End of an era as African Heritage Festival set to stage final show

Friday February 22 2019

Part of the African Heritage cast backstage at the Casino Malindo African Renaissance Shows. PHOTO | COURTESY

By Billy Odidi

For 40 years, Kenya’s African Heritage Festival has toured the world promoting African culture and Kenyan tourism, and now for one last time the event is coming right back where it all started.

Alan Donovan, the founder of African Heritage, is staging his final show to mark what has been a lifetime devoted to the promotion of African art, through fashion and music.

The African Twilight is the largest show by Donovan, who has received international acclaim for the promotion of a unique fashion collection created from hand-woven and hand-printed textiles of Africa cultures.

“I have spent the last six months rehabilitating the African Heritage collection,” says Donovan. “We are celebrating the creativity of Africa, through music, art and textiles to ensure that the creativity is kept alive.”

Education CS Amina Mohammed and a group of women diplomats will be among the high-profile passengers aboard a train ride from the Railway Museum to the African Heritage House on March 3.

Donovan has reconstructed the African Heritage festival that has travelled the world with its troupe of models, musicians, dancers and acrobats. The event will showcase former African stars of African Heritage including Khadija Adam, a former Miss Africa who became the first African lead model of the Yves St. Laurent fashion house. Khadija along with former Mr Kenya Mickey Ragos will be special guests during the ceremony at the African Heritage House.


African Twilight is also the name of the latest work by world-renowned American photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, who will both be in Nairobi for the event.

Fisher and Beckwith have spent over 40 years traversing the African continent photographing the rituals, ceremonies and cultures of different communities. Their best-selling books include Lamu: Kenya’s Enchanted Island (2009) and their defining work in African Ceremonies (1999).


The new book is accompanied by an exhibition of photographs that was launched in the US in October 2018 and is currently open at the Nairobi Gallery.

Fisher and Backwith will present their works during the African Twilight ceremony.

Former members of the African Heritage Band — Gido Kibukosya, Jack Odongo and Francis Njoroge along with Justo Asikoye from Jabali Africa — will present a musical tribute to Ayub Ogada, co-founder of the African Heritage Band who passed away on February 1. Papillon, a young protégé of the late Ogada, will perform his single ‘Ayubu’, a tribute to his mentor.

“This is my last show. The two photographers are also marking a milestone with their 17th book and the passing of Ayub truly makes this an African Twilight,” says Donovan.

It has been a remarkable journey for the man who was born just after the Second World War on the plains of Colorado, USA.


Alan Donovan presenting a Lifetime Achievement Award to former Mr Kenya Mickey Ragos. PHOTO | COURTESY

He first came to Africa in 1967 when the US government sent him to Nigeria during the Biafran Civil War to evacuate American nationals caught up in the Biafran Civil War.

He was in Nigeria for two years and arrived in Kenya in 1969.

His first exhibition was on Turkana artefacts in 1970 when he met Kenya’s second Vice President Joseph Murumbi for the first time, the beginning of a lifetime friendship that lasted until Murumbi’s death in 1990.

“Meeting Murumbi changed my life,” says Donovan in the book Joseph Murumbi — A Legacy of Integrity. At the time I had run out of money and I was planning to go back to the US. Murumbi said ‘would you go back to Turkana and make a collection for me?’ I responded ‘yes’ without hesitation.”

Murumbi and Donovan set up the African Heritage Gallery in 1973 on Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi where the I & M Building stands today.

One of the Kenyan artists championed by African Heritage was world-renowned sculptor Elkana Ongesa, the first African artist to exhibit at the gallery.

Ongesa was commissioned to create a large sculpture in front of the Unesco headquarters in Paris after a director of the agency saw one of his works at Murumbi’s house in Muthaiga.

In his book My Journey Through African Heritage, Donovan describes how African Heritage grew from a gallery in downtown Nairobi to a multi-faceted enterprise that included international fashion shows and workshops producing carvings and jewellery for export.

Donovan says that at the peak of African Heritage in the early 1990s, it had over 500 employees on its payroll and 51 outlets worldwide.

The African Heritage band was the forerunner of musical artists like the all-female trio Muskily Speaking and the percussion-based group Jabali Africa.

Started in 1979 by Ayub Ogada (then known as Job Seda) and Donovan, the African Heritage band wrote all their compositions fusing African traditional rhythms with Western contemporary instruments.

“We thrived on original compositions and everything about Donovan, from the fashion to the music, was about fusing culture with modern trends,” says bassist Gido Kibukosya.

“He feels that Africa is very rich culturally and there is so much for artists to explore. With Alan anything African has always been the right direction. Period.”


Gido recalls that working with Donovan was easy because of his compassion and ability to use his connections in influential circles to promote Kenyan artists.

“We used to avoid him though on his moody days and the musicians called him Sanford after the character in the US sitcom Sanford and Son,” Gido says.

In the early 1990s, another band of percussionists emerged from the garden café of African Heritage.

Jabali Africa were part of a huge tour of 11 cities of Europe and the U.S with a convoy of lorries carrying musical instruments, costumes, fashions created of African textiles, lighting and sound and murals.

It was after this tour that Jabali remained in New York and they have been in the U.S since then.

“Alan Donovan’s vision of preserving African culture fitted perfectly with Jabali’s objective of doing the same through our musical fusion,” says Joseck Asikoye of Jabali Africa. “Even though we have travelled the world performing in so many diverse platforms, nothing beats the African Heritage platform where the journey all started.”

From 1989 and 1994, Donovan built the famous African Heritage House in Mlolongo Nairobi.

This structure, inspired by ancient West African mud architecture of palaces and mosques, has acquired a reputation as the most photographed house in Africa.

The magnificent house built on solid rock on the Athi plains, whose structure is based on the design of a Swahili house, offers a beautiful scene overlooking the Nairobi National Park. It is fitting that this structure will provide the backdrop to the African Twilight ceremony celebrating one of the biggest supporters of African art.