The survival of the African Heritage House hangs by a thread


(Posted 03rd July 2014)

A few days ago did one of my friends from Kenya, Emma Too – recently applauded here for her single handed effort to beautify sections of the Mombasa CBD – alert me to the going on’s about one of Kenya’s greatest architectural treasures, the African Heritage House.

I had in fact written some time ago about this marvel and was swift to contact another one of Kenya’s icons, art and fashion tsar Alan Donovan, who built the house and turned it into a one of a kind permanent exhibition space and museum. Alan has since come back to me and has given a blow by blow account of what threats the African Heritage House is faced with, his story reproduced further below.

It is worth noting that support from a wide cross section of Kenyan society was swift and seems sustained, bringing together a number of influential people who are ready to stand up and throw their weight behind Alan’s quest to preserve the African Heritage House, turn it into a national monument and grant it protected status as one of the country’s great marvels where art and artefacts have been assembled like in no other place this author can think of.

As Kenya struggles with the downturn in her tourism fortunes, to a great part self-inflicted through decisions taken by government, and in many cases by decisions NOT taken by government when immediate action was required, and while equally struggling with a poaching crisis, again exposing a rudderless and captainless ship at a time when an individual of Leakey like qualities would be needed, here comes yet another dimension into play.

The development of a standard gauge railway from the port of Mombasa to Nairobi and then on to the Ugandan border and beyond, is clearly a much needed infrastructure measure to propel Kenya forward. The question is if such developments, and there are similar issues at hand over the development of a new port in Lamu which could irreversibly alter the fabric of Lamu Town, should be allowed to supersede all other considerations and ride roughshod over such places like the African Heritage House, when clearly options exist, even if such options cost some more money. To complete the Southern Bypass is the Kenyan parliament now starting the process to de-gazette a section of the Nairobi National Park but attached to it is a major financial package which should allow the Kenya Wildlife Service to acquire additional land on the opposite side of the park to make up for the loss of land where the new highway will pass through. With the African Heritage House a similar solution could be envisaged, to keep the house at its present location where it has over the years become a magnet for visitors from near and far.

( The alternatives are stark, either to raise funds and find a suitable new location and then take the house, and its contents, stone by stone and piece by piece to a new place or else face the wrecking balls which are the ever present downside of ‘development’ which has become a self-serving monster with too many heads to cut off.

A major local and international petition is now being prepared to save the African Heritage House, and the following petition text, preliminary at this stage, was availed last evening to share with readers and have them better understand what is at stake here – and why, given Kenya’s history with the Murumbi legacy, utmost vigilance is needed to avoid another debacle as happened with the Muthaiga home of Kenya’s second Vice President.


Joseph Anthony Zuzarte Murumbi was the first Foreign Minister of Kenya and the country’s second Vice President.

During the 1980’s, his house in Muthaiga was demolished and the land upon which the house stood grabbed by unscrupulous politicians, high and mighty in the government of the day. A few years before, Murumbi had sold the said house in Muthaiga with some of his vast collections of books and art to the Kenyan government to be an Institute of African Studies. UNESCO agreed to fund a hostel, a library and a kitchen at the house. Murumbi then moved with his wife, Sheila, to his native Maasailand, where he built another stunning house. After a fall in his bathroom, he was evacuated to Nairobi. It was then he heard that his house had been torn down and his collections moved out. He went to the house to investigate the matter. From his wheelchair he peered through the gates of his former home and saw that his beautiful indigenous trees had been felled for developers to build houses for those who took the land. A short time later he suffered a final stroke and died. Joseph Murumbi was, arguably, Africa’s greatest art collector, along with his American-Kenyan friend, Alan Donovan, who were co-founders of African Heritage, Africa’s first Pan African gallery.

In 1994, Alan Donovan completed the African Heritage House overlooking the Nairobi National Park, which is described by the prestigious Architectural Digest as "an architecture rising from the sere Kenyan plain like an outcropping of earth, a vision of usefulness informed by the African genius for decoration." The house is a combination of the indigenous mud architectures from across Africa. It has been described as ‘Africa’s most photographed house.’ This architectural masterpiece hosts art collections from all over Africa spanning 50 years. Some of the collections are rare pieces whose value aptly stands as invaluable. This House therefore remains of immeasurable cultural value to all Africans, and indeed the whole human race. It is in the process of being made an Advanced African Studies Centre as a tribute to the late Murumbi.

