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Daily Nation : February 18th 2014
DAILY NATION Tuesday February 18, 2014 coverstory 3 From left, clockwise: Donovan, his shoulders stooped by both age — he is now 60 — and the events of the past few days, walks around his compound; some of the artistic offers inside the house; the swimming pool area where the bad news was broken to him; and the house’s grand view of Nairobi National Park. Wildebeest, he says, roamed here freely in the 1990s. uproot this marvel to the US? ALAN DONOVAN first came to Africa during the Biafra War in 1967, and the atrocities he witnessed made him commit himself to finding the beauty of Africa that remains untouched by Western civilisation ideals. His first interactions with that beauty happened in Turkana, where, in the course of his work as a photographer, he found a way of living with the community and appreciating the richness of their culture. From Turkana he managed to get not just amazing photographs, but priceless artifacts as well. It was during his first exhibition in Nairobi that he was drawn to the only African in the room, Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi, with whom he would eventually collect a wide array of African cultural offerings, from textiles to jewellery and other crafts. Murumbi (pictured left), a child of a Goan trader and a Maasai woman who spent the first 16 years of his life in India, went on to become Kenya’s second Vice-President from May 1965 to December 1966. Mombasa to Lamu. Donovan’s case has been heard by the Kenya Alliance of Resident Association (Kara), who, in a letter dated February 4 this year and addressed to the Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure and copied to the chairman of the National Land Commission, asked that the employees of China Road and Bridge Corporation and the Administration Police officers guarding them during their rounds be instructed to stop harassing private land owners whose parcels of land stand on the way of the new line. Kara and Donovan argue that, in the event that the land is to be acquired compulsorily, it is not in the domain of the contractors to deal directly with the land owners, but that of the government to notify them first, and for the National Land Commission to take over as the constitutional body charged with compulsory acquisition of land for public interest on behalf of the national and county governments. By the time of going to press, however, neither Kara nor Donovan had received any reply from the authorities. The contractors seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place though. If they are to spare Donovan and his neighbours the pain, the alternative is to shave off a few kilometres from the Nairobi National Park and get rid of the curves and bends that characterise the current tracks, laid here in 1897 during construction of ‘The Lunatic Express’. Already, in the Kenya Gazette dated February 7 this year, the government announced that it had compulsorily degazetted over 100 hectares of the Tsavo National Park in preparation of construction of the new line. “The Nairobi National Park Borderlands Residents Association wants the new railway line to use the same routing as the old tracks,” says Donovan. “These residents have been a bulwark for the Nairobi National Park for 70 years.” The Chinese contractors he has talked to, he says, have told him another idea would be to elevate the tracks around the park, which would also give passengers an aerial view of the protected animal sanctuary. But few animals, probably because of human encroachment, rarely venture anywhere near this side of the park. A 1994 photograph taken from the rooftop of the Donovan house shows how things have changed. What seems like a localised wildebeest migration is captured in great clarity, and Donovan says the migration happened twice a year, the last in 1994. “We normally do not support any excision of park land, but in this case we find it beneficial to all because if they bring down the planned structures buffering the park, what will stop unplanned settlements from taking over the area? It will be an environmental disaster,” says Donovan. “That is likely to open up this land, protected for 70 years by these families, to abuse; not to mention the cost of reimbursements the government will have to incur. If we lose the land, we will never be able to protect the park.” For the new tracks to be laid along Marimbeti Station, it would also mean blasting the natural granite wall that harbours the famous Rhino Point overlooking the park and thus damaging the natural water table in an already water-stressed area. “My dream is for the African Heritage House to become a Trust for the people of Kenya and the world, managed by universities from Kenya and abroad as well as other institutions. Otherwise it will be lost to future generations,” says Donovan. What he is not saying, and what is probably the strongest tug at the strings of his heart, is that he also wants to pay tribute to his old friend, business partner and mentor, the late Joseph Murumbi. Murumbi was Kenya’s second Vice-President from ’65 to ’66. A man ahead of his times, h e was an ardent collector of Africa’s disappearing arts and crafts. And so, together with Donovan, they opened the first pan-African gallery, African Heritage, in the centre of Nairobi in the early ’70s. Today, part of Murumbi’s collection is on permanent display at the Old PC’s offices, renamed Nairobi Gallery, at the junction of If they bring down the planned structures buffering the park, what will stop unplanned settlements from taking over the area? It will be an environmental disaster. Alan Donovan on planned demolition of houses near Nairobi National Park Kenyatta Avenue and Uhuru Highway in the CBD, on three floors of the Kenya National Archives, and at his grave site at Nairobi City Park. Donovan’s greatest dream, therefore, is a combination of preservation and pride, which he hopes will make the African Heritage House part of a new Murumbi Institute of African Studies. “Strathmore University is very keen to have the Murumbi Institute and teach African art, culture and history under their African studies programme,” he says. Before the bombshell dropped, Donovan had written to the National Museums of Kenya to have the house gazetted, and the National Museums of Kenya, through acting director of Museums Sites and Monuments Purity Kiura, confirmed to DN2 that they were in receipt of his request. “This matter is with us,” said Dr Kiura, “(but) there is a procedure (to follow), which includes defining the values and the threshold for gazettement. Should the value of this be within the requirement, then definitely the house will be gazetted. Such values include historical, architectural authenticity and aesthetic value.” So, what if Donovan’s efforts to protect his baby come a cropper? What if he, like others before him, wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of earthmovers tearing down everything in their path? What if he loses the fight? “I have been asked to consider the possibility of reconstructing it in California,” he says. California, in the US, therefore, may become the new home of the Murumbi collection. And probably Donovan’s as well.
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