Ben in Tanzania

Ombeni Pallangyo helps feed the students at his old school in Tanzania.

Ombeni Pallangyo

Ombeni Pallangyo — Ben to his American friends — bounded into 8 Seasons Grille on Bassett Street early one afternoon last week, greeting the staff like a long lost friend, which, in a way, he was. He used to live across the street, then moved to Stoughton.

Of course, in the past month, Pallangyo also had been to Africa and back. He is often in motion, and always, or so it seems, smiling.

Pallangyo, 27, works as a nurse’s aide at Meriter Hospital, hoping to go to school to become a physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner. That might be ambitious enough for some people. Pallangyo has larger plans, connected to his native Tanzania. The immediate goal is simple and profound. He wants to help the kids in the village where he grew up get school supplies and enough to eat.

The engine driving Pallangyo’s Tanzania dreams — he’s also helping fund an orphanage and has hopes for a medical clinic — is Ombeni African Safaris (ombeniafricansafaris.com), a company he founded with family and friends in Tanzania and continues to operate from his current outpost in Madison.

With its abundant wildlife, game preserves and national parks, Tanzania, in east Africa, has become a popular tourist destination. Ombeni’s tours offer a wide variety of experiences, from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to swimming with dolphins on a beach in Zanzibar to witnessing the great migration of wildebeests in the Serengeti.

Pallangyo studied wildlife ecology and hotel management in college in Tanzania, but wherever his story leads, it’s never a great reach back to the small village between Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru where he grew up. The memory — walking 5 miles one way to school, the lack of school lunches and supplies — drives him.

“At the time I didn’t realize how tough it was,” Pallangyo said.

Out of college, Pallangyo worked in the tourism industry in Tanzania, and soon, with the help of his grandfather, got a license and started his own safari company. That was 2007. The company had two vehicles (they now have 10). Pallangyo made connections with a number of travelers from the United States, including academics studying wildlife. His first trip to the United States was to visit friends at UW-Madison, and he eventually settled here, with a goal of studying medicine, in 2008.

Pallangyo returned to Tanzania often, and when here, continued to promote the country, whether selling his safaris or simply serving as a sounding board for people planning humanitarian trips to east Africa.

I spoke with Astrid Newenhouse, who is on the faculty of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UW-Madison. She was making a service trip to Tanzania in 2009 to help build a dormitory for high school girls.

In Madison, through word of mouth, she heard about Pallangyo, who met with her once a week in the months leading up to her trip, teaching her Swahili and the nuances of the culture in Tanzania.

“He was great,” Newenhouse said. “He really opened the door for me.”

Laureen Knuteson is a physician’s assistant in Madison who took one of Pallangyo’s safari tours last June. She went to Africa primarily to do humanitarian medical work, but said, “If you’re in Tanzania, you can’t help but do a safari.”

It was breathtaking, she said. “It was amazing how close you can get to the animals,” she said. “I could have reached out and touched an elephant.”

Of Pallangyo, she said, “He gets excited when he finds people who want to see his country.”

True enough, but Pallangyo’s real passion these days is the good work that the success of the safaris has allowed. He has a brother and a trusted assistant manager running the business — they employ 11 safari guides — and so when Pallangyo returns to Tanzania now, it is largely for the humanitarian work done under the auspices of his Ombeni Foundation.

In 2011, Pallangyo began a program that pays farmers to bring food to the Songoro Primary School in Mount Meru that Pallangyo attended as a boy. He also purchased notebooks, pens and soccer balls.

“I love those kids,” he said.

He is helping support an orphanage in the same village, with plans for another, and his dream is to build a medical clinic that will serve pregnant women.

“I was born outside on a banana plantation,” he said, “when my mom was trying to walk to the hospital.”

As Pallangyo continues to pursue his medical career in the United States, he said he will always split his time between here and Tanzania. Someone with his energy level is not made for standing still, and that includes plans for the coming winter in Madison.

“I’m going to learn speed skating,” he said.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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