eight-mile pipeline to push the water from where we got it to where we needed it before we even treated it. These are complicated issues to tackle.”

Among other issues, Leakey has dealt with is providing solar energy to a community where “the whole idea of solar has become slightly suspicious.” He said that often, solar panels cannot be heavily relied on because “the vast majority of people in Africa, particularly the people in Kenya, live where there is good rainfall.”

The African people do, however, realize the value of solar panels, Leakey said, because “every time they put up a new panel, somebody came by and took it” and would later sell it for a great price.

“Of course you shouldn’t steal,” Leakey said. “We all know that, but if you have nothing else that is going to bring you enough money to put your kids through school, and nobody’s guarding the system, you steal it. I keep telling people crime is a very bad thing, but it’s particularly bad if you’re caught.”

More so than solar energy, fire is one of the most important aspects of life in Africa.

“Off the grid in Africa, fire is a source of light,” Leakey said. “Fire is a source of warmth. Fire is a source of comfort and storytelling as well as an essential to cooking. Our energy crisis is not related to oil. It’s related to the availability of fuel wood.”

Although Leakey’s efforts have sufficiently aided the energy crisis in Africa, he called for the help of graduate students, researchers and “young minds.” According to Leakey, building connections with academic institutions and research universities in Africa and Kenya “may be the most import contribution” to solving the area’s energy shortage.

“You have problems in the states,” Leakey said. “I know that, but we have different sorts of problems.”

Correction: October 23, 2014

A previous version of this article stated that Richard Leakey is currently married to Margaret Cropper. He is currently married to Dr. Meave Leakey, who also works at Stony Brook University.



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