30 Nov 2014 23:00
In Kenya, there is a bitter struggle between Chinese development investments and an American citizen eager to protect a famous house on the edge of the Kenyan savannah dedicated to preserving African heritage. The house has appeared on dozens of magazine covers around the world and now is threatened of disappearing.
For months Alan Donovan, 70, a lifetime to turn Africa collecting art, is fighting to prevent the "African heritage house" from being demolished and give way to the new railway line that will connect the capital Nairobi to the Mombasa port in the southeast.
For ten years, the house has hosted tourists from all over the world who visit it as if it were a museum. Its six thousand artworks whose total value is around $200,000. The African Heritage House was built in 2004 modeled on the mud architecture that resembles the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali. Painted walls in the living room on the third floor of the house are a reminiscent of the Ghanian Kasena tribe.
The house is located about 10 kilometres from the capital, on the edge of the Nairobi National Park. It became famous worldwide as the largest furniture magazines in the world, from France to Australia and from the US to Brazil published pictures of the rooms, chairs and paintings. It was soon turned into "the most photographed house in Africa" and saw the arrival of many intrigued tourists.
Now, seeking to renew its infrastructure, Kenya signed a $2.6 billion deal with the Chinese government to replace the railway built by Queen Victoria at the end of 1800s - and its slow trains that still travels at a speed of 40 kilometres per hour.
In its place the new railway that will be built by the Chinese company China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) to connect Nairobi to Mombasa, and will allow goods to arrive more quickly from the port to the countryside.
Born in the United States, Donovan arrived for the first time in Africa in 1967 when he worked for an NGO during the civil war in Nigeria.
"Back then I saw a lot of corruption in the aid machine, so I decided to leave and start traveling all over the continent," he said, "to Congo, Ghana, Tanzania and finally Kenya."
When he arrived in Nairobi he met the then Vice-President Joseph Murumbi, an event that would change his life. Together they opened an art gallery in a Nairobi teeming with vitality.
Wealthy adventurers in search for strong experiences in the savannah to tell stories to friends once back home; entrepreneurs ready to exploit the tourism business on the coast; as well as artists, musicians, sculptors and painters all flocked to the gallery. Donovan created unique jewelry using beads and animal bones and has hosted the works of dozens of artists from around the continent. Murumbi is still remembered as the greatest ever Pan-African art dealer.
Then came the 1990s. African artwork lost its charm, and Nairobi saw terrorist attacks against the US Embassy in 1998. The gallery suffered with its coffers increasingly empty.
"When Murumbi died in 1990 I kept the gallery moving, but I could not give it the same vitality," Donavan said. "In 2003, I declared bankruptcy, and in 2004 I opened this house putting in it many of the works that we had in the gallery."
Donovan is not alone in his fight to preserve the house. Thousands of people have already signed online petitions, and the Kenyan Ministry of Culture has undertaken to save it. If they fail, in a few years this house will most likely no longer exist.
Living in Kenya for over 40 years, Donovan has seen the progress changing the face of Africa, and now it may take away his home, a place that represent all his life while paying tribute to the achievements of African art.