African Heritage House: Why Alan Donovan is selling Africa’s most photographed house

African Heritage House for sale. [Courtesy]

Do you have Sh320 million to spare? Are you a lover of African art and culture? Then the picturesque African Heritage House located on the edge of Nairobi National Park could be yours.

The house, built by the avid art collector Alan Donovan is up for sale, according to an advert posted by Knight Frank.

While the realtor did not give any indicative prices, Donovan says it is possible for the house that sits on 7.7 acres to fetch US$3 million (Sh322 million).

Donovan will be bidding goodbye to over 6,000 rare and precious items collected over half a century and displayed on the house’s four floors, a swimming pool and pool house, staff housing and a permanent exhibition of Africa’s Lost Architecture.

Speaking to The Standard, Donovan, who came to Kenya in 1970, said it is time to let “someone else with a love for art to look after the house.”

“I am too old now and need to find someone who will look after the priceless items. I may go to another house in the vicinity and continue with my Pan Africa studies,” said the 80-year-old former American aid worker.

The house built by avid art collector Alan Donovan is up for sale. [Courtesy]

Donovan began constructing the house in 1989 following the design of the mud mosques of West Africa, particularly the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali.

“If the huge structures with elaborate designs could be constructed of mud back then, why not today?” he posed.

In January 2016, the house was declared a national monument and has been dubbed Africa’s most photographed house.

But the house almost never came to be since Donovan had not intended to make Kenya his home.

In a previous interview, Donovan narrated how he came to Kenya together with other travel enthusiasts in March 1970. “All I wanted was visit some ‘virgin’ part of the country before continuing on our African trip,” he said.

In a visit to Turkana, Donovan was mesmerized by the rich culture, collecting some artifacts that still lie in his house. In Nairobi, Donovan organized a jewelry workshop that he called Nala (his first name spelt backwards).

Then he met Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s second vice president and an African culture enthusiast, who requested Donovan to go back to Turkana for more collections.

“Murumbi attended one of my exhibitions and afterwards asked me if I could go back to Turkana for more collections, if I could just stay in Kenya for one more year. I agreed. The rest is history,” he said.

In a statement announcing the intended sale, Donovan says the price is nowhere near the top asking prices for such a facility, stating that a key consideration is finding a buyer who will maintain it as a national monument by preserving its external architecture.

“The sale should not affect the national status of the house as long as the new owner does not make alterations in the design and will follow in my footsteps and my co-founders, former Vice President Joseph Murumbi and his wife Sheila, in preserving, protecting and promoting African heritage,” said Donovan.

For the last 30 years, the house has become an icon due to its design, themed after the ‘lost’ mud architecture of West Africa. It is home to some of Africa’s famous cultural collections including the ‘Nimba,’ the great mask from Guinea. The collection has drawn visitors from around the world and has been a centre for fashion shows.

The house has graced the cover of Marie Claire in Paris and the leading décor magazine of Russia.

It has been featured in countless newspaper and magazine articles around the world and has appeared in the prestigious Architectural Digest of the USA.  

The house has hosted the likes of Richard Branson, actresses from the TV series Desperate Housewives and the Walt Disney extended families.

Many famous Kenyan couples would arrive at the house using the old train to have their vows under the “wedding tree” an old Acacia Nilotica located at the front yard

The house attracts tour operators who often bring their guests on their first night to acclimatize them to Africa.

“We give them a guided tour and a Pan African meal, and on their last night, a celebration to savor the high points of their African safari before departure to the airport, all while enjoying the breathtaking views of Nairobi National Park,” he says.

To promote tourism, Donovan has in the past prodded Kenya Wildlife Service to open a gate to the Nairobi National Park near the house since 2003 when KWS “prematurely closed the Cheetah Gate at Athi River due to degradation.” 

“The entry to the park could pass under the bridge built by the new railway line and thus avoid building an overpass or underpass to the park. This would open the park. However, land grabbers have built on the access road and complicated these plans,” says Donovan.

Donovan was also in the process of building a museum near the house but the works stalled due to the ongoing pandemic. He is also working with universities to establish a Pan African Studies Centre in honor of the late Murumbi.

To beat the pandemic blues, Donovan has turned to writing and has completed a book, An American in Africa: 50 Years of Exploring African Heritage and Overcoming Racism in America due to be published in Kenya shortly.

The second one, Black Beauty through the Ages has attracted film producers from America and Egypt who are considering producing a film around it. 


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