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Collector of African handcrafts aims to save his famed house in Kenya

The African Heritage House, which overlooks Nairobi National Park, was built by American Alan Donovan.
The African Heritage House, which overlooks Nairobi National Park, was built by American Alan Donovan.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Alan Donovan spent decades crisscrossing Africa, collecting the indigenous art and handcrafts that fill his famous house overlooking Nairobi National Park in Kenya. He is now 74, without children, and the African Heritage House is the closest thing he has to a legacy.

In January, he says, three men walked onto his compound. One was a Kenyan government soldier carrying an AK-47. The other two, he learned, represented the China Road and Bridge Corp., which is building a railway from the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa to Nairobi, the capital, as part of China’s massive investment on the continent.

Donovan says the soldier told him his house stood in the way of the train and would have to be demolished. Possibly because of the ensuing stress, Donovan says, he developed a blood clot and had to be hospitalized for a week. Since then he has been rallying support to save the house and has gathered 3,000 signatures on a petition.

“I think most people found it incredible — they just don’t believe it,” he says. “They just think it can’t happen.”

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There are plausible alternate routes for the train that would leave his house standing, he says, such as through the park on an elevated platform that would allow animals to pass underneath.

He says the Kenyan government is studying the possible routes, but has been slow to respond to his requests for information. “There has been a lot of controversy because it’s so secretive,” he says. “Nobody really knows what’s going on.”

After months of fighting for answers and escalating his public-relations campaign, he says, he received a call last weekend from Kenya’s foreign minister, with the message that the railway route would be altered. “The most promising news I have had for eight months,” he called it.

But Donovan is hoping for deeper reassurances from Kenyan officials. Officials with Kenya’s Transportation Ministry did not respond to repeated emails from The Times seeking comment.

Donovan, a Colorado native who has lived in Africa since the U.S. State Department sent him to Nigeria as a relief worker in the 1960s, has long been disconsolate about what he sees as the indifference among many modern Africans to their rich cultural heritage, a neglect he attributes in part to Western influences.

In the early 1970s, he ran the African Heritage Gallery in Nairobi with Joseph Murumbi, a former Kenyan vice president. After decades of success, the business collapsed amid ethnic violence, street crime and terrorism warnings that deterred tourists. He went into bankruptcy and was able to salvage only a portion of the collection.

His house contains about 6,000 pieces of rare arts and crafts: Nigerian masquerade costumes, Congolese ceremonial daggers, grave markers from Madagascar. Much of it is no longer being made.

“There’s hardly anything in the house that you could buy now,” he says. “It’s all disappeared.”

The house itself, which stands a few miles outside Nairobi and has been celebrated in Architectural Digest, features a turreted facade modeled on Mali mosques and the geometric designs of a Nigerian emir’s palace.

“I think it’s an international treasure,” said Michael Ranneberger, a former U.S. Ambassador to Kenya. “It would be a tragedy of untold proportions if it were torn down.”

Assuming the house is not demolished, Donovan has arranged for it to remain open for posterity as an African-studies center in connection with American University in Washington.



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