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Day 13 (July 8, 2011): The Life and Contributions of Muteti

July 8, 2011

Muteti Nume was 18 years old when he left home without a shilling. With six younger siblings, his parents were too poor to send him to secondary school. Today, decades later, Muteti is the foreman of my Kenyan crew, and has been working with me for the past 28 years. This post will provide a closer look at Muteti, his life, and how he went from a rural Kenyan farmer to the leader of the Olorgesailie excavation team.

portrait of Muteti Nume
Muteti Nume, the foreman of our excavation team for the past 27 years.
Born in the Machokos District two hours from Nairobi, Muteti worked odd jobs on farms to make ends meet. In 1970 he decided to move to Nairobi to look for work, and work is exactly what he found. In less than a year he would meet someone who would change his life—Richard Leakey. Richard Leakey, the son of paleoanthropology pioneers Mary and Louis Leakey, was running a research project at a field site called Turkana, northern Kenya, when he met Muteti. In May of 1970, Leakey asked Muteti to join him in the field, and thus began Muteti’s career in the study of human origins.

He quickly developed a forte for running excavations efficiently and methodically; his skills in recognizing and cleaning fossils and stone artifacts also flourished. Muteti worked at Turkana for four to six months out of the year for 15 years.

Then, in 1984, Muteti was recommended as an excavator on my first expedition to southern Kenya. A year later, a number of us supported Muteti’s bid for a full time position at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi, and he ended up working there for many years as a Lab Technician cleaning bones and recording them in the Museums’ catalog.

a 1977 group photo enlargement highlighting Rick Potts and Muteti Nume
Muteti and me at Turkana after we first met in 1977.
I first met Muteti at Turkana in 1977, when I was a young researcher still in graduate school. He had already been in charge of excavations for a few years, and I immediately saw his leadership potential. So by the time I began the new project at Olorgesailie in 1985, I knew who to call to head my team. He’s been with us ever since – and is one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

Every morning in the field, probably my first meaningful conversation of the day is with Muteti, as we plan together what work will go on, decide which field vehicles will go to which excavations, and we discuss the health of the Kenyan crew.

Today Muteti has a lovely wife, Joyce, and several children. Although his own education was cut short, Muteti has managed to put two of his children through university, all while supporting his entire family. When he’s not at Olorgesailie, Muteti works on his farm in Machakos where he grows maize, beans, pumpkins, and peanuts.

Muteti Nume pouring coffee from one pot and chai from another pot simultaneously into one cup to make "Chaihawa"
Muteti pours his signature breakfast drink, chaihawa, a combination of tea and coffee. His novel blend never fails to impress visitors to our camp.
When asked recently his favorite part about Olorgesailie, Muteti told one of the researchers in camp, ‘My life is here. Everything I have is from here.’ His employment on our crew enables him to support his family. He has no plans of retiring. It is a sign of our trust and friendship that he added, ‘I’m with Rick till the end.’ As I see it, our research couldn’t be so consistently successful, day in and day out, without the calm leadership of Muteti Nume. It is a privilege to know him.