Hailed as the most photographed house in Africa, the house hugs the colonial railway line. Visitors to the house will be welcomed by the smoky engine of a locomotive as it snakes towards or away from Nairobi. If a large number of visitors are booked to visit the house, Donovan, the CEO and owner, may organise train transportation from Nairobi to the house, taking the visitors back to the time when rail transport was very convenient. In fact, the front part of the house points towards the railway line. From a distance, the new standard gauge railway beckons you as it makes its way towards Syokimau Terminus, a kilometer or so away.
What makes the African Heritage House a home away from home is its pre-colonial architecture. The structure stands out as a projection from the ground like a termite hill. The design of the house was inspired by the Grand Mosque of Djenne in Mali, West Africa and some Swahili elements. It stands beautifully staring at the national park, offering visitors a perfect view of the park and the undulating Ngong Hills. Its roof has a certain grandeur and luxury that offers a beautiful stargazing vigil for sky watchers. If not stargazing, then the balconies are the perfect hangout with a book or a paper as you listen to the sounds of the Athi Plains and the savoring silence. Coupled with the artistically manicured interior, royal beds and seats, the house beckons you to love and embrace it as you would a rare object.
The house also offers a brilliant garden for outdoor events and a swimming pool area that steals your gaze to the magnificent Athi Plains that make up Nairobi National Park. The pool house, roofed with makuti and graced with flowers, among them aloe vera, attracts various species of birds that chirp ‘that river feel’ as the water laps around the silence of various metal and wooden sculptures.
Despite its architectural marvel, the house, together with its co-founders, Alan Donovan and Joseph Murumbi, has had a huge impact on the Kenyan art scene. Leading Kenyan arts writer and critic, Margaretta wa Gacheru, when asked of the impact of the African Heritage House said, “It’s huge, though largely unacknowledged for several reasons; one is because when AH opened in 1972, very few Kenyan artists were working. There was Ancent Soi, Elimo Njau (who was one of 6 to co-found Kenya’s first indigenous African art gallery), Samwel Wanjau, plus a few based at Makerere University.” Secondly, “The contemporary Kenyan art scene at that time was wholly controlled by expatriates, so Donovan was easily mistaken for being just another one. There was a low level of awareness of the value of contemporary Kenyan art at the time. Plus, Donovan was also commercial, creating African crafts to sell to a tourist market. They were elegant Pan-African crafts, but still they were largely commercial.” Furthermore, according to the African Heritage House’s website, before it closed in 2003, AH had employed over 500 employees with over 50 outlets around the world and many thousands supplying items on a consignment basis. Moreso, the ‘Tuesday African Heritage Buying Day’ has slowly evolved into Maasai Markets which dot various locations in Nairobi among other areas.
Wa Gacheru further adds that, “Donovan was called by Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s second VP, to help him fulfill his vision to create an art space where indigenous Africans could both exhibit their artworks, but also have space to create. Donovan did that, especially as he was among the first galleries in Nairobi to exhibit African artists’ work, especially artists that Murumbi was fond of. So, African Heritage held exhibitions for artists like the Kisii stone sculptor, Elkana Ong’esa, and Ugandan sculptors like John Odoch Ameny and Expedito Mwebe. These are the artists Donovan now exhibits at the Nairobi Gallery next to Nyayo House. There are many other artists that Donovan exhibited at the Gallery, including Magdalene Odondo, who now has an obe from Queen Elizabeth and others like Theresa Musoke.”
Alan Donovan first came to Africa in 1967, first in Ghana and then through the US State Department to Nigeria on a relief mission during the Biafra War. In Nigeria, Donovan would fall in love with the Oshogbo traditions, which would spur his love for African art, art he had been introduced to in his studies at UCLA. From Nigeria, Donovan would embark on his pan-African journey that would see him materialise in Kenya where, after several months in Northern Kenya with the Turkana community, he would hold his first exhibition in Nairobi. Wa Gacheru says, “Donovan has played a pivotal role in expanding the field of Kenyan crafts from jewelry to Kisii stone crafts, etc. The fact that his outlook has been quite commercial and also that he’s an American has meant his main market orientation is European, but his fashions, his architecture, his jewelry and craft lines have all been featured in global publications. He is definitely more widely known abroad than at home.”
