Railway Threatens African Heritage House

Alan Donovan's African Heritage House in Kenya. Photo by Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times courtesy of Getty Images.

Kenya’s African Heritage House, founded by Joseph Murumbi, one of the continent’s greatest art collectors and one of the leaders of the Kenya African Union, may be torn down to make way for the Standard Gauge Railway, reports the Huffington Post.

Dubbed the most photographed house in Africa, the African Heritage House was designed by co-founder Alan Donovan, an American art collector sent to Nigeria for a government job who fell in love with the continent. Overlooking Nairobi National Park, the mud structure is an amalgam of different African architecture styles.

“Although I tried to use features from the various architectural forms that enchanted me in my travel in Africa, an equally important reason for my home is to show people how to live with African arts and crafts,” Donovan told Architecture Digest in 1996. “I think this indigenous artistic and cultural heritage is under appreciated, both in Africa and worldwide. My house is a step toward preservation.”

Unfortunately, the African Heritage House stands in the way of a planned rerouting of the Standard Gauge Railway, which would see it demolished to accommodate a straighter line that can carry faster trains. Construction will reportedly cost $3.6 billion.

Alan Donovan's African Heritage House in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Alan Donovan.

Alan Donovan’s African Heritage House in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Alan Donovan.

The house contains 6,000 pieces of African art, as well as Murumbi’s collection of more than 50,000 books and letters, including 8,000 rare books predating the turn of the 20th century. The cultural value of the house’s holdings is said to be immeasurable.

Before the railway jeopardized the structure, Donovan was in talks with the government to convert the house, where he lives, into an Advanced African Studies Center dedicated to the memory of Murumbi, who died in 1990.

Should the railway prevail in its plans, Donovan is considering moving his collection to California, sadly depriving the African people of an important piece of their cultural heritage. He isn’t giving up yet though, telling France24 that “my goal is to make Heritage House into a trust for the people of Kenya.”

Supporters of the house have launched a #SaveAfricanHeritageHse social media campaign and a petition.

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