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Directorate of Museums Sites & Monuments, NMK

First inspired by the great mud mosques of Mali, the African Heritage House was
constructed in the late 1980s on an eight-acre site within view of Mount Kilimanjaro and
Mount Kenya on the Athi Plains some 16km south-east of Nairobi, Kenya, overlooking
the Nairobi National game Park along the Nairobi-Mombasa Road. This house is owned
by Alan Donovan, a one-time American government bureaucrat who turned his life
toward African Art and all things African. The house is mainly influenced by the mud
mosques of Djenne and Tombouctou in Mali which Donovan visited in the late 1960s on
a Pan African odyssey during which time he acquired some of the artifacts that sit
majestically in this house today. The house is as African as it can be. The architecture,
the furniture, the design, everything in it is African. Some of the artifacts in the house
are from Donovans first trip to Northern Kenya, others from the East African coastal
region, but there is almost no part of Africa that is not represented.
The original design of the house was re-engineered by Kenyan architect David Bristow
and although the mud mosque tradition strongly influences the nine-room dwelling, so
does the architecture of coastal Kenya and the sculptural house styles of northern
Nigeria and southern Morocco, as well as the painted houses of Northern Ghana and
Bourkina Faso. The artistic work does not only show in the final product but is also told
in the story of the construction where the initial construction was that of the swimming
pool. The land was solid stone, so after several years of digging by hand, the pool
cavity was finally completed by a caterpillar digger but it took yet another year to await
the return of the digger to make the cavity big enough for the workers to make the pool.
The makuti-thatched Pool House, itself, was designed by architect and well known
Nairobi personality, Joy Mboya. The walls of the house are not mud but stone mined
locally from across the Athi River which were hand carved into blocks. The stone was
then covered with cement which was dyed from the first layer to look like mud. The last
coat for greater permanence was mixed with glue and Boncrete and has survived
several rainy seasons unlike the mud of the actual mud mosques in West Africa. This is
geniality and a mastery of skills at its best. On the walls are West African designs first
created of styrofoam that were molded and nailed to the walls and then filled with
cement before finally pulling them off and shaping the dried cement by hand.
Being a result of the creative genius of American-Kenyan Alan Donovan and Kenyan
architect David Bristow, the house holds a diverse and representative collection of
African art. More proof of the genius of African design is acknowledged through the
textiles, wood, masonry, pottery, weaponry and crafts of every kind. The collection has
been assembled over nearly half a century. Smitten by the love of Africa since his time
as a relief officer for the USAID during the Nigerian-Biafra war in the mid 1960s, Alan

voluntarily chose to settle in Kenya. Since the 1970s, he has been engaged in many
activities that have promoted, popularized, and preserved many elements of the African
heritage including arts, culture, and fashion. At the time when most Africans were
embracing Westernization, Alan was among the few who recognized the significance of
inculcating and promoting pride in things African. Teaming up with the late former Vice
President of Kenya, Joseph Murumbi and his wife Sheila, they co-founded African
Heritage, the first Pan African Gallery in Africa in 1972.
Use of the House
The African Heritage House opened its doors to the public in 2004 for special tours and
received the top rating for Nairobi tourism attractions by Frommers Travel Guide for
Kenya and Tanzania. Since then it has hosted events for many special visitors to Kenya,
including American television actress Teri Hatcher; Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines,
Alexandra, the reigning Miss Europe; the Walt Disney families of America and many
other high profile visitors including dignitaries from the USA, Europe, South America,
China, Japan, India, the Middle East and many other parts of the world. It has hosted
elaborate events as well as having been featured in many television and film shoots
such as Saks Fifth Avenue from New York City.
The house has been used in awareness campaigns in cultural conservation through
such activities as fund raisers for the lions of the Nairobi National Park, beauty
competitions, launches, cultural events etc. It has also been used by students training in
architecture for their research. It has appeared in numerous magazines and was the
first house in sub-saharan African to appear in the prestigious Architectural Digest
magazine (1996.), and was the cover story in Marie Claire in Paris. It has been featured
in a 10-page spread in the bible-sized Tachen Book called INSIDE AFRICA, and
another called AFRICAN INTERIORS. Architects and decorators from every corner of
the globe recognize the property as a world class contribution to the cultural history and
heritage of Kenya and beyond. It is often referred to as The most photographed house
in Africa.

