Man Behind African Renaissance Show
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.
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.
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
Nigeria he drove across Africa and crossed rivers on makeshift ferries
until he reached Kenya. Then he fell in love with the simplicity
of Turkana artefacts. He
spent several months doing research in Kenya’s northern frontier and
wrote newspaper articles on the crafts he found.
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.
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.
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.
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.
then, is the magic he will share with the audience in their gala nights
of the century.