I still cannot explain why the story of the African Heritage House has taken me eleven years to write after visiting. Perhaps it is a case of writers’ block. Maybe it is much deeper than that. Sometimes doing certain things requires certain events to urge you towards the crescendo of a spectacular finale.
Might writing this piece now fulfil that scenario? If it will then, let me give you a bit of Africa Heritage House’s history. I will then tell you how two African twilights pitted against each other in the ultimate battle of supremacy.
The house sits south of Mlolongo town on Mombasa Road overlooking the Nairobi National Park. When you arrive there, you immediately appreciate why it said to be the most photographed house in Africa. Its unique design inspired by ancient African mud architecture makes it immensely fascinating. It is almost as if several architectural styles from across the continent held a meeting here.
The interior of the house is as charming as its exterior. Every craft, weaponry, textile, art and wood from across Africa seems to have a place in the intricately beautiful decoration. This place is more than a dwelling. It is a cultural museum of a people’s long heritage preserved for posterity.
The African Heritage House is the handy work of Alan Donovan, a former Relief Officer with the US State Department. Alan arrived in Africa in 1967 during the Nigerian-Biafra war. In 1969 after resigning, he bought himself a Volkswagen bus in Paris and set off on an epic African adventure. The odyssey exposed him to the magnificent mud mosques of Mali and similar mud architecture in the continent. In March 1970, Alan finally arrived in Nairobi with fresh memories of his journey. Like many different epic trips I know, Alan’s ended in Kenya.
Construction of the African Heritage House started in 1989 inspired by the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali. Alan shortly after co-founded the African Heritage Gallery with the late Joseph Murumbi, a former Kenyan Vice-President. Both ardent African art collectors, they set out to change the Kenyan fashion and art scene. The first African twilight I had mentioned earlier had started.
The First Twilight
The African Heritage House became the meeting point of the continent’s artistic identity. More than six lines of jewellery, including Angela Fisher’s ‘Africa Adorned’ and the hand-painted beads by Kazuri’s late Lady Susan Wood, make part of the gallery. Angela has also penned a book by her collection’s name.
When you stay at one of four tastefully furnished suites here, Africa’s most exquisite art pieces keep you company. Each suite bears the name of the place where the art that adorns it originates. Would it be a Lamu, Bakuba, Moroccan or Ashanti suite? In the evening, watch zebra, giraffe and an occasional ostrich as the African twilight lights up the Nairobi National Park.
Did you know the first fashion show in Kenya happened at the African Heritage House in 1972? It was an all-African-models, all-African-textile affair. While you can drive there, taking the scheduled steam train which stops short of the edge of the house, is a more exciting way to arrive. If you want to be more dramatic, a helicopter can drop you!
The Second Twilight
Speaking of trains, it was the arrival of the new Madaraka Express railway line that marked the second African twilight. The bad kind. Since the house was in the way of the new railway line, a demolition order was in effect.
The most photographed house in Africa was about to become extinct. I can imagine Alan in his usual calm demeanour. His evening walks under the twilight thinking about the other looming twilight must have been troubling. It must have been tough, yet he did the unimaginable. He threw a huge farewell bash! The last African Heritage Festival – the African Twilight event. He christened it the gala night of the century. Fortunately, that twilight never happened, and today the African Heritage House still stands majestically, a national monument protected by law. No one will be threatening it again like that any time soon.
Back when I visited, a house tour would go for KES 500 a person. Today a minimum charge of KES 4,000 for up to 4 persons for two hours is the going rate. If you are up to it, try the famous Pan African menus. They are usually set for up to 28 persons and will set you back KES 4,000 per person. That will include guided tours of the house and free use of the pool overlooking the National Park. These days, only one twilight exists. Catch as many moments of it as you can.