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In life do-over, I’d be a Turkana

Alan Donovan
Alan Donovan. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Alan Donovan, the co-founder of African Heritage House, famed to be “the most photographed house” in Africa has fastidiously curated exhibitions all around the world for over five decades.

He has organised festivals, created jewellery from ancient African beads, and published a memoir ‘My Journey Through African Heritage.’

On the outside, Alan is as white as cotton but as black as Africa on the inside. He drove a Volkswagen from Paris through the Sahara desert to Nigeria in 1969, then to Kenya and Tanzania. His imagination is as wild and creative as the spirit of Africa.

He never went back home to the US since he set foot in Africa in 1967. Now he is 81 years old, and recently survived a coma, he tells JACKSON BIKO over a phone interview.

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I read up a little on you online and all your stories start in Africa in 1967. Who were you before you came here?

I was born in the Great Plains of Colorado, US, near the town of Wray. I was the first in my family to be born in a hospital. My family grew wheat on the flatlands of Colorado. I could stand on our porch and see wheat fields stretching from one horizon to the other. In the Spring, the wheat fields would shimmer a vivid green in the morning dew.

My dad was a workaholic, genes that he passed on to me. He also taught me to shoot guns. I had a great childhood.

Where did this fascination with Africa come from? How does a boy who grows up in a wheat farm in Colorado in the 50s say ‘I want to go to Africa and collect masks’?

(Chuckles) In 1954, there was a unanimous landmark decision by the US Supreme Court that promised to upgrade the education of black children in the US. There were no black children in Wray schools. There was only one black person in the county who was employed as a county agent in agricultural programmes.

Once when a university sent students of animal husbandry and agriculture to our farm, a group of black university students visited. My dad said, “They spoke English just as good as you and me!” It was only then that I became aware of the history and effects of 250 years of slavery and the following generations of segregation and discrimination in the US. As a child, I wanted to meet black people. When I went to university, I studied Masters in Political Science and International Relations focusing on Africa. In 1965, I also did a correspondence course on African art from the University of Boston.

You have been in Africa for over 50 years, which means that you have lived in Africa longer than I have been an African. When you hear someone say ‘I’m an African’ what do you hear exactly?

(Laughs) I’m writing another book called ‘An American In Africa’, detailing my life in Africa. I have been fortunate to have visited most of the African countries, with only a few that evaded me.

The late Joseph Murumbi, the former Vice President, who I founded the African Heritage with, was mixed race. His father was Goan and his mother was Maasai. He spent over a decade in India and when he came back home his father made him choose which side he wanted to pick and he picked his African side. I found his personal story inspiring. I consider myself an African more than American, I chose African. I have been here for so long it’s hard not to identify myself as one.

What’s the most beautiful thing you have seen in Africa?

(Pause) Africa has overwhelming beauty, the land, the people, the music, the history, the cultures, and the craft. But the one true gift of Africa is its textiles. When I did fashion shows around the world I used only handwoven African fabric and even though designers might not have as much access to the textiles as we did back then, I think this is one of the true beauties of the continent.

If you were an African, which part of Africa do you think you would be from?

(Laughs) I speak a little Turkana. I spent a lot of time there when I first came to Kenya in the late 60s. So I would probably be Kenyan from Turkana. One of the people who transformed my life in Africa and put me on this path was the late Joseph Murumbi, one of Africa’s most notable private collectors.

I opened African Heritage together with his wife Sheila, in 1972. Murumbi was a big believer in a united Africa, an Africa without borders. So I think in a broader sense I’d adopt that Africanism, one without borders or barriers.

You are 81 years old, how do you remember all these dates and people and events? What keeps you sharp and lucid?

I keep busy, I’m a workaholic. I used all the time during this coronavirus pandemic isolated to do more writing and archiving. Now I’m working to build my museum. If you work hard your brain keeps fresh.

If someone had only 30 minutes to read your memoir, what chapter would you recommend?

(Laughs) Thirty minutes. Hmm. (Pause) That’s a difficult one. I think I’d say they read about my time in Turkana and me meeting Murumbi. I was amazed at how Turkana people could create beautiful artefacts in such a harsh environment. I remember selling my car and buying all of those artefacts.

Do you have children?

No.

Not your thing?

I never had time for children. I don’t think I’d want to bring children to this world because I don’t see any future for them especially how things are going now. Politics all over the world is terrible and nasty. Economies are messed up. People are selfish and cruel, I mean look at the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement which we are just coming to terms with now. We are also killing the environment, constantly mistreating it. I think that’s why we are experiencing this pandemic currently, and I suspect more will come if nothing changes.

Have you ever loved a woman more than you have loved Africa?

(Chuckle) Well, you have to read my book for that answer.

If African Heritage was burning and you had an opportunity to save one thing, what would that be?

(Laughs) Well, you know we lost everything in a fire in 1976. We had to start afresh. That was a terrible time. (Pause) But the one thing I’d want to save is a statue from eastern Nigeria called Ikenga.

It’s a statue kept by the Igbo men and it controls his ego. Every Igbo man carried it in his right hand. It’s a personal embodiment of human endeavour, achievement, success, and victory.

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