Man Behind African Renaissance Show  



Nation - December 17, 1999


When the Biafran War broke out in Nigeria, the lights in the capital, Lagos, were out in a wartime blackout.  This is the darkness in which Alan Donovan, then a programme officer with United States International Development Agency, (USAID)  landed in Nigeria.  In the early days, Alan worked on the Biafran food relief programme, trying to get food in to the starving secessionists.

Most of the US aid effort was cut back, however, and Alan was left with only small programmes supporting handicrafts.  Little did he know that he would make his fortune from them. 

Alan was not cut out to be a bureaucrat.  He bought a Volkswagen bus in Paris and headed back to Nigeria, travelling through the Sahara Desert.  This time he saw the lights of Lagos, arriving just as the war ended.   

From Nigeria he drove across Africa and crossed rivers on makeshift ferries until he reached Kenya. Then he fell in love with the simplicity and  beauty of Turkana artefacts.  He spent several months doing research in Kenya’s northern frontier and wrote newspaper articles on the crafts he found.

It was to be the beginning of a great journey that would yield Africa’s most successful models, place the continent’s art and ornaments on the world market and establish an organisation the World Bank recently called “the largest and most organised craft wholesale and retail operation in Africa.” 

The man who started that journey is also at the centre of the African Renaissance Show, an exhibition of Africa’s heritage in dance, music, textiles, costumes and fashion to beheld at the Serena Hotel, Nairobi tomorrow.

Alan’s entry into African Fashion and design goes back all the way to his tour of Turkana when he first came to Kenya.  It was during this time that he collected jewellery from tribal beads including the Turkana leaf-shaped earrings.  These latter collections he converted into necklaces.  He also reduced the size of the earrings made out of old aluminium sufurias so they could be worn more easily by Western women.  He also adapted Maasai earring designs for the export market.  He eventually set up a workshop in Mathare Valley for unemployed and disabled youths.

Then Donovan met former Vice President Joseph Murumbi.  Murumbi dreamt of setting up a Pan African centre in Nairobi.  Alan, the former VP and his wife Sheila Murumbi formed the house of craft, African Heritage.

Alan staged the first show in 1971 at the newly-opened Hotel Inter-Continental in Nairobi.  The exhibitions only used African materials and models.  The hotel then asked him to stage a regular cultural festival and the first “African Heritage Night” featuring Irene Mugambi as the head model and principal designer was staged in 1973.  Other African Heritage models like Iman, Khadija Adam, who won the Miss Africa crown, and Fayel Tall went on to become superstars.

This, then, is the magic he will share with the audience in their gala nights of the century.


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