Under Kenyan Skies: Preserving Africa's Artistic Heritage Near Nairobi
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.
so much in Africa that hasn’t been explored or used in contemporary
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
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
“I just made them more wearable.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
I wanted the traditional in a contemporary form, a space you
could really live in.”
as many as twenty people helping him, Donovan built the house in four
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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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