The imposing house looks almost different from any side, and even more beautiful from the railway tracks situated between it and the National Park. If you stand on the tracks just right, you will become one with the beauty of a landscape that has the park dotted with its wildlife on one side, the hills in the distance and the African Heritage House on the other side. The panorama is nothing but enchanting, and that is before you explore the treasure trove that the house’s owner and designer, Alan Donovan, has spent three decades collecting. Donovan lives in a museum of African art, a mausoleum of handiwork that might just be lost forever. His home is littered with artefacts from all over the continent, and pieces so rare and so beautiful that it is a useless endeavour to fall in love with any one. If you do not get jealous that he wakes up to all this splendour every morning, you are doing it wrong.
Built between 1989 and 1994, the orange building is the only one of its kind in Kenya and perhaps in all of Africa. Imagine a house whose design and contents are so assorted it is likely there is something from every country in Africa within and without. It had no master plan; Alan says during a recent tour, he simply finished the plan as he went on. The main inspiration for the design is the distinctively mud architecture from Mali, made most famous by the Great Mosque of Djenne. The imposing tower is a throwback to the imposing towers of the palaces built for Nigerian Emirs. The courtyard and the indoor gardens are Moroccan while the walls are painted in the style of the Kasena people of Northern Ghana while some rooms have painting styles from the Kenyan coast. As you explore the floors, you will find that almost every piece, including the Lamu and Moroccan doors, the Moroccan brass and the Swahili plasterwork has a back-story. In some pieces of art the influences are married, such as the Nigerian gods don in Kisii soapstone that stand in the changing rooms next to the pool.
Once you adequately absorb the sheer beauty of the house, Donovan will lead you through one of the two main doors and into the most beautiful house you will ever see. What you will find here is not a museum of modern art but a mausoleum of lost art. An avid collector with a keen eye for fabrics and African design, the collector has amassed art such as lost Kamba beadwork, masquerade costumes from the Ibo of Nigeria, ceremonial daggers from the Bakuba people of the Congo.
Although Donovan’s love for African art preceded a chance meeting with Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s second Vice President, in 1971, it was the haggling over a fertility mask that ignited a partnership that saved African culture. The first African Heritage House burnt down in 1977 before it was rebuilt on the same site where the I & M building stands today. Today, there is nothing on that street that remains of its heritage and cultural preservation. The current African Heritage, more beautiful and magnificent than its predecessors, is headed for the same fate as it stands on land earmarked for the Standard Gauge Railway.
If the Kenya Railways goes ahead with the current blueprint for the railway, the house will be torn down and the new rail tracks will snake their way right where the treasure trove now stands. The only way to save it is to gazette the house as a Kenyan monument, an act which would effectively protect it and make it the property of the Kenyan people. Aged over 70 years old and with no heir to leave the large collection to, Donovan knows saving his house will be the only legacy worth leaving to his adopted country. There is enough land on the park side where the line can be redirected instead of demolishing such structures of cultural significance.
[Image Credit: Owaahh]