The African Heritage House is under the threat of being demolished!

The House stands to be demolished on the excuse that the Standard Gauge Railway would need to pull it down to use the land for construction. However, that view stands to be challenged on several grounds;

1. The present railway was built in 1889, fifty years before the Nairobi National Park came into existence which used the railway line as its border. As there were no blasting materials at the time, the Railway line meanders around stone outcrops. The SG railway should stay on the railway reserve but it needs to straighten the old colonial line for the 21st century train and should be allowed to do so.

2. The SG railway can be built on a platform so that wild animals can pass freely below it. This would not require any additional land, just a leeway to pass through park land as is already being planned through Tsavo National Park by the same SG railway.

3. The families living along the border of the Nairobi National Park have all occupied these lands for over 40 years. These borderlands provide a bulwark to protect the park from unwanted structures, poaching, sewage, lights and noise. To take these lands would not only be an environmental disaster but would cost taxpayers huge amounts for compensation. Whereas if the SG railway remains on the present railway route the costs for construction, including the platforms, would be paid by the contractor, not the public.

4. The existing route would provide passengers with sweeping views of the park, as well as preserve the borderlands along the park for other uses that are compatible with the Nairobi National Park.

With this in mind, we ask that fellow Kenyans, Africans and citizens of the world to join us in signing this petition to prevent the African Heritage House from being demolished whereby history would repeat itself and the house will meet the same fate as the Murumbi houses!

Details of the petition site will be published as soon as they are available so that readers can share it with their own networks and help to get the signatures needed to keep the African Heritage House where it is and how it is.

In closing, below the narrative of Zihan Kassam, kindly provided by Alan Donovan and pay special attention to the Chinese chaps being accompanied by an armed policeman to suitably intimidate those they tried to visit their destruction upon:

Start quote:

Huff Puff Blow

African Heritage House Hangs in the Balance

By Zihan Kassam courtesy of Alan Donovan

Hanging by a thread, Alan Donovan’s African Heritage House overlooking Nairobi National Park is at the mercy of a wrecking ball. The most photographed house in all of Africa, and chockfull of rare African artefacts, the house stands in the way of the new standard gauge railway line between Mombasa and Nairobi.

Donovan shares how the news was broken. “I was sitting in my pool house with guests who had just arrived when suddenly a Kenyan Administrative Policeman (AP) walked in swinging his AK 47 and announced that the house has to be demolished. I asked him where he came from but he would not say nor give me his ID card. There were two Chinese men behind him. They left and went to my neighbours to repeat the same message.”

After receiving this information, Donovan suddenly fell ill and was taken to Nairobi Hospital where the doctors discovered a blood clot in his right leg. Unperturbed, he arranged to meet with the engineers from the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), who have been contracted to build the railway. In his hospital room, members of CRBC informed him that the section of the railroad outside his property had too many curves in the track to safely operate the new high-speed train.

“It seems that CRBC has a legitimate concern,” says Donovan. “They aren’t just land-grabbing. They have even considered an elevated track at some points.” But unsettled by the fact that Hippo-Point might be destroyed and that neighbours like Shamit Varma, Sally Dunman, Kevin Cronchey, Robert Humphrey and David Ndetei, whose families have occupied the land since the 1950’s, would lose their homes, Donovan worries that the current estate, which is tranquil and works to preserve the park, will become an extension of the haphazard and polluted new developments along Mombasa Road.

It seems that the order for Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC) with CRBC to survey the land was authorized in September 2013 by Alfred Matheka, former Managing Director of KRC. On February 4th 2014, through the Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations (KARA), the home-owners affected by Matheka’s notice appealed to the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure and to Dr. Mohammed Swazuri, Chairman of the National Land Commission to protect their property.

It turns out there is a larger issue at hand. According to a Kenya gazette notice, the National Land Commission recently gave notice to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to give over 100 acres of land in the Taita, Taveta, Kwale and Makueni counties. Combined with land acquired from private landowners, KRC will acquire over 5000 acres in just the first phase of the project. In later phases, the railway is forecast to extend to Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.

The paradox of the fate of African Heritage House lies in the fact that the house was in the process of being gazetted as a heritage site in Kenya. On January 16th 2014, Donovan had followed up with Dr. Idle Omar Farah, Director General of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) to check on the status of this endeavour. As it turns out, Dr. Farah is no longer with NMK.

