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Anthropologist’s plan for African Heritage House

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The African Heritage House in Mlolongo. Photo/Margaretta wa Gacheru

Chap Kusimba has a vision of what the African Heritage House could become if the house is saved by the Kenya government which holds in its hands the future of what he calls a priceless African monument that needs to be preserved, not just for Kenya’s and Africa’s sake, but for posterity and the whole world.

“The value of the African Heritage House is much greater than is generally realised,” said the visiting Kenya-born department chair of anthropology at the American University in Washington, DC.

“It’s a monument that can attract researchers from all over the world to Kenya to come and study its content, connect with other cultural institutions in the country [like the National Museums of Kenya], and advance a global understanding of African history and culture,” he added.

Dr. Kusimba, who got his doctorate in anthropology from the prestigious Bryn Mawr University, has himself been a working scholar-researcher all over the world, which is how he knows the incalculable value of the House built by the former co-director of the African Heritage Pan-African Gallery Alan Donovan.

“For 25 years [working with his African Heritage co-director, former Kenya Vice President Joseph Murumbi] I was able to visit 20 countries in Africa every year where I’d collect African art and artefacts for the Gallery,” said Donovan who knows his position over that quarter century was unique.

It was a time when one still needed government clearance to obtain sufficient foreign currency from the Central Bank to make those trips worthwhile for his and Murumbi’s cultural enterprise.

“Overseas collectors might have had easier access to foreign currency than I did, but they didn’t have the same commitment that Joe and I had,” says Donovan who lost Murumbi in 1990, Joe’s British wife Sheila in 2000 and the company in 2002 when his main clients, foreign tourists, stopped coming to Kenya due to the socio-political climate at that time.

Having a Master’s degree in African art from UCLA and years of experience with the US State Department in Nigeria, Donovan knew what was valuable to collect during those years when Murumbi was alive and able to ensure he had the means to buy indigenous art, a fraction of which remains either at African Heritage House, the National Archives [where a portion of the Murumbi’s African art collection is housed] or at the Nairobi Gallery where Sheila and Joe’s remaining collections reside.

Donovan’s appreciation for Murumbi is apparent from all he has done since his partner’s passing to preserve the legacy of Kenya’s number one African cultural connoisseur. “It was Joe’s idea to establish a research centre for African arts at his home in Muthaiga,” says Donovan referring to the house the Government bought with the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that it would transform the house into a research institute for the study of Pan African art and culture.

But instead of honouring that agreement, a son of a former senior government figure demolished the house and divided the land in disregard of both the agreement and the priceless value of Murumbi’s collections.

It is in light of Murumbi’s unfulfilled ambitions to leave behind a rich cultural legacy that Donovan has gone ahead with Dr Kusimba to seek the gazetting of AH House with assistance from the National Museums of Kenya and the PS in the Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts, Dr Hassan Wario.

“If we could get the House gazetted as a national monument of both national and international importance, that would serve to safeguard the future of both the house [said to be ‘the most photographed in Africa] and the AH collections,” Dr Kusimba said.

But the future of the House is still not clear. Late last week, several Kenyans ostensibly with the government and one Chinese man came to the home of Donovan’s neighbour bringing with them a map with two new potential paths for the proposed railway to pass through, neither of which left her or Donovan with the option to keep their homes intact.

The two new paths were different from the first three initially shown to Donovan (who owns the title deed to the land in question), two of which left open the possibility of the rails passing either in front or behind AH House.

So is the battle to preserve this world renowned cultural monument over? Not in Dr Kusimba’s view. He believes that once the Kenya government realizes what a cultural gold mine it will have once it gazettes AH House as an historical site, it will choose one of the paths that allows the House to remain intact.

If it doesn’t, what seems clear is that it won’t be the Chinese Road and Bridge Company that will be held responsible for destroying both the Murumbi legacy and this Pan African cultural monument that is known throughout the world.

In any case, Dr Kusimba retains his vision and hope that his American University will have a scholarly role to play in Kenya in future working with African Heritage House.