Photograph by Dana Romanoff

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High-school librarian Paula Busey (left) was so impressed with Tanzanian wildlife guide Samwel Melami that she invited him to meet her students in Colorado and helped him found a Maasai owned and operated ecotourism company in his hometown of Arusha.

Photograph by Dana Romanoff

Travelers of the Year: Paula Busey & Samwel Melami

A Maasai warrior and a Denver educator bring the Serengeti to the suburbs.

How did a Maasai warrior with a magnetic personality, a command of five languages, and aspirations to become an ecotourism leader in his native Tanzania wind up teaching teens in the Rockies? Ask Paula Busey.

In 2009, when the 55-year-old librarian and her family headed out on safari in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, they found a friend in their guide, Samwel Melami Langidare Mollel, a 30-year-old university-educated wildlife expert. “It was magical to learn about his life—about growing up in a village of 65 people, about Maasai tradition,” she recalls. “As an educator, I wanted my students to have a first-person experience like this.”

Back home in Littleton, a Denver suburb haunted by a high school shooting and rattled by last summer’s gun violence in nearby Aurora, Busey saw an opportunity to give her students an eye-opening encounter. Through craft sales and fund drives, Busey raised enough money to bring Melami to the States.

Over five days, Melami taught some 1,500 ThunderRidge High students lessons in wildlife conservation, ethnobotany, tribal traditions, and African development. Those students returned the favor by raising funds to build a kitchen for a school near Arusha, where Melami lives.

The cultural exchange has been going on for three years now, and, happily, there’s no end in sight.

—By George W. Stone


National Geographic Traveler: Why is travel important?

Paula Busey: Traveling is transformative, expanding who we are and how we think and exist in the world. It’s learning at its experiential and visceral best, allowing you to see, touch, smell, taste, and hear a new culture.

Samwel Melami: It teaches us that we are all one family.

NGT: What inspired you to travel in the way that has resulted in your being chosen as a Traveler of the Year?

PB: When my family went on a safari in Tanzania, Samwel was our guide. He let us try brushing our teeth with a special woody plant, eat baobab seeds, visit a traditional Maasai cattle market, and meet his family. As a teacher I knew that meeting Samwel could change my students' lives.

NGT: Can you point to one trip or experience that ignited your curiosity about the world?

SM: When I traveled from Tanzania to Denver, Colorado, I was surprised to see that the place I’d dreamed about was so much different from what I’d imagined. I thought the U.S. was all covered by tarmac roads, with no open space. But there is so much open space!

NGT: Who is your hero and why?

PB: Samwel is my hero, because of his intelligence and knowledge, his endless compassion for all beings, his fearlessness and strength, and his ability to inspire American teenagers to expand their vision of themselves and their own sense of humanity.

Our students were utterly captivated hearing about growing up Maasai, surrounded by and knowing the behaviors of wild predators, understanding the medicinal properties of wild plants, and working to solve difficult issues facing his culture.

SM: My hero is my father, the healer in my village. He taught me so much about how plants can heal people, and his love, knowledge, and kindness helps so many.

NGT: Do you have a personal motto or mantra that embodies your approach to life and travel?

PB: "A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions." - Oliver Wendell Holmes

SM: Traveling is my life and my livelihood.

NGT: What is the most beautiful place you’ve experienced while traveling?

SM: The Rocky Mountains. No one at home would believe there was that much snow!

NGT: Do you have a favorite travel book or film?

PB: My favorite films are The Year of Living Dangerously and Mountains of the Moon, and my favorite book is State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.

SM: My favorite film is Hatari with John Wayne, which was filmed in northern Tanzania and Arusha, where I live.

NGT: Name one place you’ve been to that you think everyone should visit.

PB: The Anasazi cliff dwellings at Bandelier in New Mexico and Mesa Verde in Colorado. You can experience, on a visceral level, who we were as humans and how much our lives could become if we could bring that unity with the land back into our lives.

SM: All travelers should visit Gombe Stream National Park in northwest Tanzania and see the chimpanzees. It is extraordinary.

NGT: What’s next?

SM: I am planning to start a safari camp in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to give my fellow Maasai a good place to work and allow them to benefit from tourism. I hope it will inspire more Maasai to preserve nature in this area while preserving our culture.

PB: I will be traveling with students to London, Paris, Spain, and Morocco next summer. But I'm always yearning for Africa.