African Heritage House is extraordinary, just like its owner, the late Alan Donovan. Located in Mlolongo, there have been a lot of changes over the last few decades, with the construction of the railway. The forest and wild animals have been lost due to the urban sprawl.
African Heritage House sits on breathtaking views of Nairobi National Park, and passing by makes one feel like you are in a far-flung place. I marvelled at African Heritage House’s distinction by way of design, form, and function. The masterpiece radiates craft in architecture at its best.
Unlike any other personality we feature on the Art of Living show, I knew this was going to be a different story. This feature will be honouring Alan Donovan, a legend who dedicated most of his life to preserving African art.
With Joseph Murungi (the former Vice President of Kenya, who was passionate about African Art and an avid collector), Donovan co-founded Heritage House, which, his assistant informs me, is the most photographed house in Africa.
Tom Otieno, who has since taken over from Donovan, knows he has big shoes to fill. He initially worked as Sheila Murungi’s assistant. When she passed on, Donavan offered him a job. Tom was not interested in art in the beginning but it grew on him.
“I miss him dearly,” Tom says, adding, “He was a good planner, a fantastic designer; brilliant at his work, and a great leader. He was so meticulous with every project. I know I will not fit in his shoes and the weight is on my shoulders, but I will do my best to keep his dream alive.”
At African Heritage House, we roll our cameras. Tom first requests us to pay our respects at the gravesite which, as per Donovan’s wishes, faces the Ngong Hills. The tour of the house begins with the outdoors, where sculptures and other artefacts are displayed. Some of the outdoor pieces are by Ugandan artiste John Odoch.
The inspiration for the African Heritage House was a mud mosque that Donovan saw in Mali. The house is a two-story concrete building with a mud finish. It has five rooms and two living rooms that can host 14 people at once and is open to the public.
Art connoisseurs and enthusiasts will love the African Heritage House, which offers unforgettable experiences from its uniquely guided tours.
The main door is quite stunning. It is quaint, rustic, and vintage.
As Tom welcomed me to the main living room, my heart skipped a beat. It felt like I had just entered the King of Zamunda ‘s kingdom.
Touring the House, one soon gets to witness his diligence to his mission. I was astonished by the display of treasures inside this kingdom. The tastefully and meticulously displayed jewellery. The furniture, fabrics, and art pieces are a testament to his attention to detail.
The wooden beam ceiling is made of poles called Baridi, traded in Lamu, ages ago, because they were termite resistant giving the space a rustic charm.
The floor is made from Mazera stones from Mazera area. Gorgeous vintage handwoven wool rags from Morocco displayed on the floor are exceptional. They create a tribal, authentic feel.
One-of-a-kind statement Swahili furniture pieces showcase the creativity of the coastal ancestors.
Oriental jewellery, rarely found in the house includes ostrich egg beads, amber from Mali, silver from Ethiopia, chevron beads traded in the 18th century, and gold weights from Ghana.
The musical instruments one will see are by Papillon (Martin Murimi), a Kenyan musician and indigenous instrument maker. The pots are by a Kenyan-born potter, Magdalene Odundo. She calls them vessels and does not duplicate them.
The house has 10 African fabrics that are doubly special because they are no longer manufactured. Another standout is a guard made from a camel stomach.
Donovan’s favourite art pieces include a Baga mask from Guinea, which was worn during ceremonies. This piece brought Donovan and Joseph Murungi together.
You can book tours or stays at the African Heritage House through their social media platforms or website. [Nailantei kenga]
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