In Summary
  • Alan Donovan co-founded African Heritage Pan African Gallery 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 Africa.
  • African Heritage House acts as a mini-museum for cultural artefacts and  Donovan is fighting to keep it from being knocked down

The saga that swirls around the fate of African Heritage House has been a magnet for sensationalism in recent months. We took a moment with the man of African Heritage House himself, Alan Donovan, to dispel the hearsay and get the real story.

Alan Donovan co-founded African Heritage Pan African Gallery 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 Africa. African Heritage House acts as a mini-museum for cultural artefacts and  Donovan is fighting to keep it from being knocked down.

Q: The last time we spoke, the China Road and Bridge Company (CRBC) under the authority of the Kenya Railways (KR) delivered the upsetting news that the house was to be demolished to make way for the new standard gauge high-speed railway. What happened after that?

Allan Donovan: Well, the Nairobi National Park Borderlands Residents Association, which is the neighbourhood association for the families who have resided along the rim of the Nairobi National Park for over 60 years, met with the engineers and officials of CRBC and they told us that there were three possible routes for the railway to pass along or through the park in this area.

Option one was on the present railway reserve, bordering the original steam train railway line constructed in 1898. This forms the border for the Nairobi National Park.

The second option was through the borderlands of the park, which causes maximum destruction of the properties along the park. The third was a route skirting the Mombasa Road and going back down to the Nairobi National Park. We will meet with the head engineer, who will make the final decision.

Why can’t new railway use the old route?

The main problem, as I understand it, is that when they built the 1898 route they did not have blasting materials and so the railway meanders around outcrops of granite. It is too crooked for a 21st century train to run on. They need to straighten the line.

Pretend you are Kenya Railways for a moment, what would you do?

The train could be put on a viaduct so animals have access to come and go under it. Passengers can enjoy the view. 

There would be no need for fences along the railway. If the borderland residents are forced to move, it would be an environmental disaster for the park as they have been a bulwark to protect it.  It would bring squatters, unplanned structures, sewage, noise and poaching right up to the border of the park.

The house was supposed be gazetted as a national monument through the assistance of the National Museums of Kenya. What happened with that?

I believe a proposal to that effect has been given to the Cabinet Secretary for Sports, the Arts, and Culture.

Who is Chap Kusimba and how is he involved in saving the house?

Chap Kusimba is a Kenyan-born anthropologist who has worked with American museums and universities for decades. 

He recently moved from the Field Museum in Chicago to the American University in Washington DC, where he is head of the anthropology department and heads the university’s programmes in Africa.

The American University has a branch office in Nairobi and has a special programme for students in African Studies. It is my intention to make the African Heritage House an African Studies Centre and link it to the Murumbi collections in the Kenya National Archives and the National Museums. 

I plan to set up a trust in perpetuity for the people of Kenya so they can continue to enjoy the house as a permanent museum and African Studies Centre. Universities like the American University and Strathmore University would be the main stakeholders in the African Heritage House. 

The house would be linked to the National Museums and the National Archives through a Board of Trustees.

What do you think Murumbi would think of this plan?

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