On Donovan’s relationship with Murumbi, she says, “But he (Donovan) has been devoted to the Murumbis and done everything to ensure their memory does not die, especially as Joe (Murumbi) was, and probably still is, the biggest Kenyan art collector. That status may have changed since guys like Chris Kirubi (a Kenyan business magnet) and Jeff Koinange (media personality) are also big collectors of African art. One of the big things that Donovan has done is to advance the fusion of indigenous African treasures like the textiles which you can see at Alliance Française (Kenya) with Western concepts of fashion, utility and functionality.”
The prospect of the Obama’s taking the house has raised eyebrows among people having various views about the house’s future. Papion, a Kenyan musician who makes his own musical instruments, is reserved over such a move, stating that the house has become a national monument and treasure that has to be reserved as such in the near future. Being part of the African Heritage team, he feels at home with the treasures therein and the ambience, which he hopes his government will preserve in the absence of Alan Donovan, who is currently hospitalized.
Zack, who has been working at the house doing general duties, believes that Donovan knows best about his house. He is, however, skeptical about the impact the Obamas will have on the house given the huge Obama influence and stature. Ann Mwiti, a Kenyatta University Visual Arts lecturer and artist, feels that the house’s “…collection needs to be kept safe indeed and Alan is not well. Looking at the bigger picture here and how politics work in Kenya, I agree with Alan. It’s the better option at such times of uncertainty.” She, however, hopes that the valuable art collection should be made available to researchers and artists to access for inspiration.
wa Gacheru says, “Obviously, if the Obamas follow up on Alan’s offer to accept the house as a ‘gift,’ it will be huge for Kenya and for the Obamas as well. Alan didn’t meet Obama face-to-face when he was last in the US, but Obama’s top aide said he was keen to accept. Of course, if Obama accepted taking over the house, it would be an immense boon to the Kenyan economy, especially as tourists would want to see all of these pan-African items. But, my concern is that nobody could take better care of all of these artworks and artifacts than Donovan.”
Whether the Obamas will agree to accept the gift or not is a matter of conjecture. However, when asked whether this will have a huge impact on the Kenyan art scene, wa Gacheru says, “Whether the Obamas coming would affect the local art scene is unclear. Artists are very independent in Kenya right now, so who knows what the future will bring. The art scene is very fluid and many factors affect the ebb and flow of events. But, no doubt the artists and Kenyans as a whole would be thrilled if the Obamas took an active interest in having a footprint in Kenya.”
On the other hand, Ann Mwiti is excited about the possibility of having a library, which she says “…is good in Kenya. We don’t have proper public libraries in Kenya, and this would be a good reference point for students to exhibit, study and research about arts in Africa.”
Although the house does not have the splendour and opulence of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (Zeitz MOCAA) that was recently opened in South Africa, the AH stands out as a forerunner of such spaces. It also stands out as a home for indigenous African culture, especially the African textiles that Donovan was fond of. He was amazed at how indigenous Africans could make clothes and equipment to use from locally available materials which formed the basis of most of his collection, some of which has been on display this October in Kenya at the Nairobi National Museum, The Nairobi Gallery and Alliance Française in an exhibition to celebrate the Nigerian Cultural Festival. Besides, the house is featured on the Google Cultural Institute.
Alan Donovan is a man who has dedicated his life to fulfill the dreams that the late Joseph Murumbi and his wife, Sheila, had. In an interview with the Daily Nation August 8, 2014, Donovan outlined his plan of making Murumbi’s dream of having an African Studies Centre in Kenya. “It is my intention to make the African Heritage House an African Studies Centre and link it to the Murumbi collections in the Kenya National Archives and the national museums,” Donovan said in the interview. According to Donovan, Murumbi sold his house in one of Nairobi’s leafy suburbs, Muthaiga, to the government to be converted into and African studies centre; however, nothing was done. The house was left to deteriorate just as another house in Maasai did. Therefore, Alan Donovan is a man fighting the battle of keeping the legacy of Kenya’s second vice president alive – the man who quit his political career in December 1966 due to rampant corruption and worked hard, dedicating his time in preserving, protecting, and promoting African heritage.