Orrorin Tugenensis

A past picture taken during the discovery of Orrorin Tugenensis fossils at Orrorin in Baringo County in 2000. The fossils were kept at Orrorin Community Museum in Kipsaraman but were taken away and kept in Nairobi.

| Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Bring back our treasured fossil, Baringo residents say

Baringo County has opened a battlefront with the national government over the fossil of the second oldest man in the world that dates back more than 6.5 million years.

They want it returned to its original home in the Kipsaraman Community Museum in Baringo North.

Despite the landmark discovery of the fossil (Orrorin tugenensis) in Baringo, which hit world headlines 20 years ago, locals have nothing to show for it after it was allegedly taken away by an official from the Community Museums of Kenya (CMK).

Governor Stanley Kiptis said the fossil is a big resource that should be generating revenue through tourism in the region.

During his tour of the museum on Tuesday, the governor said his administration had set aside Sh13 million to refurbish it in preparation for the fossil’s return.

“We have heard several complaints from locals inquiring where the fossil was kept after it was taken from the museum some years ago. I have followed it up and I confirm that I have seen it and it is being kept safe. We have allocated some money to refurbish the museum so that we can bring back our resources,” he said.

He also warned a section of politicians in the region to stop politicising the ‘disappearance’ of the fossil for their vested interests but instead work together to revive the once-thriving tourism sector so that locals can reap the benefits.

“It is true the fossil has not been at the Kipsaraman museum for close to two decades and some individuals who took it are minting millions at the expense of the locals,” said the governor, who did not want to provide more details on where the fossil is.

“We have made proper arrangements for it to be brought back because it is our resource and we need it as soon as possible.”

The Nation team found that the museum was partially accessible, with the road leading to it in poor condition, indicating that it has been neglected for many years.

We had to wait for more than 30 minutes for the museum to open as the caretaker was not around.

The one-storey dilapidated semi-permanent structure is now a shell of its former self, with part of the ceilings caving in.

Some people in the community blame Eustace Kitonga, a Community Museums of Kenya official, for the disappearance of the fossil, which had been taken away reportedly for safekeeping.

Residents who spoke to the Nation complained that CMK used the Kipsaraman community museum as a cash cow, with officials allegedly seeking funds from donors and researchers and pocketing it instead of utilising the money to benefit the community.

The residents, led by Orrorin community organisation secretary Micah Cherutoi, said the remains of the six-million-year-old hominid discovered in Kapsomin in Kipsaraman division in 2001 were carted off by CMK officials.

 Orrorin Tugenensis

A past picture taken during the discovery of Orrorin Tugenensis fossils in Orrorin, Baringo County in the year 2000. The fossils were kept at Orrorin Community Museum at Kapsaraman but were taken away and kept in Nairobi. The community want the fossils back to enable them earn by tourist visiting the area.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

“The government is making a lot of money from tourists who flock to the Museums of Kenya in Nairobi to see the fossil but most of our people are languishing in abject poverty,” claimed Mr Cherutoi.

Following the discovery of the fossil, he said, locals were promised a lot of goodies that they are yet to see.

The aggrieved residents said thousands of people, including school children and other organised groups, used to tour the museum every year but no one goes there now.

The museum collapsed in 2003 when CMK officials disagreed with donor agencies and other stakeholders over alleged misappropriation of funds.

It is alleged that the French National Museum of Natural History promised to put up a laboratory at the site for Sh60 million, and even the president of the museum laid a foundation stone to start construction but CMK misused the initial Sh1 million given for the first phase of the project, forcing donors to withdraw.

Locals said the laboratory was to have three floors where all fossils from the larger Baringo County research sites would be stored.

They appealed to the government to intervene and ensure that the fossil is returned as it is a community resource meant to benefit them.

But locals have no proof whether the fossil, named ‘millennium man’, is still in Kenya or not.

Orrorin Community Museum

Orrorin Community Museum at Kipsaraman in Baringo County.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

They are now watching helplessly as their would-be benefits remain a mirage, while the caretaker of the museum, Joseph Cheserem, has gone without a salary for years.

He depends on handouts from visitors who trickle to the site though the museum was officially closed.

This is a far cry from what locals had expected would happen.

After the discovery of the fossil by a team led by French paleontologist Brigitte Senut and French geologist Martin Pickford set up the museum in the Tugen Hills, displaying the casts of Orrorin along with many other spectacular fossils from the region.

The original Orrorin fossils were allegedly kept under lock and key by Mr Kitonga, the CMK director.

Locals said that many governments were ready to fund scientific research and support community projects in the area if they got support from the Kenyan government.

Recently, Tenges Ward Representative Silas Tochim, who is also the chairman of the Tourism and Trade Committee in the county assembly said CMK went against an agreement with the community that all fossils collected from the area be stored in Baringo.

“We are now demanding that the fossil be returned to its ancestral home (or) we will seek legal redress. The new constitutional dispensation recognises that public resources should benefit the community, and the Orrorin tugenensis fossil is our resource,” Mr Tochim said.

He said the county had more than 70,000 other fossils.

County tourism director Evans Turgo told the Nation that the devolved unit was in constant communication with the owner of CMK, a private entity, noting that the fossils are in his care, under lock and key in a safe in a Nairobi bank.

“We are in negotiation with the owner of the Community Museums of Kenya to reach a solution on returning the fossil to its original home, Baringo,” he said.

An official at CMK, who sought anonymity, disputed claims that they stole the fossil for their own benefit, noting that it had to be taken for safe custody because the Kipsaraman museum had no strong room to guarantee its security.

“The fossil is very safe in Nairobi and not stolen as claimed. In fact, Governor Kiptis came and saw it. The reason it is not kept in Kipsaraman is that there is no safe custody. There was a time we even took it overseas for dating, with the permission of the government, and we brought it back after a specific time given to us,” the official said.

“The governor hinted that he had set aside a budget for the construction of a strong room at the community museum in Kipsaraman and once complete, we will bring it back. That fossil belongs to the people of Kenya and specifically Baringo and we cannot keep it carelessly lest it is stolen.”

He also noted that CMK was planning to renew a memorandum of understanding with Baringo because the previous contract signed with the local authority two decades ago had expired.

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