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African Heritage House saved from jaws of rail-building earthmovers

The African Heritage House in Mlolongo. PHOTO | FILE
The African Heritage House in Mlolongo. PHOTO | FILE  NATION MEDIA GROUP

Alan Donovan didn’t even know he had ‘won the war’ for his African Heritage House until three days after it had been gazetted as a ‘monument’ by the Culture and Sports Cabinet Secretary Hussein Wario on January 23.

This was after he got a congratulatory call early Monday morning from Felix Kipkoech, one of the Nairobi Gallery tour guides he had trained in his African Heritage art history course at Strathmore University.

“After I heard from Felix, the calls and e-mails started flooding in,” said the AHH director who previously was a co-founder/director of the now defunct African Heritage Pan African Gallery with the former Vice President of Kenya, the late Joseph Murumbi.

“I’m still reeling from the news,” said Donovan, who had been told by government officials that the Ministry of Culture was never going to save his house from demolition.

Having exhausted all possible channels that might have led to a change of heart, Donovan had feared the worst —that his glorious house (jam-packed with artistic gems from across Africa) was doomed.

He’d spoken to countless government people to ask for aid and a reprieve from the well-publicised plan that the Chinese Roads and Bridges Company was going ahead to construct the high-speed rail system which had been charted to plow straight through his AH House.

But it seemed he’d never talked to the right people, not even when he had officials come to his house, get impressed with African artifacts, textiles and fine art and even give assurances that the house would be saved. Yet nothing had come of it.

There was no follow-up, even after he’d shared a blueprint featuring three or four alternative paths for the railway. Apparently, he was told, the AHH was obstructing the most direct path that the fast-track rail could take from Mombasa to Nairobi.

Donovan even teamed up with a Kenyan anthropologist, Dr Chap Kisumba, a senior lecturer based at the American University in Washington, DC. They had designed a proposal for the House to become a regional research centre where scholars could come from all over the world to study African arts and culture.

He had hoped the idea would appeal to people in power as it would enhance Kenya’s intellectual standing in the world.

But all this seemed to fall on deaf ears. What’s more, after two Chinese men from the construction company showed up at his front door, accompanied by Kenyan policemen, his blood pressure rose and he was hospitalised.

So it’s no wonder that Donovan says he is still “stunned” by the news that he “won the war” for his House, as one Kenyan AHH fan put it.

Yet there it is in black and white in the Kenya Gazette Volume CXVII—No. 7.

Donovan doesn’t want to sound ungrateful for his good fortune and the historic turn of events. Nonetheless, he notes that the gazette’s protection only measures 37 by 48 metres. Yet the “surrounding compound” mentioned in the gazette notice is much larger than that.

The house is Donovan’s own design although it was inspired by some of the oldest and most historic styles of indigenous African architecture, which he saw first-hand while travelling through Mali, Niger, Togo and northern Nigeria in the late 1960s.

Long life

The Colorado-born American was already well acquainted with indigenous housing designs having studied African Art, International Marketing, Journalism and Political Science at UCLA.

Described as ‘the most photographed house in Africa’ Donovan had somehow resigned himself to its demise, so it’s no wonder that he’s mystified as to what actually transpired behind the scenes that led to AHH being gazetted at last.

But rather than dwell on the mystery, Donovan is glad the battle to save his historic house has finally come to an end. He’s especially grateful since it now means the legacy left by both himself and the Murumbis’ will eventually be left to the Kenyan and African people.

In fact, the work he’s set for himself from now on is finding the right organisation to ensure the long life of that legacy, be it the National Museums of Kenya, the American University or possibly even the Obama Foundation. Only time will tell.

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