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Alan Donovan: A journey through Africa and the city he made home

By Peter Muiruri | Dec 19th 2021 | 5 min read

The African Heritage House, in Mlolongo, Nairobi, was designed by Alan Donovan. [Gilbert Otieno, Standard]

It is late 1969. A second-hand Volkswagen Combi hurtles through the Sahara, braving the blinding sands around Timbuktu and the gusty winds of Djenne in Mali.

Cramped in the vehicle are six men and women from diverse backgrounds but tied together by a desire to conquer the African continent. Small disagreements about the orthodox travel plans and poorly planned accommodation grow to full-blown verbal assaults.

There was Willard, an American army chief who was retiring after a tour of duty in Germany; Fred and Chris, an American couple in need of adventure; Cathy, the daughter of an American judge; Ingrid, a German secretary; and the architect of the whole trip, Alan Donovan.

Donovan was an aid worker who had served under America’s State Department but was getting disillusioned by local politics.

That year, he was poised to take up a position in Tunisia and had been seconded to study French in Paris. But he wanted out, but not before taking the boat to France where he met up with his Africa expedition team.

Donovan, the man who became an avid collector of African art, never intended to settle in Africa. Like his fellow travellers, his goal was to travel the whole length and breadth of Africa before returning home for further duties. But after the group’s arrival in Nairobi in March 1970, there were some changes of plans. Worn out by the grueling journey thus far, Willard, Cathy and Ingrid returned to their home countries.

Fred and Chris forged ahead with the South African trip. Donovan was left with the van in Nairobi and wished to visit a “virgin” part of Kenya before venturing further south of the continent.

On Monday, September 9, 2019, well before Covid-19 hit these shores, Donovan and I had a long chat on the verandah of his home overlooking Nairobi National Park. “Look at this picture. Can you believe it? This was Nairobi Park 50 years ago.”

Alan Donovan. [Moses Omusula, Standard]

The large print image of the park hanging on the wall is dotted with wildebeests. It is hard to believe that as many wildebeests as those in Masai Mara National Reserve used to migrate between Nairobi and the southern part of the country. “This is all gone now. The wildlife, the wide, open spaces. Gone.”

Donovan, who died on Monday last week at 83, saw the best and worst of his adopted country. He chose to focus on the best side, the rich and diversified culture that he vowed to safeguard. He did not have to. The man from Colorado never intended to stay on in the country longer than was necessary. Turkana mesmerised him, having read about the region’s rich culture in books. His first visit yielded several key artefacts from the community. He kept coming back for more and even sold the van in order to procure more artefacts.

Collections grew quickly and Donovan created a jewellery workshop that he called Nala (his name, Alan, spelt backwards). He swore that Disney Films, the creators of the movie Lion King, owed him copyright fees for using the name Nala for one of the lionesses in the set.

“And the Pan-African trip?” I had asked him. “That never happened,” he said. “Blame Joseph for ruining my travel plans.”

Donovan had met Joseph Murumbi who had briefly served as Kenya’s second Vice-President. Both men loved art and culture. “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 for one more year. I agreed. The rest is history,” Donovan had said in the earlier interview. The two men co-founded African Heritage that grew to be the biggest gallery in Africa.

Three years after his arrival, Donovan moved to a small house near Nairobi Park belonging to the family of one of his employees. The parents of the girl, Donovan said, had built the house for her only for her to end up getting married to a rich fellow who apparently owned an island in West Indies. “I ended up sleeping there on the floor for a whole year with a coffee pot as my only companion.”

It was here that Donovan began to build what has been billed as Africa’s most photographed house, the African Heritage House. The design followed the desert architecture that he had come across during his sojourn in the Sahara, notably the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali.

Alan Donovan’s house, the African Heritage House. [Moses Omusula, Standard]

A few metres from his house lies a section of the old railway line that was aptly called the ‘Lunatic Express’ after courting enough financial and feasibility controversies in Britain before its construction.

“There was a mini station outside my house,” he told me. “Wedding parties would alight here, walk the few steps to the house for their reception.” Those were the glorious days. When the railway would drop not just wedding parties but fashion icons and models.  

Then came 2014, one of the darkest days in Alan’s life. “I was here when they came.” The men - a heavily-built, gun-toting security officer and others from Kenya Railways were the bearers of the ominous news.

“This house sits on land earmarked for a new railway. It must go down,” he trained his faint eyes on them as they took the well-trodden dirt path that connects the house to the busy Mlolongo township.

His little empire that he had built over the course of 25 years and that had drawn global visitors like moths to the flame was to come crumbling down. But it did not. High-level interventions saved the day and the standard gauge railway was rerouted.

Before his death, Donovan had already put the house on sale through the realtor, Knight Frank. The real estate firm did not put any price indicators on the advert but Donovan said the house that sits on 7.7 acres and contains more than 6,000 rare and precious items could fetch more than Sh300 million. “I am too old now and need to find someone who will look after the priceless items,” he said during an interview in May.

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