Under Kenyan Skies: Preserving Africa's Artistic Heritage Near Nairobi


Architectural Digest, November 1996

In 1969 Alan Donovan, one of the last Americans sent to Nigeria by the State Department during the Biafran war, decided he no longer wanted to be a bureaucrat.  He did, however, want to see the rest of Africa, so he learned French, bought a Volkswagen bus and drove across the Sahara.   

Somewhere along the way, the former bureaucrat began acquiring beads and other African artifacts and, influenced by the mud mosques of Djenne and Tombouctou in Mali, started thinking about designing a mud house for himself.  Today that structure, which is near the boundary of a game park in Kenya, is being set up in a perpetual trust by Donovan so that it will be open to the public after his death.  He is also discussing its availability to a museum.  Part of the bequeathal is his collection of African handcrafts, which is among the finest in the world.

“There’s so much in Africa that hasn’t been explored or used in contemporary life.  I wanted my house to be, as much as I could make it, totally African,” says Donovan. “The furniture, the design, everything.  And I want it to be shown after my death so that the people who come here can see how to use African themes and decor in their own living spaces.”

Having reached Kenya on his job free odyssey, Donovan spent three months in Lake Turkana, an area little known to foreigners.  He began making jewelry, using beads and the shells of ostrich eggs, inspired by the  earrings of the Turkana women, which few people at the time had ever seen. “The earrings were beautiful, but there was no way a Western woman could wear them the way African women could,” says Donovan.  “I just made them more wearable.”

Soon after, a couple from Texas bought an exhibition of jewelry that Donovan had put together in Nairobi, and with it the boards and even the walls on which the exhibition was mounted.

A former Kenyan Foreign Minister, Joseph Murumbi, became interested in Donovan’s jewelry and the two men and Murumbi’s wife, Sheila, set up the Pan African Gallery, which later became African Heritage, a company that promotes and commissions African crafts, costumes and jewelry.  Murumbi asked Donovan, who had been thinking of leaving Africa, to stay on for a year and run what was then just a gallery.

“I didn’t really know what I was going to do next,” recalls Donovan, “so I said ‘Yeah, I’ll stay for a year.’  Well, I got so busy, I never left.”

Donovan, a native of Colorado who has loved all things African since his childhood, when he kept a scrapbook on African animals, has lived in Kenya for nearly thirty years now.  “I used to go collecting at least twice a year to twenty African counties,” he says.  “But after a while I sort of lost the thrill.  The sons of the artists and craftspeople I dealt with then come to me today, and there are a number of runners too, so African Heritage is not as exclusive as it once was.  When I did all my own buying, we were completely different from anyone in East Africa, or anywhere else.”

Donovan’s house, however, took longer to evolve than African Heritage.  Twenty years after his first glimpses of mud architecture in Nigeria and Mali, he bought an eight-acre site within view of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. 

Architect David Bristow did the engineering and the structural drawings for the house, giving Donovan some pointers about moving rooms out to escape the boxy feel of his original design.  Donovan himself has no architectural training, but the final results do not depart drastically from his first sketches. Naturally, the mud mosque tradition strongly influences the nine room dwelling, but so do the architecture of coastal Kenya and the sculptural house styles of northern Nigeria and southern Morocco.

“I’d read so much about people who had African-inspired houses, and I’d see the place and it would be just two pieces of African sculpture or something.  I wanted the traditional in a contemporary form, a space you could really live in.”

With as many as twenty people helping him, Donovan built the house in four years.  Construction started with the swimming pool.  “We first tried to dig the hole by hand,” he recounts, “but that was impossible.  A year later I found a huge Caterpillar digger that was being used by French contractors putting in a water pipeline to Nairobi.  The digger arrived, and in about five hours there was a hole large enough for a pool.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t big enough for the workmen to make the pool the size I wanted, so I had to wait another year for the Caterpillar to come back.”

The walls of the house were not mud but stone, mined locally near a river and hand-carved into blocks.  The stone was then covered with layers of cement, which Donovan dyed from the first layer to look like mud.  “I should have used plain cement until the last layer, because dyeing it turned out to be expensive, and I also kept running out of the three colours - a British brown, a German red and an Indian yellow - that I combined to get the effect I wanted.”

The last coat, for greater permanence, was mixed with glue and Bond Crete and has survived several rainy seasons - unlike the mud of actual mud houses, which must be reapplied every year, with poles sticking out of the walls, native American style, used as ladders.

The West African designs on the walls, drawn by Bristow’s daughter Joanna, were another experiment.  Donovan, Joanna Bristow and Stephen Mungai, former head carpenter of African Heritage, made molds out of styrofoam that were then nailed to the wall and filled with cement.  After the Styrofoam was pulled off, the drying cement was shaped by hand.

 The result is an architecture rising from the sere Kenyan plain like an out-cropping of earth, a vision of usefulness informed by the African genius for decoration.  Inside the house, on every wall, floor and ceiling, is more proof, in textiles, wood, masonry, pottery, weaponry and art, of the irreducible modernity of African crafts.

 “Although I tried to use features from the various architectural forms that enchanted me in my travel in Africa,” says Alan Donovan, “an equally important reason for my home is to show people how to live with African arts and crafts.  I think this indigenous artistic and cultural heritage is under appreciated, both in Africa and worldwide.  My house is a step toward preservation.” 

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