Photo showing Kenya's Heritage House, available online at African Heritage House website.

Kenyans are rallying online to save Nairobi’s legendary ‘Heritage House’ from being demolished to make way for a modern railway line. The House – which is claimed to be the most photographed in Africa – is a museum of ancient wonders that showcases the continent’s extraordinarily rich past.

African Heritage House was built by American-born Alan Donovan more than two decades ago. It stands overlooking Nairobi National Park; inside, roughly 6,000 pieces of African art from around the continent are on display, in a building that also serves as Donovan's home. Activists say the house should be considered a national heritage site.

Photo showing interior of Heritage House, available online at African Heritage House website.

Yet the government’s latest project to boost Kenya’s ailing infrastructure has left Heritage House at risk of being demolished. Under the current plans, a new railway linking the capital with the port city of Mombasa would cut right through the house – skirting Nairobi National Park and leaving the house earmarked for demolition. The construction would be carried out by the China Road and Bridge Corporation at a cost of around $3.6 billion.

"It’s unique in the world. It's very difficult to find these crafts and artifacts nowadays"

Donovan tells FRANCE 24 that the development comes as the Kenyan government was actively considering making the house a protected site.

Heritage House is based on the mud architecture of Africa. The house itself is full of my own private, pan-African collection: most African countries are represented. I started building it in 1989 overlooking the Nairobi national park, and finished it in 1994. I opened it to the public in 2004. I give tours of the house, offer overnight stays, and host events, like weddings.

It’s unique in the world. It's very difficult to find these crafts and artifacts nowadays, because many of the people that made them don't make them anymore. The whole premise is to show people how they can live by taking inspiration from African architecture and décor, and by not importing things that are foreign – like so many people sadly do here. I want to show people that they should look first for inspiration from their own continent.

My goal is to make Heritage House into a trust for the people of Kenya. It would be looked after by universities abroad and here in Kenya, like Nairobi’s Strathmore University. They would be the chief stakeholders. We would have students in African studies every year that would be living there and doing research on the artifacts. But while one side of the government considers making the house a protected site, the other side wants to build a railway line through it.

Photo showing terrace overlooking Nairobi National Park, available online at African Heritage House website.

“We shouldn’t promote progress by destroying our heritage”

Emma Too is a former model for ‘African Heritage’ – the company that Alan Donovan founded to showcase African art and crafts - and a frequent visitor of Heritage House. She has started an online campaign to save it.

Since I once worked for African Heritage, someone sent me an article explaining what the government’s plans were. I thought it was outrageous – why can’t the government make an alternative route? We live on a continent so divided by tribes and problems, but this is a collection that brings cultures together under one roof. People who don’t have the opportunity to travel around Africa can go to Heritage House and learn about African culture there. It’s not just Alan Donovan’s house; it’s more like a museum. There are musical instruments, wood carvings, fabrics, West African artifacts, and much more.

So I decided to create a hash tag – #SaveAfricanHeritageHse – to rally Kenyans on Twitter to support the cause. We want to make it marked as a national heritage site by the cultural ministry, that way it would be protected.

I understand why the government wants to build a new Standard Gauge Railway. This railway would be much more modern. The old one was built by Indian laborers way before independence. So they’re rebuilding the railway to provide a link to the coastal ports. With a more modern infrastructure they can transport cargo. However, we need to be able to make compromises. We shouldn’t promote progress by destroying our heritage. The house already has the old railway line in front of it, but the new railway would go right through it [Editor’s note: Chinese engineers charged with carrying out the work say that simply replacing the old line isn’t feasible because it has too many curves to accommodate modern, fast trains].
Photo showing bedroom inside Heritage House, available online at African Heritage House website.

This article was written by FRANCE 24 journalist Andrew Hilliar (@andyhilliar).