Last weekend I went to the Nairobi National Museum and had a fantastic time. A big highlight for me was their Human Origins section, which includes a fascinating Hominid Skull Room. Several major discoveries regarding the origins of humanity have been made in the Turkana region of Kenya over the past 40 years. Several skulls belonging to the world’s first discoveries of homo erectus, paranthropus, homo rudolfensis, and other prehistoric species are here in Nairobi. I was most excited about Nariokotome (Turkana) Boy, a 1.6 million year old specimen, and the most complete skeleton of an early hominid (homo erectus, though some consider it a separate species, homo ergaster). I asked a few passers-by to snap a few photos of me with him. I received a few confused reactions and below is the awkward result:
There was also an interesting exhibit on the History of Kenya, and another called “Cycles of Life” which described several of Kenya’s many ethnic groups through different cultural activities related to birth, childhood, becoming an adult, spirituality, social life, marriage, and so on. I was interested in the various tools and outfits intended for girls’ initiation, particularly surrounding circumcision. Often labelled incorrectly as FGM (female genital mutilation) female circumcision is a very diverse range of practices that differ physically and symbolically across different ethnic groups. While Western human rights and feminist discourses (as well as some Kenyan groups) misrepresent FC as a singular, destructive practice, the museum provided some insight into the significance of the practice to some girls’ initiation as a young woman. This isn’t to say that the practice is not forced oppressively in some situations, which it certainly is. There’s just a lot more to it than some people say.
The museum also has large taxidermy exhibits. There are over 1300 bird species in East Africa and the region’s mammals are incredible. However, I think I would have been more fascinated if these animals weren’t dead.
Speaking of death, I continued my visit at the museum’s Snake Park, where the residents were very much alive. The facility includes an open pit about 6 meters long and wide and 2 meters deep, surrounded by a waist-level wall with a few trees and dozens of snakes and turtles. This included an enthusiastic black mamba that for a few minutes was standing up (in the snake way) eagerly trying to reach the outside of the enclosure (but thankfully not coming very close). The more dangerous cobras, vipers, and so on were in sealed tanks encircling the facility. There was also an American Alligator (not sure why) and a Nile Crocodile with whom I took a selfie for my co-op class’ animal selfie competition.
I concluded with a visit to the museum’s botanical gardens, which profiles several indigenous species capable of healing various illnesses. “Traditional” plant medicines (and their unfortunate commodification by development projects and big pharma) are a common topic in my cultural anthropology classes, and so naturally I was excited to check out what varieties exist in Kenya. The paths along the gardens were all covered in beautiful mosaic designs.