Joe Murumbi Died of a Broken Heart

Monday December 27 2004

In this excerpt from 'My Journey Through African Heritage' Allan Donovan explains why he wants to leave his vast collection of African art and artifacts to Kenya – not through the Kenya National Archives or the National Museums of Kenya – but through an international foundation or some other means that will ensure the collection remains intact

In January 1978, just after the original African Heritage was rebuilt from the fire, a large part of the Murumbi collections of books and art was purchased by the Kenyan National Archives.

It soon became apparent that the collections needed a very special environment in which to display them. In September of 1978, the Murumbi house, a beautiful Spanish-Moorish style house on 2.2 acres of land in Muthaiga, was purchased by the government.

The government announced the house would be turned into a Pan African International Research Centre or the Murumbi Institute of African Studies.

The government agreed to build a library near the house for the huge collection of books and a hostel for visiting scholars so that they could stay at the institute to research invaluable references and peruse the collection of arts and crafts "in situ," as Joe had so lovingly and laboriously displayed them.

The idea was to encourage Kenyans to view the collections and impress on them the need to preserve their heritage as a way of investing one's wealth. Yet a Kenyan collector of Murumbi's scope and stature has never emerged.

The dream of a Murumbi Institute was never to be. After the Moi government bought the house, it was allowed to deteriorate to the extent that all the books, documents and other collections had to be removed and transferred to the Kenya National Archives in the city centre.

Then, a mysterious misfortune among the many which plagued the Murumbis, began to unfold. It was claimed that the collections were moved so as to protect them until the leaky roof was repaired. However, the Prisons Department had begun an extensive renovation of the house when it was revealed that the late vice president Josephat Karanja was to convert the house into his official residence. (There still is no official residence for the vice president).

Mr Karanja did not find the mansion spacious enough for his use. It was rumoured the house was to be demolished. The ornate Lamu doors, the beautiful metal grills and many other unique pieces vanished from the house. It was said that an Italian woman drove up to the house in a pick-up to collect them. Shortly after, Mr Karanja was dismissed from office. A few years later, he died.

It was then reported in the press that the Murumbi estate had been sub-divided into three equal plots. The house that was to shelter the international study centre was pulled down. The once beautiful trees in the compound were felled. The Minister for Lands and Housing confirmed that the government allocated three private developers the piece of land but refused to name the beneficiaries.

The late Bishop Alexander Muge asked President Moi to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate questionable real estate deals of this nature, before he died in a mysterious road accident which is still unexplained to date. It was later disclosed the owners of the three plots had each paid Ksh234,000 for a third of a plot valued in those days at Ksh 7.5 million (well over $500,000). All three of the new owners have been involved in a series of bizarre and tragic events.

The saddest thing was when Joe Murumbi got wind of the demolition of his precious house. He went to see for himself what he was hearing. From his wheelchair, he surveyed the ruins of his dream for an International African Study Centre. It was reported he broke down in sobs, reminding me of the day after African Heritage was gutted by fire. He sat sobbing amid the debris, vowing we would rebuild it. I am glad he did not live to see the final sad demise of the company which had been one of his dreams.

Joe Murumbi passed away on June 22, 1990. He died after a long and painful illness. Day and night he moaned in pain, the result of several strokes and a series of futile attempts to repair damaged nerves in his arm. His wife, SheiIa Murumbi died suddenly in October 2000.

Joe and Sheila Murumbi now lie in unmarked graves near that of Pio de Gama Pinto in an old forgotten "Hero's Plot" at the Nairobi City Park. A hawker's market has moved in nearby. The gravesite and the graves have been completely vandalised. The brass plaques were removed long ago. Monkeys romp and cavort on the graves, marked only by a pile of stones placed on them to discourage further desecration.

As far as I know, the Kenya government has never allocated a shilling toward the upkeep of the graves, nor taken steps to demarcate them as part of the National Cemetery. So far, the heirs to Sheila's estate have not provided even a simple gravestone.

In 2002, I set up the Murumbi Trust with other close associates of the Murumbis. Through an initial grant from the Ford Foundation, the Murumbi Trust will provide display cabinets, photographic materials, labels and texts for the Murumbi collection at the Kenya National Archives. There are plans to finish the book Joe Murumbi started about his life and to publish another book on the Murumbi Collection of historical books and manuscripts.

Recently, it has been suggested that the Murumbi graves be moved from City Park to a new "Hero's Corner." We have made a request to the government and the National Museums to consider this, and they have responded positively. We await confirmation.

In early 2003, I was informed that several containers of Sheila's possessions had left the country. We beseeched the new Minister of Home Affairs, Hon Moody Awori, to stop the export of whatever items remained in the country. I wrote to him. He immediately took action.

At the same time, a reporter from the DailyNation newspaper made inquiries about the Murumbi collection being exported. I do not think he was aware that it was the collection of Sheila Murumbi that was involved. Several articles about the potential loss to the country appeared in the Daily Nation, prompting an editorial and letters to the editor. Further action was then taken by the authorities to stop the export of the rest of the Sheila Murumbi collection. I visited Schenker (a shipping firm) with representatives from the National Archives and the National museums. Together we made an initial inventory of all the items left in the four containers there. These items included photos, letters, awards, ribbons and other memorabilia that Joe had collected when he had been a "roving" ambassador and the Kenyan ambassador to the UN other international organisations at the time of Kenya's independence.

Besides the Murumbi saga, I have the problem of what to do with my house and its collections, which are closely related to the Murumbi legacy. Sheila was opposed to any idea to sell it or to associate it with the National Museums.

"You of all people must know you cannot sell the house to the government, including the Museums," she warned. "Look what happened to our house!"

At this moment, if I should die. the house would go to the American Women's Association as a foundation in perpetuity. I am sure this news would come as a great shock to most of the members as this plan was set up a decade ago, when I thought I would have enough money in my old age to leave a substantial stipend to fund the house until it became self sustaining. But the same luck which bedevilled Joe Murumbi in his past years has followed me. The last ten years have been a nightmare.

My Journey Through African Heritage is available at the Nairobi Serena Hotel shop, Bookpoint, Bookstop, Textbook Centre, Westlands Sundries and African Heritage Design Co (Mombasa Road and Carnivore) and Karen Bookshop, all in Nairobi at Ksh5,200 ($65) soft cover and hardcover or barkcloth wrapper at Ksh7,500 ($93.75)