Book Review

The similarities of two vastly different authors

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Alan Donovan, Author and co-founder of African Heritage House. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • The biggest contrast between these two accomplished men is that Donovan was looking at his life through the lens of racism which he saw first-hand.
  • Outlining countless injustices encountered by African Americans in the US, Donovan bookends An American in Africa with an historical perspective.
  • His initial incentive for writing his autobiography was to highlight the cultural richness of the 50 years he had lived and worked in Africa.

An American in Africa: 50 Years Exploring African Heritage and Overcoming Racism in American by Alan Donovan

Life Lessons of an Immigrant by John Makilya

Books Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru

Two men couldn’t be more different, in temperament, background, and even age-wise. And yet there are several important experiences that they share.

Both left their homeland to see the world. One left the United States and ended up not just in Africa, but specifically in Kenya. The other also left the land of his birth, Kenya, and ended up in the USA.

John Makilya and Alan Donovan have had life experiences that are vastly diverse. And yet, it is almost as if they displaced one another, swapping Kenya for US and the US for Kenya. Yet their lives hardly mirror one another.

For one thing, Donovan is years older and started the process of travelling abroad years before Makilya. Yet both grew up with a desire to travel and see the world.

Donovan from childhood had aspirations to go and see Africa while Makilya is of that post-colonial Kenya that thought there would be nothing better than to win a green card (which he did) and go live and work in the US (which he also did).

Both had radically contrasting family lives. Makilya’s was largely idyllic in so far as he had grown up, proud of his pioneering father who was among the first to take advantage of Catholics’ missionary way of building their congregations through quality education.

Donovan on the other hand had a troubled upbringing with a mother whom he essentially lost when he was nine, and a father who, though well-to-do, was harsh and short-fused. One grew up close to his extended family and today is happily married while the other never married and came from an essentially broken home.

Both did very well in school, studied hard, and made their way in life going to excellent schools. Makilya’s education was grounded in the church while Donovan ended up at UCLA where he obtained advanced degrees in African art and international journalism. Both were and still are brilliant.

Both excelled yet both pursued diverse career paths. Marilya began in banking but quickly moved on, eventually to consult in economic development, where he worked for everyone from the World Bank to USAID.

Donovan also did his time with the US government. He served as a relief officer in the State Department in Nigeria, during the Biafran war. But once having reached the continent of his dreams, he ended up devising means to drive across the Sahara and land finally in Kenya.

And both travelled widely, Marilya all over North America and parts of Europe and Australia. He gives a whole chapter to his travels with his family as a tourist all over America, from the Grand Canyon to Cancun to Las Vegas.

Donovan on the other hand spent much of his early life in Colorado where he grew up loving fast cars but after making his way to Africa and launching the African Heritage Pan-African Gallery in the early 1970s, ended up traveling all over the continent collecting indigenous art, artifacts, and locally-made textiles.

With those textiles, his elegant and original designer fashions would serve to transform the fashion world’s and globe-trotting tourists’ notion of Africa as a land of stunning beauty, elegance and high fashion.

He, like Makkila, would return to his homeland periodically, but now bringing jewelry, elegant gowns, live music and beautiful Black models on tour around the US and also in Europe.

The biggest contrast between these two accomplished men is that Donovan was looking at his life through the lens of racism which he saw first-hand.

Outlining countless injustices encountered by African Americans in the US, Donovan bookends An American in Africa with an historical perspective.

His initial incentive for writing his autobiography was to highlight the cultural richness of the 50 years he had lived and worked in Africa.

But then came the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd which were experiences almost comparable to the Black Power movement of the Sixties when the racism was reflected not just in the assassination of great Black leaders like Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. but also John Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy. Donovan’s empathy for the Black experience of racial injustice is a thread that runs through his life.

Meanwhile, Makilya’s story, despite his global experience, hardly mentions racism. Instead, his grounding in Kenya, among his own Kamba people and African culture is more historical and anthropological than Donovan’s deeply moving appreciation for Africans and especially for African Americans’ desire for justice, equality and the end of racism.