African Heritage House (AHH) sits on an 8-acre piece of land that overlooks the vast Nairobi National Park, commonly referred to as “The World’s only Wildlife Capital.” You can see animals pottering in the distance from here. Between the AHH house and the park, one also gets to see the two railway lines; the old narrow colonial railway line that was built by the British in 1898 and there is the Chinese SGR Railway line.
It took Alan Donovan, founder of African Heritage 4 years to complete building the house. The inspiration behind the turreted facade, he says, was the towering mosques in Mali that he had seen, made of mud. He travelled to Yemen, Morocco, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Madagascar to study the traditional mud architectures, something he wanted to incorporate when designing the house together with David Bristow, who helped him with the technical drawings.
African Heritage House consists of 4 levels/ floors with 5 bedrooms plus a terraced garden on the rooftop. There is also a pool house extension in the compound. The walls of the house are made of stones mined locally and hand carved into blocks. During construction of the house, the stones were covered with layers of cement which Alan dyed to look like mud. The last coat was then mixed with glue and bond create.
The African Heritage House in many ways is a story of Donovan’s life and travels in Africa, a continent he has called home for the last 50 years. Inside the house on every wall, floor, and ceiling, consists African textiles, wood, masonry, pottery, weaponry, and art that Alan has collected from different parts of Africa over the last 5 decades. From the Nigerian desert to the mosques in Mali, from Congo to Kenya, his art collection will dazzle you: 6,000 items, sculptures, and weavings, from the roughest to the most precious. Among the various pieces inside the House, is pottery by Kenyan born British studio potter Magdalene Odundo, who is one of the world’s most esteemed ceramic artists. Magdalene received an OBE from the Queen of England for her contribution to Art and Education in 2008.
Supermodel Iman skyrocketed to international fame after being photographed by Peter Beard, the world famous photographer, in an African Heritage Jewelry. Alan Donovan gave Peter a fetish jacket from Mali and the most exotic African Heritage Jewelry, including one made of warthog tusks and Samburu ivory earplugs and another of giraffe tail from the Rendille for Iman’s photo shoot. She first modelled during the Third African Heritage Night at Maasai Lodge in 1975. Iman went on to become the first super model from Africa.
African Heritage Jewelry workshop was the principal supplier to the Museum of African Art gift shop for several years and there were special sections at Disneyland and Disneyworld gift shops. According to Alan Donovan, one of the female lions, NALA, in The Lion King, is named after one of his lines of jewelry by that name, which is his name Alan spelt backward.
Today, African Heritage House is the most photographed house in Africa. It was the first house in Africa to be featured in the prestigious US Architectural Digest in November 1996. Over the years, it went on to appear on the cover of Marie Claire and hosted a photo shoot for the St. John Collection for Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.
When African Heritage closed its Central Business District gallery in 2003, it had more than 500 full time employees, over 50 outlets around the world, and many thousands supplying items on a consignment basis. The former Tuesday African Heritage Buying Day morphed into the Maasai Markets, which are now held every day at different locations in Nairobi and beyond.
Leading up to 2015, African Heritage house was gazetted as a national site and monument by the Kenya National Museum. The then Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Culture and the Arts, Hassan Wario, in exercise of the powers conferred by section 25 (1) (e) of the National Museums and Heritage Act, declared AHH to be a national monument within the meaning of the Act. There are plans to develop an African Heritage African Studies Institute in honor of the late Joseph Murumbi, a former Vice President of Kenya, who was a co-founder of the AHH. Alan wants to put a campus for masters and doctoral candidates in conjunction with UCLA and Strathmore on sections of the land on which AHH sits on.
It is open for tours and visits, which include meals and accommodation, for those who want an overnight stay. During a visit, Alan together with his staff, will take you through the African stories behind every piece that adorns his house. He says, “An equally important reason from my home is to show people how to live with African arts and crafts. This is a step towards preservation.”
(Special thanks to Alan for welcoming us to his home, for his excellent outstanding hosting skills and for all the information he provided during our visit to the AHH. For a tour/ visit, you can get in touch with him via [email protected]/ 0721 518389)