Inside Nairobi's African Heritage House

The African Heritage House, which overlooks Kenyan capital’s National Park, has become synonymous with an epic showcase of African Culture through art, crafts, and textiles. Built in the 1970s, this landmark has accumulated the world's largest archive of Africa's ceremonies and rituals, many of which have vanished over time and are no longer known to the current generation. An intriguing element to this story is that the owner and co-founder of the African Heritage House, is in fact Alan Donovan, an American man who hails from the state of from Colorado.

He arrived in Nigeria in 1967 as a Food Relief Officer for USAID, at a time when there was a terrible civil war between Nigeria and Biafra at the time. Alan’s first trans-African safari in 1970 would lead him to Kenya, where after then spending several months in the northern part of the country, Alan would hold his first exhibition in Nairobi on the art and material culture of the nomadic Turkana people.

In attendance at this exhibition were the first Foreign Minister and second Vice President of Kenya, Joseph Murumbi, and his wife Sheila. Murumbi was possibly Africa’s greatest private collector of African art and all forms of African culture, and it was his dream to set up a Pan African Gallery in Kenya where artists from all parts of the continent could show and sell their works, thereby preserving, protecting and promoting African culture. And thus, African Heritage House would become a reality, formed by the Murumbis and Alan Donovan in 1972.

Today, Alan is well known for his passion as a curator, collector, and preserver of Africa’s most precious historical pieces, while simultaneously celebrating modern artists by showcasing their art. According to a World Bank study, the African Heritage House has become the “largest and most organized” showcase and exporter of African art and crafts to the rest of the world for over 3 decades, as it houses an art collection spanning 50 years from all over Africa. Alan Donavan is passionate about preserving history as well as celebrating it.

The African Heritage House is a piece of art itself, a mud architectural wonder that was described by the renowned 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. Inside the house, every wall, floor, and ceiling, is more proof, in textiles, wood, masonry, pottery, weaponry and art, of the irreducible modernity of African art and crafts”.

Alan drove across the Sahara Desert in 1969 and encountered the Pre-colonial mud buildings based on the indigenous architectures of places around Africa. These included the towering mud mosque of Djenne in Mali and the decorated Emir’s palaces in Nigeria, architecture from the East African Coast in Zanzibar and Lamu, palaces in Morocco and Northern Nigeria, and the painted houses of Ghana and Burkina Faso. Most of which has been washed away and never replaced, yet it was these infrastructures that inspired him to then study mud architecture in 1970.

The African Heritage House guest experience

Today, the African Heritage House offers four distinctive guestrooms for overnight stay, with the Bakuba suite, the Moroccan suite and the Lamu suite each with a private verandah overlooking the Nairobi National Park. There rooftop ensuite family room offers 4 single beds, making it perfect for a family of 4 or group of adults.

You can enjoy a meal on the terrace as you take in the view of the Nairobi National Park, getting a better view from the rooftop and marvel at the vast land and exciting sights of wild animals. Take a tour of the house with Alan and be amazed at the unbelievable beauty of the art in the house, as Alan gives you the grand tour, entertaining guests with stories on each piece and how he attained it. “We give them the African Heritage Experience which for their first visit with us, we provide our guests with an introduction to African history, art and culture. On their last night in of staying with us, we encourage them to return for a going-away dinner so that they can relax at African Heritage House”, cites Alan, when asked what guests can expect from an experience staying at African Heritage House.

A curator’s dream

African Heritage House’s aim is to showcase artworks made by African artists from all over the continent. After building the mud house, Alan embarked on a journey of collecting the best art and craft pieces that truly reflected African Culture. “I then began travelling to about 20 African countries every year meeting artists and buying stock for my gallery.” The house is a work of art itself through its interior design and art displays, and it is often called “The most photographed house in Africa”. It has graced the cover of Marie Claire in Paris (April 2000) and has been featured in numerous other international magazines. Content creators and photographers travel from around the world to take photos in different parts of the home. It truly is an experience of a lifetime.

An evolving story

Alan is currently building a new museum called the Timimoun African Journeys Museum next to African Heritage House in honour of the memory of the late Joseph and Sheila

Murumbi, who were possibly Africa’s greatest private collectors of African art and all forms of African culture. The museum was slated to open on December 12, 2020, with a Gala Benefit, however, plans were interrupted but the global pandemic, which has subsequently impacted global tourism. In the meantime, discussions are underway to also transform the African Heritage House into the premiere African Studies Center in partnership with UCLA (the University of California at Los Angeles) and Strathmore University. A campus will be built at African Heritage House that will accommodate 12 visiting professors and graduate students. Both masters and doctorate programs in African Studies will eventually be offered.

African Heritage House was made a national monument in January 2016, cementing its position as a distinctive Nairobi landmark that preserves African deep rooted, diverse heritage and cultures. The African Heritage House is part of a community of homeowners who have lived along the border of the Nairobi National Park for over 50 years, continuing to serve as a bulwark to protect the Park from commercial development, degradation and poaching.