Woman tells heartbreak after husband’s death in Serengeti plane crash

24Dec 2017
Guardian On Sunday
Woman tells heartbreak after husband’s death in Serengeti plane crash

IT WASN’T meant to be this way. Donna Duggan, a nurse from Wynnum in Australia, and Naseeb (Nas) Mfinanga, her Tanzanian husband, were supposed to grow old together, dividing their time between the wild plains of Tanzania and the suburban comforts of Moreton Bay in Brisbane, Australia.

TRAGEDY - Donna Duggan, an Australian woman and her Tanzanian husband, Naseeb Mfinanga, in a family portrait with their two children, son Rami (11), and daughter Eisha (5). Mfinanga was among 11 people killed last month when a Coastal Aviation plane crashed on its way to the Serengeti.

Their children, son Rami (11) and daughter Eisha (5), were to experience the best of both worlds, embraced by loving parents for whom cultural and religious differences were never an issue.

The couple, who met in 2004 when Duggan went to work in HIV and child health clinics in Tanzania, had established two safari companies which were poised for major expansion in 2018.

Over their 13-year relationship, they had poured money – from their businesses plus funds raised by the Wynnum community – into building nurseries and primary schools for the Maasai tribes and feeding more than 4,000 children every day.

They had a two-storey home among the banana and coffee plantations in the town of Arusha, and awoke to spectacular views of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru. Life was good.

“It’s like you get to your happiest, most successful, calm, content peak, and that’s when everything falls apart,” says Duggan (43), on a breezy afternoon in a bayside park at Cleveland.

Rami and Eisha are playing on the swings, kookaburras are laughing, and rainbow lorikeets weave like colourful ribbons in and out of sprawling fig trees.

Mfinanga was meant to be here, celebrating another Queensland Christmas with his extended Australian family.

Tragically, he was killed in a plane crash over the Serengeti last month.

On the morning of November 15, the 33-year-old boarded a Coastal Aviation flight for the far eastern plains of the national park.

He was to pinpoint GPS co-ordinates for the couple’s latest safari camp, Ehlane, opening in January.

Minutes before the plane took off, he sent his wife a text: “I love you, I’ve always loved you, I can’t believe where we’ve come from and where we’re going to, I see we’re going to grow old together.”

Just before noon, Duggan received a call from the airline to say radio contact with the Cessna 208 Grand Caravan had been lost.

An agonising six hours later, another call came, confirming the worst. At least 11 people were killed when the light aircraft crashed en route to the Serengeti National Park.

Mfinanga, his younger brother Shatri, colleague Gift Lema, three other Tanzanians, four tourists and the South African pilot had all perished.

An official investigation has been launched into the crash.

“Nas was never scared of death but he would have been gutted knowing he couldn’t come home,” says Duggan, her voice breaking.

“Every single week, without fail, he would write to my mum and dad and say he was the luckiest man in the world. I know his last thought would have been us.”


How an Australian woman fell in love with Tanzania


When Duggan graduated from Moreton Bay College in 1991, she postponed university to travel, becoming a nanny in London.

There she saw a documentary on Tanzania and decided Africa was next.

“I fell in love with the people,” she says of that first trip in 1995. “They are so warm and welcoming; they would invite you into their home for a meal and it would be their last tomato to put in their pot.”

Moved by the country’s poverty and disadvantage, she vowed to help, and returned to Brisbane to do a bachelor of nursing at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Her parents Robert (68) and Janet (67) supported her choices, and through their fruit shop in Wynnum helped raise money to send to Tanzania.

In 2004, Duggan arrived in the town of Moshi, and after climbing its major attraction, Mt Kilimanjaro, set to work.

“It wasn’t meant to be a permanent move,” she says, “but then I met Nas.”

He was her neighbour, and was selling beaded sandals to tourists. “He would curse me because I never bought any,” she laughs.

Romance blossomed and six months later, in February 2005, the couple relocated 78km west to Mfinanga’s home town of Arusha. By May they had registered their first business, Maasai Wanderings.

They married on April 6, 2006, and Rami was born a few weeks later.

“I felt totally comfortable,” she says. “Nas is a Muslim, and my children will be raised as Muslims, but he would never have said, ‘You must convert, you must do this or that’, never in his life.”

Duggan sold her car in Brisbane and bought “a lemon of a Land Rover” and the couple began taking tourists to the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater, home to the endangered black rhino, lions, cheetahs, zebras, elephants and flamingoes.

“Back then there were a lot of dodgy tourist operators, and I think with Nas, people saw his local knowledge and with me, that western efficiency – it was a winning combination.”

Now the thriving company – which includes Nasikia Camps, eight luxury tented camps across the Serengeti – has 30 Land Cruisers and a staff of 250.

As well as building schools, the couple has brought freshwater to villages. And in a country where only 7 per cent of children go to high school, they pay for select students to continue their studies.

Duggan, who is fluent in Swahili, is also Tanzanian chairwoman of the Asante Africa Foundation, a non-profit American organisation that gives children access to education.

“Four days before Nas died there was a big Asante event, Dancing Under the Stars, and we danced all night. When I was giving my speech, saying we should raise money ourselves and not wait for handouts, he was there whistling in the front, going, ‘Yay, that’s my wife’.”

“He was my biggest supporter,” she says, wiping away tears.

Christmas in her Queensland homeland is exactly what Duggan needs.

She was unable to mourn privately in Tanzania because she had a house full of people to feed for 10 days, in accordance with tradition.

“I was on high alert for the mourning period. We had 100 people sleeping, like sardines, up the hallway and into the lounge room and the two downstairs bedrooms.

“I said, ‘No one is allowed upstairs’, and my kids and I stayed up there.”

Mfinanga’s body, retrieved from the wreckage, was washed in a bedroom before being wrapped in cloth by local men.

“My husband’s family told us we had to see his body, they were like, ‘Go, go!’, and I was shouting by then and said, ‘No, I will not go! Leave me with my memories’.”

Duggan was barred from going to her husband’s burial, again in accordance with tradition.

“When the men took his body away to the mosque, I ran screaming outside and begged to go at least to the gate to see him off, but you know, that was Friday and it wasn’t until Sunday morning when they finally took me to where he was buried.

“I said, ‘Please can I just go with my family’, and the men said OK but when I got there a busload of people turned up.”

Mfinanga, through his business success and benevolence, was a local hero. “He had a real presence, and after he died the locals started writing songs about him.”

On December 29, Duggan and her children will return to Tanzania. She plans to stay for at least five years to realise her husband’s dream of expanding Maasai Wanderings and Nasikia Camps.

“It would be easy for me to sell up and go, but I wouldn’t do that to my staff and their families, and I wouldn’t do that to Nas.”

Duggan knows her children feel calm in Australia whereas “Africa before they left was chaotic”.

“Eisha is young but Rami is deeply upset. He cries himself to sleep every night. His father was his number one, and when I told him about the crash he asked, ‘Who am I going to talk to when I get a girlfriend?’”

In another devastating blow, Duggan’s only sibling Darren was killed by a freight train in Germany in 2009. He was 37. But the family will pull together, as they always have.

A few weeks before Mfinanga died, he emailed his mother-in-law and said: “Mama, if I lost my wife, I don’t know what I would do to raise these children.”

“And you know,” Duggan says, “I was thinking, if it was me (who died), there is no way Nas would just stop and fall over so I want to, and need to, show him the same respect.”

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