The house, like that of Joseph Murumbis, shows how one can live with traditional
African art, architecture and materials in a contemporary way. Unfortunately Murumbis
house was demolished after he sold it to the government on condition that it be turned
in to the Murumbi Institute of African Studies (JMIAS) which UNESCO had agreed to

Saving the House

Today the African Heritage House may meet the same fate as Murumbis. It may stand
on the way of the proposed standard-gauge railway line. As described in the Daily
Nation of 18th February 2014, the structure may be iconic, a showcase of irreplaceable
African culture-by both design and furnishing-but what is that when pitted against a
modern train hurting through the plains at 200 kilometers per hour? The matter has
been taken to the authorities concerned but no official response has been received.
Over 100 hectares of the Tsavo National Park has been degazetted in preparation of the
construction of the new line. The owners of the residences along the borderlands of the
Nairobi National Park have lobbied the authorities to use the same routing along the
railway reserve of the original railway that was constructed in 1898. However, they have
noted that the new railway must be allowed to straighten the curves and bends of the
old line along this section of the Park, used by the first steam train of l898, to make the
line viable for the 21st century. Fifty years after the original railway was built the Nairobi
National Park was established in 1948 and it used the railway as its border, sometimes
taking land from the railway reserve. If the new train is given a leeway to stay within the
Park, the train could also be on elevated tracks along this section of the Park which
would provide splendid views to passengers (and save the adjacent views if the railway
does not demolish the borderlands). This would then eliminate the threat to more than
400 acres of gated communities, all with title deeds on residential land, including the
African Heritage House. These communities have been a bulwark to protect the
Nairobi National Park for over half a century.

Proposal: The African Heritage House should be gazetted in order to preserve and
advance its course in cultural heritage because of its unique architecture based on the
indigenous African mud architecture from several parts of Africa. The house has
provided inspiration to several young African architects as a model for modern life; its
rare cultural collections inside have been collected for over nearly 5 decades. The
house will revert into a permanent museum or Institute/Campus that can be used for the
conservation and training in African Culture, Art, Textiles, Fashion and Architecture. It is
proposed that the institute/campus will include cottages for students undertaking
research and studies on the same. The Institute will include the Alan Donovan cultural
collections and be linked to similar Murumbi cultural collections in the Kenya National
Museums and the Kenya National Archives.
Management: The Campus will be managed through a board which will include the
following stakeholders or trustees; American University from the USA, the Kenya
National Archives, the National Museums of Kenya and the Strathmore University. Alan
Donovan will also be a Board Member until his demise. American University will assist

mainly in developing funding models for running the Campus as well as developing
curriculum for faculty research and student training. The National Museums of Kenya
and Kenya National Archives will assist by giving access for research of the Murumbi
Collections now held by these institutions in their permanent collections. Strathmore
University has embarked on a program to develop an Institute of African Studies, which
will be called the Joseph Murumbi Institute of African Studies JMIAS. JMIAS will help
to upgrade and preserve the vast collection of rare books, documents, postage stamps
and other materials collected by the late vice president and will develop and teach
advanced courses in African Studies, including history, political science, and art. Other
institutions which might be involved in this effort will include the Library of Congress in
Washington DC who have surveyed the Murumbi book collection that has been
catalogued and found that nearly ninety-eight per cent of these books are already
digitized. Funding could be sought through the US Library of Congress to continue the
digitization program of all outstanding collections.
There are only two standing structures in the city of Nairobi that have truly been inspired
by African artistic architectural traditions. The first is the Jomo Kenyatta International
Conference Centre (KICC), and the second is the African Heritage House (AHH).
Dubbed as The most photographed house in Africa, the AHH is today popular for local
and international television and film shoots and has been featured in multiple
publications and numerous magazines, newspapers and books.
The AHH uniquely captures the finest traditions of African mud architecture. Through
carefully executed and finished designs, the AHH borrows designs from master
architects and masons from across the continent who created the world famous
towering mud mosques of Timbuktu and Djenne in Mali and the Emirs palaces in
Northern Nigeria. Within the houses interior and exterior are finely elaborated
examples of the vanishing but most ecologically appropriate building traditions from
Ghana, Niger and Togo, Uganda, and the Kenyan Coast and adjacent islands. In sum,
the AHH embodies the finest of the diverse African architectural traditions.
Over the last four decades, the African Heritage gallery founded by Donovan with
Joseph and Sheila Murumbi, has played a leading role in training African artists, fashion
designers, models, architects and thus ignited the East African renaissance so visible in
our cities and ruralscapes. Since 2004, AHH has been open to the public for special
tours, meals and events. The house and all the Murumbi collections are and will
continue to be used to show the wealth and breadth of the African Culture, its sensitivity
and history.