For those who are completely in the dark about African Heritage House, it is an exceptional mud-architecture construction, a museum where American-born Alan Donovan lives. You can take a tour of jewellery, gourds, spears, pottery and other artefacts from across Africa. Many local and international guests stay overnight. Donovan began building the house in 1989 and it was complete by 1994. Donovan was the co-founder of the African Heritage Pan African Galleries with Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s first foreign minister and second vice president. It is said that together with Murumbi and his wife Sheila, they secured the largest private collection of African artefacts in the region and perhaps all of Africa..

After Murumbi died in 1990, Donovan spent many years trying to protect the Murumbi collection, of which many pieces were stolen or lost. After battling with the government to save the collection left behind by the passing of Sheila Murumbi in 2000 Donovan founded the Murumbi Trust and only last year did he manage to secure the Murumbi African Heritage Collection, which can be found at the old PC’s building, which is now Nairobi Gallery.

As for the future of African Heritage House, after Donovan’s recent visit to the USA, where he met with former associates and several universities, some of the institutions including the American Museum at the American University of Washington showed an interest in partnering with the African Heritage House and the Murumbi Trust. Donovan is currently looking in projects that will preserve, protect and possibly expand the original Murumbi African Heritage vision. This could require the formation of a new foundation to replace the Murumbi Trust and accommodate African Heritage House as a permanent museum for Kenya and the world.

But without governmental or international support; if the train track is not rerouted or there are no alternatives to relocate the house and its compendium of rarities, the African Heritage House could actually be lost forever. Proving that the world isn’t so fair, that history will repeat itself, and that people can continue to ignore evident and inexcusable patterns of behaviour on behalf of their government, the Donovan narrative might follow in the footsteps of the Murumbi story.

In 1977, Murumbi had entrusted his Muthaiga house and his compendium of artefacts, books, documents and textiles to the Kenyan government for the purpose of creating the Murumbi Institute of African Studies. He left to build his new home in Maasailand to repose only to comeback to find his house demolished and his precious indigenous trees cut down and the remainder of his house contents removed to the present Kenya National Archives where it was not properly displayed until the Murumbi Gallery opened in December 2006, thirty years after he had sold his collections to the government. . The futility of his hard work aggravated his illness. It is said that Murumbi died of a broken heart.

Despite sobering setbacks and a lack of support in his arduous pursuit, Donovan has persevered in protecting the keepsakes of our precious past and also to keep the Murumbi legacy alive. If karma exists, it’s someone’s turn to fight for him.

As he verges on the release of Joseph Murumbi’s autobiography ‘A Path Not Taken’, the parallels in their life stories are uncanny but not coincidental. In their quest to show the value of fascinating African arts, that are a part of our cultural narrative, they have met with a society so callous, so immune to its national heritage, it cannot hear the voices of its benefactors. Here we are huffing and puffing about something so very significant. Still, the house might be blown down.

8 Responses

  1. Asante sana rafiki Wolfgang for sharing.I am feeling a freeze in my body after reading this article.

    Sending warm regards from Uganda



    On Wednesday, July 2, 2014, Wolfgang H. Thome’s Blog wrote: > Aviation, Tourism and Conservation news – DAILY from Eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean islands posted: “AFRICAN HERITAGE HOUSE UNDER THREAT OF DEMOLITION (Posted 03rd July 2014) A few days ago did one of my friends from Kenya, Emma Too – recently applauded here for her single handed effort to beautify sections of the Mombasa CBD – alert me to the going ” >

  2. Professor, please learn how to say the same thing is brief. All this can be said in less than one page. What you need to understand is that Kenya education system does not teach “Value Adition” As a result millions of Kenyans including many govt oficials do not understand the value of this house. You can harmer their heads but they will never get it. Thats why Africa is called developing nation meaning African brains are developing but not yet developed. What you need is to educate them instead of blaming them.

  3. Reblogged this on Eagle's View and commented:
    What a tragedy it would be to lose this marvelous house and its vast African Art collection to ‘development’. Please sign the petition.

  4. Why has the Cabinet Secretary in charge of heritage remained silent?Are the officials from the ministry waiting for Allan Donovan to ”zungumza and toa kitu”,before they take it upon themselves to fight for the preservation of African Heritage House for poserity!Time to say NO is now.

  5. very saddened by the illegal governments,proposed re routing of roads and boundaries,time for regime change,i have retweeted this to our followers @EaccNet we hope all will be great and save this magnificient historical Africa Heritage House.

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