With an array of African art, textiles, jewellery, music instruments and more collected from over 20 African countries, coupled with its unique architecture inspired by the traditional mud houses across the continent, African Heritage House is indeed an art lover’s paradise.
Text: Wendy Watta Photography: Brian Siambi
This property overlooks the Nairobi National Park where a pair of binoculars reveal a dazzle of zebra pottering about in the distance. A cargo train chugs across. Our host, dressed in a kofia and bright red tye-dye African print shirt befitting of the surroundings, plays a recording of owner Alan Donovan’s voice on a portable radio. By Alan’s account, the shade under which we presently stand is cast by a so-called wedding tree, because love-birds would get off the train to come get married in this very spot. I momentarily zone off and start to daydream about a couple that may have eloped to come get hitched here in the early 2000s…
Our group of four then moves to the mazeras-lined pool where I’m instantly drawn to a metallic ‘Roaming Lady’ sculpture which stands out because it has some of the older handheld mobile phones. I remember having one of those in high school, and sending a text message was like thumb wrestling. Across from it stands a blue human-sized sculpture called ‘Three in One’ by Ugandan artist Francis Nnaggenda. The pool itself is surrounded by smaller sculptures, a favourite being a crested crane (the bird found in Uganda’s flag, done by an artist paying homage to his country) which overlooks the park.
The structure of this building is Swahili, and it is adorned in everything from sisal-woven fishing nets which were used along the coast, a Luo spear and a Maasai shield made from real buffalo hide. The adjacent pool changing house is equally as striking, with Kisii soapstone pieces, a Lamu door, Tinga Tinga art whose origins are in Tanzania, and much more.
We then shuffle to the mustard-yellow main house which is the main attraction. It is based on the pre-colonial mud houses of Africa, drawing inspiration from all over. The part facing the road is based on Northern Nigeria and the park-facing side is inspired by Mali, specifically the mud mosques of Timbuktu and the Grand Mosque in Djenne. Etched on the exterior walls are geometric designs apparently drawn from Ghana. Stepping inside, you can understand why African Heritage House claims to be the most photographed house in Africa having appeared on the cover of Marie Claire, being the first house in Africa to be featured in Architectural Digest, among other accolades.
The house is filled with instruments, fabrics, jewellery, tools and other artifacts collected everywhere from Congo to Egypt and beyond. Standout pieces are from Turkana, curved by women who only had shields and knives to work with yet the craftsmanship is remarkable. I also find the ibeji dolls handmade by Yoruba women rather fascinating, as is the peculiar history of multiple births surrounding them.
We head upstairs to talk to Alan, an American who first arrived in Africa in 1967 as an army officer during the NigeriaBiafra war. He says he was actually made a Yoruba chief in Nigeria and has the photos and accompanying paraphenalia to prove it. He then resigned two years later, bought a volkswagen in Paris which he then drove across the Sahara back to Nigeria, collecting art from everywhere he went. Later selling the car, he made a collection of everything he had curated and brought them to Nairobi. Friends at the embassy urged him to set up a collection because a lot of people had not seen those items, not even in the Nairobi Museum. His first exhibition was therefore in 1970.
He would then team up with Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s second vice president and an avid private collector, whose dream it was to open a Pan-African center in Nairobi where all the creativity of the continent could be seen. Together they opened African Heritage Gallery in the CBD along Kenyatta Avenue (where the I&M building currently stands) and for years, it was a huge success.
“We always had at least 600 people everyday, and that’s only because the fire department wouldn’t allow us to have more,” says Alan.
The museum burned down in 1996 and just like that, all the stock was gone and it took some years to rebuild. When Alan finally bought the current property in Kitengela, he slept on the floor of his house for a year because he had to go to 20 countries to curate again. The process of buying stock and building the main house took five years to complete.
He is currently working on a magnificent museum beside the house, and it is based on the last oasis in the sahara desert where the salt caravans passed through…it was one of the few routes where people entered africa, long before ships.
African Heritage House is available for tours, meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinners on the rooftop or by the refreshing pool), conferences/functions, as well as overnight stays in its luxurious rooms filled with African art and furnished with modern appointments.