Timimoun African Journey’s Museum at African Heritage House

The museum is due to open on December 12 next year in honour of Donovan’s mentor and business partner, the late Joseph Murumbi

In Summary

• It will showcase Alan Donovan's entire collection from all parts of Africa

The red oasis of the Sahara, Timimoun in southern Algeria, lends its name to the museum in Nairobi because…        

“It was the first and the last oasis for travellers in and out of Africa,” explains Alan Donovan, creator of the African Heritage House in Nairobi, one of the most photographed houses in the world. It’s fashioned after the breathtaking mud mosques of Timbuktu in Mali.

Now he’s on to his next project, the Timimoun African Journeys Museum, which will showcase his entire collection from all parts of Africa, including that of his two long-term associates Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith. The duo is working on their next project, which is to cover African ceremonies of the remaining 10 countries they have not visited on the African continent.

The museum is due to open on December 12 next year in honour of Donovan’s mentor and business partner, the late Joseph Murumbi (Kenya’s first Foreign Affairs minister and second Vice President), who with his wife Sheila were collectors of everything African, from books written by ex-slaves to sculptures and postage stamps. It will also mark Donovan’s 50 years in Kenya.

“The museum will be totally different from the African Heritage House,” says Donovan. When Donovan shows the sketch of the museum, it’s stunning, based on Africa’s lost architecture, like the mud buildings from the red city of Algeria. Inside, instead of painting the walls, they will be decorated with patterns such as those found in Agadez and ‘gurunsi houses’ from northern Ghana. “The museum is all about the richness of Africa’s arts,” Donovan says.

Timimoun is the chosen name because when Donovan returned to Africa in 1969 in search of her beauty after witnessing the horrors of the Biafra war in Nigeria in 1967, it was through Timimoun, an oasis in the Sahara Desert, that he made his way into Africa. So too did Angela Fisher and the countless traders from thousands of years ago plying the trade routes across the Sahara.

The museum will also feature Beckwith and Fisher’s collection, reputed to be the world’s largest archives of the vanishing rituals and ceremonies of the continent. It includes 750,000 images, l7 books, videos, films, diaries and lectures.

With the museum dedicated to the African arts and architecture, the African Heritage House will be turned into the African Heritage Studies Centre, a first for Africa. According to Donovan, it will be ‘better than any in Europe and America’, where those coming to Africa to work as journalists or in other professions are groomed in her politics, arts, industry and more.

“It is a small way to make amends to the injustices suffered by Joseph Murumbi during his life and contribute toward realising his dream to ‘look inward’ to Africa for inspiration in architecture, music, dance, art, fashion and culture,” Donovan says.

Murumbi’s dream was to turn his house in Muthaiga into the Murumbi Institute of African Studies. The house was sold to the government on condition it be turned into a centre for African studies, and Unesco agreed to buy an adjacent plot in Muthaiga to build a library, a hostel and a kitchen. Instead, the house was torn down for real estate, and his beloved indigenous trees were cut down, a shock that Murumbi never recovered from. He died shortly after in 1990.


Donovan was this year initiated as a Yoruba chief in a simple ceremony at the African Heritage House and given the name Baba Laje of Ido Osun for his lifetime’s work of promoting Nigerian arts and artists. Donovan also received an award from the Nigerian High Commission in Kenya for the same. The famous Nigerian textile artist, Nike Seven Seven Davies-Okundaye, writes in the book titled ‘50 Years of Oshogbo – the Art and the Artists' – ‘My success story will be incomplete without mentioning you (Donovan)… When l was a rough gem you devoted your time, money and goodwill to polish me… Over 50 years, we have been in this amazing journey of turning Africa into the eye of the world, through African art, fashion and textile’.

After his initiation as a Yoruba chief, Donovan travelled to the US, where he met with the director of the African Studies Centre at UCLA. In the 1960s, Donovan majored in international marketing, journalism and political science, concentrating on Africa from UCLA. He took this opportunity to meet Mae Carmem, the Afro Brazilian, Yoruba-speaking high priestess in Brazil. Mae is the Portuguese word for mother.

Mae Carmem is a descendant of Yoruba slaves captured during Yoruba wars in the 14th century. Five million were sold into slavery for the plantations in South America, with the largest number in Brazil.

“These included Mae Carmem’s ancestors, a king and queen of the Yoruba from what is now Benin (formerly Dahomey) and Nigeria.”

Almost every Brazilian is a practising Catholic, but many of the black Brazilians resort to Afro-Brazilian religions for spiritual and mental health. These are a composite of Catholicism and other religions, including Islam and Hinduism, which were subsumed in the Afro-Brazilian religions.

One of the most prominent Afro Brazilian religions is the Candomble with Mae Carmem in Salvador, as one of the most important practitioners.

“When I visited Mae Carmem, she was most gracious," Donovan says. "She had a museum of many African beads and elements, although she has never visited Africa. We exchanged gifts and information. I gave her a necklace of beads from all parts of Africa, with a pendant carved of camel bone, representing the King of the old City State of Benin and his protector bird.”

The ancient city of Benin was the fountainhead of the Yoruba and the Yoruba religion. The slaves from here disguised their faith to escape persecution and the religion went underground. Instead ‘above ground’, the newly converted slaves disguised their Orishas (deities) as Catholic saints.

Since Independence, Mae Carmem’s grandmother’s chair has a place of honour in the Brazilian Parliament, and people are allowed to visit Candombles. 

To become a healer or practitioner of the Candomble takes years of special training in the Terreros (schools or temples). Candomble are known for “possession”, when one of the deities or spirits takes physical possession of the human body.

"I did not witness this, but Carol and Angela have photographed it. From what I saw, the Candomble temple was largely utilised as a self-help source for Afro Brazilian women, from the very wealthy and educated to the least wealthy and educated, learning to live spiritual lives. 

Today, the controversy is whether the Afro-Brazilians should keep practising this mixture of faiths or go all Yoruba.