The Alan Donovan I knew: Passionate about African art

Saturday December 11 2021
Mae Carmen wearing necklace from Alan Donovan

Mae Carmen wearing necklace from Alan Donovan. PHOTO | COURTESY


I met Alan Donovan one morning in 2006 at the Kampala Serena. He was holding an ostrich egg. The door of the lift opened and there he was — tall with intense, blue eyes. I was on my way to breakfast when I saw him and I blurted, ''I know you! You are Donovan.”

He smiled and said yes.

“So what are you doing here?” I asked.

He was doing the décor for the hotel with African art from around the continent. Breakfast forgotten, I spent the entire day trailing him around.

I watched him turn the hotel into a veritable African art gallery, placing artefacts in the rooms as he talked fondly about them.

The ostrich egg that he was holding like a child was one of the ancient media of art carved by the desert people of the Kalahari in South Africa. Recent excavations have unearthed more pieces of eggs carved as far back as 60,000 years.


Donovan would later invite me to the African Heritage House and my education on the arts and architecture of Africa began and deepened. It awakened in me an appreciation of Africa's amazing arts.

The African Heritage House

When I returned to Nairobi, Maya, my then eight-year-old niece, and I visited what is arguably the most photographed house in the country. I remember the Maya’s amazement at the grandeur of the building, her eyes almost popping out.

And this is where we saw the beauty of African architecture, the façade replica of the Great mosque of Djenne built in the 13th century. It is the largest mud-brick building in the world. Built in Timbuktu, the mosque was the seat of Islamic learning from the 12th century.

Donovan said, “I promised myself that if l ever built a house, it would be like the mud mosque of Djenne.”

And he did.

Donovan came to Africa on July 4, 1967, after he was posted to Nigeria by the US government as a relief officer with the US State Department during the Biafra civil war between 1967 and 1970, which pitted the government of Nigeria and Biafra, a secessionist state that declared its independence in 1967. More than two million Biafrans lost their lives, mostly due to starvation, before the surrender in January 1970. “I saw the worst atrocities at the time,” recalled Donovan.

When he returned to the US in 1969, Donovan vowed that if he ever came back to Africa it would be in pursuit of its beauty and not war.

And return he did.

Alan Donovan

Alan Donovan walks towards his African Heritage House in 2014 after an interview in which he said there was a plan to have the SGR pass through his house. PHOTO | FILE

After crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Europe, he and his friends drove across the Sahara desert into Mali, where he was enchanted with the ancient architecture. From there, it was a journey through Central Africa entering Kenya through Uganda in 1970. In Uganda, Idi Amin was in power at the time. His reign marked by bloodshed and expulsion of Asians. Donovan was almost seized by the Ugandan army, as he was suspected to be a spy.

He and his friends got away and crossed the border into Kenya, and finally into Nairobi.

“It was October and the jacaranda trees were in full bloom and l fell in love with the city,” he told me.

New home

Donovan was soon discovering his new home, travelling across the country. He was fascinated by the Turkana, when he went to the world’s largest alkaline lake by bus in the days when the northern frontier was a “closed territory”. He bought pieces of jewellery and displayed his first collection at Gallery Watatu, from where a Texan millionaire bought the entire collection.

He later met Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s famous artefacts collector who became the country’s second vice-president after Jaramogi Oginga Odinga quit in 1966. Donovan and Murumbi became partners in the new venture, African Heritage. At the opening of an African Heritage art show, Murumbi made an impassioned speech, urging Africans to invest in their own art.

Murumbi and his wife Sheila were consummate collectors of everything African, building up one of the most coveted book and stamp collections, including the earliest-known books written by African slaves that are now housed in the 1913 Nairobi Gallery in downtown Nairobi. It features the Murumbis’ extensive art collections, including those of Africa’s pioneer artists at Independence like the late Expedito Mwebe Kibbula.

Donovan regaled the world with his collections including spectacular fashion shows that showcased Africa’s textiles, like the spider-woven silk cloth from Madagascar, the colourful Kente from West Africa, the batik from Nigeria and the geometric-patterned Kuba cloth from the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He launched many a famous name on the international catwalk like Khadija Adams, who became Yves St Laurent’s first lead African model in Paris in 1980.

Tourists flocked to the African Heritage shop that was the first pan-African gallery on Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi. The African Heritage Band performed there and is credited with launching the international career of the late Ayub Ogada, especially after the success of Kothbiro, a Luo folk song.

When it closed down in 2003, it had more than 500 full-time employees, over 50 outlets around the world, and thousands supplying items on consignment basis. The Tuesday African Heritage buying day on the pavement morphed into the Maasai markets, which are now held every day at various locations in the Kenya.

In 1989, Donovan began building his dream house overlooking the Nairobi National Park. He held fundraising events for causes he felt passionate about — like the park. It was at his house that I came to know that Nairobi National Park hosted the second-largest wildebeest population after the Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

Donovan had a framed picture he had taken from the top veranda of his house of thousands of wildebeest in the 1990s. That migratory route is a thing of the past now, cut off by the tarmac road and fences.

It was at Donovan’s house that I saw the Venetian beads used for trade in Africa, with the Millefiori the most coveted. His collection was fascinating, including the royal beads that no commoner could wear from the old City of Benin.

Benin was razed by the British in 1897 and all the palace treasures looted.

One day I was admiring a beaded collar in his glass cabinet when he said, “It is made of faience beads.”

He placed it around my neck and its touch was cool on my skin. The beads were worn by Egyptian pharaohs 4,000 years ago. Fashioned from baked clay, they have since been replaced by cheap imports. Donovan had commissioned an old Egyptian man he had met on his earlier travels through Africa to make the faience bead collar. He then gave me a pair of faience bead earrings — a treasured gift.


Life was not always kind to Donovan. In the 1980s, the shop on Kenyatta Avenue burnt down, an incident blamed on an electric fault. Donovan was devastated, and even contemplated leaving Kenya.

“I only stayed because of Murumbi,” he said.

They opened a new shop on Mombasa Road bordering the national park.

In 2014, two men walked into Donovan’s house to inform him of their mission to build the standard gauge railway that was to pass through his home and those of his neighbours.

Donovan put up a spirited fight with the neighbourhood association and managed to save the houses. When criticised for not allowing the SGR to be built on the land, he answered: “They are the first line of defence for the park.”

In an earlier interview with the magazine Architecture Digest, Donovan said, “Although I tried to use features from the various architectural forms that enchanted me in my travels in Africa, an equally important reason for my home is to show people how to live with African arts and craft. I think this indigenous artistic and cultural heritage is underappreciated, both in Africa and worldwide. My house is a step toward preservation.”

Donovan suffered ill health as the years went by. He fought to have the Murumbis’ vast collections housed in the Nairobi Gallery, National Archives and the Murumbi Memorial Garden, where the Murumbis are buried.

Donovan had dreams like Murumbi’s: That his house would become an African institute for the arts. Murumbi’s dream was shattered when he saw his house in Nairobi demolished by the political elite, after bequeathing it to the government to have it turned into the African Institute for the Arts.

Donovan died on the morning of December 5 in his sleep at his beloved home at the age of 83.

Will his dream live on? Only time will tell.