Twenty-five kilometres from Nairobi, near Mlolongo on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, stands the African Heritage House, the “most photographed house in Africa.”
At a time the country is on a marketing drive, urging citizens to tour Kenya under the Tembea Kenya initiative and in defiance of travel advisories and terror threats, this architectural wonder ranks high among sites to be visited on the Nairobi circuit such as the Nairobi National Park, the Animal Orphanage, Giraffe Centre, Snake Park, the National Museum and the National Archives.
The house stands on a slope near the Nairobi National Park, with the Kenya-Uganda Railway as the boundary, beyond which can be seen zebras and assorted wildlife. The Ngong Hills are also visible in the distance.
The house is open for guided tours that are conducted by Alan Donovan. He is visibly frail but clear as he recalls how he acquired the various art pieces, including standouts such as the extensive and beautiful jewellery collection displayed in glass cases around the house.
Built over five years by Donovan, the house’s four floors are packed from floor to ceiling with African art. The house itself is modelled on the mud architecture exemplified by the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali, with natural ventilation that makes the interior significantly cooler than the exterior.
The doors to the various rooms are ornate pieces from Lamu, whose brass latches are still shiny despite being over 100 years old. The house incorporates several features of traditional African architecture – an interior courtyard and indoor gardens typical of Moroccan houses, painted walls reminiscent of the Kasena people in northern Ghana, and Swahili furniture from the East African coast.
Donovan is particularly interested in African fabrics, going by the different themes in these rooms. One guest bedroom has a silk kente cloth spread, which is a patchwork of small woven pieces of cloth made by Ghanaian men on small looms.
Another, the Bakuba Room, is dominated by the mud cloth of the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was said to have inspired modern artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Yet another room features kikoi fabric drapes, alongside bronze “house animals” from Benin and a traditional four-poster bed from Zanzibar. These eclectic combination gives an interesting feel to the house, with the objects blending together despite their varied origins.
On display in and around the house are extensive sculptures by artists who were in residence at one time at the African Heritage House, and went on to become prominent artists in their own right.
The pool house is decorated with wooden sculptures by Ugandan sculptor John Edward Odoch-Ameny and sketches and paintings by Francis Nnaggenda. The traditional pottery turned into modern art by Magdalene Odundo gets pride of place alongside coffee table books by award-winning photographers Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith that feature photographs of disappearing African cultures.
Additional works by Expedito Mwebe and Elkana Ong’esa, whose sculptures can also be found at the Nairobi City Park’s Murumbi Memorial, are scattered around the compound.
The house features the beadwork of different communities such as the Kamba. Several objects of art in the house are functional pieces such as a camel stomach-turned-cooking-fat container from the Turkana. Also on display are large gourds used to hold traditional brew that was used as a dowry payment among the Kamba. These gourds are decorated with concentric circles that represent Mount Kilimanjaro, where the Kamba believe the spirits of their ancestors reside.
Through the African Heritage House, African art and culture has gained international exposure. Kenyan musicians of note, such as Idi Achieng and Ayub Ogada sang and toured as members of the African Heritage Band.
Through the house, Bloomingdale’s, the American retailer, acquired a number of locally made sapling chairs painted in an unusual black and white guinea fowl pattern.
The house itself has provided a backdrop for photo shoots in various fashion and design magazines, which Donovan has fastidiously collected and kept on display. Additionally, he has a folio dedicated to the career of Iman, a supermodel whose career started with showcasing African Heritage designs.
The house also has some curiosities on display, such as hairballs from a lion’s stomach, which are juxtaposed with ostrich eggs to make an interesting composition.
As if to show just how much art there is in this eclectic collection, the changing rooms next to the pool have original Tinga Tinga art and sculptures of Nigerian gods done in Kisii soapstone.
The sadness in Donovan’s voice is unmistakable, as he explained that some of the crafts are lost forever because the people who had the skills to make these items have passed away. He notes that some of the crafts of Africa are being replaced by cheap imitations from China, taking away the value of craftsmanship that the objects on display in the house clearly have. Also lost in the mass production of these objects are the stories that they once told about their communities of origin.
The African Heritage House is the last in a series of locations that have hosted the African Heritage Collection. The previous location was in the Nairobi city centre, where the I&M Bank stands. This was opened in 1972 by one-time vice president of Kenya Joseph Murumbi. That gallery burned down, destroying most of the collection.
However, Donovan, who serves on the board of the African Heritage Trust started by himself and Joseph Murumbi, was able to re-establish the house and its collection in its present location.
Unfortunately, it is time for the collection to move to a new home, again, as the house is to be brought down for it is in the path of the standard gauge railway.
While this thought has Donovan troubled, he remains optimistic that the house and its collection will be saved. Just as he petitioned the government and saved parts of the Murumbi Collection from being broken apart and shipped out of Kenya, he hopes that the house will be similarly saved, with a local university keen to open an institute for African art, culture and history that would encompass the African Heritage House, to be known as the Murumbi Institute of African Studies.
In response to accusations that he is exploiting African art for his own personal gain, Donovan says: “I have done my best to learn about the art in this house, where it comes from, and what it represents. The fact that I, a complete outsider, can come here and do this shows that anyone can do it. If nobody preserves this art, then it will be lost forever, which will be a great tragedy; that is why I hope that this house and its legacy will outlive me.”