Everyone who works at Maasai Wanderings and Nasikia Camps has a ‘Donna story’. But how did the Brisbane-born nurse come to run a successful, sustainable ecotourism operation in Tanzania?

Donna Duggan is beloved by her staff. They call her Mama, seek her advice and look to her for help buying land and preparing for their children’s education. For any employer, this is an exemplary achievement; for a woman in male-dominated East Africa, it is nothing short of extraordinary.

Donna has called Tanzania home since 2004. A documentary on Zanzibar first lured the young nurse to Africa, where she combined her loves of travel and helping people to establish immunisation clinics and health education programs at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro. When she met and fell in love with her neighbour in the town of Rau, Naseeb Mfinanga, she knew she had to stay.

As an enterprising man selling batiks and beaded sandals, and taking visitors on hikes, Nas might have had a very different vocation from that of his wife, but they both shared a desire to cherish and conserve the beauty of Tanzania. Together, Donna and Nas poured their love for East Africa and its people into Maasai Wanderings, a safari specialist with an eco-conscious focus. They later expanded into sophisticated accommodation with Nasikia Camps dotted across the country. Most recently, Tarangire Ndovu Tented Lodge has been upgraded to a permanent camp – with views over Tarangire to the Great Rift Valley Wall, a swimming pool and a fire pit – and will soon be joined by Nasikia’s first purpose-built permanent lodge later this year, perched on the Manyara Escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley.

Tragically, Nas died in a plane crash in November 2017. Donna returned to Australia with their two children for just three weeks, before returning to Tanzania with restored strength and determination to continue building on the dreams she shared with her husband. She took over the running of the business, which has continued to expand and enrich the lives of her employees, as well as the local people.

Support from Mama

From the outset, Maasai Wanderings and Nasikia Camps were designed to give back to the local community, particularly to the Maasai. Donna’s desire to help people – as many as she can, in whatever way she can – has been channelled into educational programs, including starting and expanding schools, nutritious porridge programs and paying school fees. Today, Nasikia feeds around 2,500 children across three schools, while Donna invests in the education of individuals from across the Arusha community.

Her employees also know the lengths she will go to for them. Charles Mwanisawa, Nasikia’s newly appointed general manager, says his ‘Donna story’ begins with his school and university education. She has guided his career ever since. “Donna will give an opportunity to anyone,” he says. “If you have a good heart, show her and she’ll support you.”

Operations manager Hassan, who started with Nasikia as a trainee waiter, embarked on his first overseas journey with Donna in October 2018: a trade show in the UK. Another former guide who expressed an interest in photography has since become a resident photographer. Other staff members have had Donna assist with their children’s education or, in the case of one newlywed couple, even their honeymoon.

Tanzanian, through and through

Staying in one of Nasikia’s tented camps – either semi-permanent or mobile, in Tarangire National Park or the Serengeti – is an opportunity to see Donna’s connection to the community up close. Of course, there are her employees, most of them Tanzanian and involved in operations and planning, as well as front-of-house and guiding. Maasai Wanderings has a distinctly home-grown Tanzanian identity (Donna herself is fluent in the national language, Swahili) that sets itself apart from other safari companies operating across Africa.

Those interested in Maasai Wanderings’ educational programs can contribute through Pack for a Purpose, or even visit a school at Esilalei during a sojourn at the new Mandhari Lodge.

Each camp also showcases beautiful, vibrant local arts and crafts. Rugs, artwork, furniture, blankets and other soft furnishings are all sourced from Tanzania wherever possible, ensuring investment goes back into the country. Every piece has a story. Glasses, for example, are hand-made by a deaf glassblower from recycled materials.

What makes Maasai Wanderings and Nasikia so appealing to travellers – aside from the five-star style of the camps, the request-anything service and the stunning, wild safari experiences – is this feeling of contributing to a larger story and a wider community. Donna’s sustainable business and management style puts Tanzania first and values education as a means of enriching lives, both that of visitors and locals. It represents a new way to see Africa that champions mutual respect, and that can only be a good thing.

This article originally appeared in volume 33 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine.