I once read that ,
“ The curse of most historical buildings is that they contain too much history , they trap the mind, forcing it to wander in admiration from generation to generation, and never find a solid place to rest… “
That was a couple of years ago and after recently visiting The African Heritage House I feel I have much more right to say that I now understand this statement better than I did back then.
Because to find a place where beauty is so deeply intertwined with nature, and art so seamlessly blended with culture; is enough to not only trap the mind, but to hold it captive forever.
The African Heritage House located in the Athi plains , is a magnificent house of treasures, housing thousands of African artefacts, books, ornaments, paintings and many more. The house was designed by American, Alan Donovan who drew his inspiration from a rich variety of structures and cultural themes found across the African continent . Building commenced in 1989 and came to an end in 1994 (though Alan had in fact begun collecting designs and ideas for it since as early as 1966. )
From Morocco to Congo, from the shores of the Indian Ocean to the heart of Lake Victoria the house brings together some of the most unique and sublime works of art from all over the continent. Today it resolutely stands as a custodian of untold African treasures and serves as a testimony to true African art, culture and spirit. And it is this “custodian “that needs our help and our support now more than ever.
In the past couple of months a most disheartening fate has befallen the house. A fate which came in the form of a boisterous soldier wielding an AK47 and two Chinese men who unceremoniously walked into the compound one day and told Alan that he would soon need to get out of the house because it was going to be demolished.
The demolition comes in the wake of recent infrastructural developments within the country, more particularly the proposed Standard Gauge railway. The house currently stands on the route marked out for the new railway whose construction is set to begin later on this year.
Now one might ask why the new railway can’t just follow the same route used by the old railway ?
The old railway line which was completed in 1898 currently serves as the border for the Nairobi National Park. Engineers of the old railway did not have explosives, so the line was often forced to meander around difficult terrain, thus the railway has curves and bends that a modern high speed train cannot negotiate. It is for this reason that they had to come up with a different route and it is this new route that directly poses a threat to the African heritage house and the picturesque view of the Nairobi National Park that it offers.
Alan who was a close friend to the late Joe Murumbi, (former vice president and also one of the greatest admirers and collectors of African Art) equates the demolition of the house to “ Murumbi’s second death’’
Knowing the love and the passion that Murumbi had for African culture and all the hard work he put into preserving it, it deeply saddens me that all this is happening.
Whether in honour of the late Joseph Murumbi or the men and women who devoted their lives and time to give us something that we can be proud to call our own, it is our duty as a country to protect and appreciate their work. It is sad enough that there is a debate as to whether the house should be demolished or not. Which begs the question,
‘How blind are we as a society not see the importance of preserving our own culture and history?”.
When I heard about the impending demolition of the African Heritage House, I emailed Alan shortly after and I said I’d like people to hear his story not just to see the house as the beautiful, formidable structure that it is but to also see at as a combination of hard work, aspirations and dreams. Now I see that the story of this house does not belong to a single man, nor does it belong to a group of individuals, it belongs to a community, a country, a continent and much more so an entire race.
When asked about the value of the house and what loses would be incurred should the said demolition go through.
” Our aim is to put it into a trust for the people of Kenya, Africa and the world and all these people are gonna lose something, so how can you put a value on that ? “
The only way to prevent the demolition would be to gazette the house as a national monument, a move which would see the engineers use an alternative route for the new railway.
Culture is the foundation of any society and when you take away a people’s heritage you erase their entire existence. The African Heritage House is in essence home to the resilient African spirit, it’s astounding beauty and it’s rich diversity, to lose it would be to lose a piece of ourselves. A piece that once lost can never be recovered.
Be part of the solution Save the African Heritage House today by signing this petition : African Heritage House Petition