Just a week ago I had the privilege of traveling to Rwanda, the fourth-smallest country in Africa, with a truly remarkable group of women who had flown in from all over the world to join us on our mission to even the playing fields and make the face of African tourism more female. What transpired was beyond my wildest dreams…
It’s impossible to describe the sheer wonder of a place like Rwanda – it’s a country that proves humans are made for recovery. What the people of Rwanda have managed to overcome in just 28 years is miraculous. From Kigali's immaculate airport to the litter-free streets, the organized traffic with no honking or exhaust fumes, and the compulsory clean-up on the first Saturday every month for all citizens, it’s a place of efficiency and calm.
A focus on women
Part of why we chose Rwanda as a destination for this retreat is because the country has emerged as a global pioneer in gender empowerment, with a staggering 61% female representation in parliament and a whopping 50% of women in governance! What pride we felt being able to line up such a remarkable group of Rwandan businesswomen, health workers, conservationists, animal activists and travel industry leaders to join our other international speakers and how we looked forward to hearing their personal accounts of how they’ve navigated one of the most male-dominated environments in the world.
We began in Kigali where we visited the Genocide Memorial Centre to gain insight and understanding into what the country has been through over the decades, and how much it has had to heal to move ahead. We fell in love with our first speaker Professor Agnes Binagwaho, a pediatrician and the Vice Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity. Named on Avance Media’s 2020 List of the 100 Most Influential Women in Africa, Professor Agnes’ tales included her return from exile to her homeland of Rwanda, where she took on the role of Minister of Health. It was a role in which she succeeded in creating a robust, equitable system that prizes empowerment for women through education and prioritizes dynamic healthcare initiatives. Her focus on putting everyone around a table, and working together to foster trust, unity and a sense of community was beyond inspiring and humbling.
Into the rainforest
Vibrating with Agnes’ positivity, we headed to Singita Kwitonda, a magnificent lodge set within the hypnotic gaze of the Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura volcanoes in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. There are no words to explain this sacred space. To me it is a place that feels timeless. As I said in my welcome address: “Stillness is a resource. What if this is the prescription for your soul, that you didn’t know you were looking for?”
Kwitonda delivered on the need for stillness in a place that wows at every turn – and in the company of the warmest, most humble people on the planet. Named after a dominant silverback who lived on the slopes of these volcanoes, Kwitonda (meaning “humble one”) has enough splendor to satiate your senses for a lifetime. And yet, anyone who visits will attest to an indefinable quality that hints at something more powerful and intentional at play. From its iconic architectural design that hunkers down into the landscape (the genius of architect Sally Tsiliyiannis) and the highly sophisticated interiors (courtesy of the creative prowess of designer Geordi de Sousa Costa), to the general running of the lodge (defined by the passion, purpose and professionalism of Lydia Nzayo, Singita’s first woman general manager), everything is underpinned by Kwitonda’s conservation program and ambitious reforestation effort (headed up by Claudine Tuyishime, the conservation and community officer). Reinforced by guides Loyce Gashumba and Jolie Mukiza, alongside the culinary force of Angelique Iraguha in the kitchen and green-fingered Donah Kabaganwa who runs the Arakabo nursery on the property, Singita Kwitonda is imbued with a bold but gentle feminine energy.
Shattering the glass ceiling
We all felt privileged to be in the company of these truly remarkable women who have shattered the glass ceilings in their respective industries with grace, grit, determination and passion. Inspirational women – such as RwandAir CEO Yvonne Manzi Makolo, the only African woman currently at the helm of a national carrier (Uganda and Botswana have acting female CEOs); fellow Rwandan Ariella Kageruka, the dynamic female head of tourism and conservation at Rwanda’s Development Board; Claire Bradbury, a chartered environmentalist, lawyer and wellbeing specialist; and Corie Knights, the chief fundraiser for WildAid, an international conservation organization and long-time conservation partner for ROAR AFRICA – all wowed us with their powerful stories.
It was Kwitonda’s GM, Lydia Nzayo, who summed it up for us all when she said: “I realized early on in my career that I couldn’t let race or gender determine my worth. My worth is who I am. How grateful I have been in my life. Am I kind? Am I respectful? Am I determined? How do I treat people?” Bravo, may we never stop drawing on the positivity of our inherent female traits.
Transformative travel in action
These, and very many other moments on this trip, confirmed ROAR AFRICA’s guiding vision: “If African women rise, wildlife will thrive”. I personally will never take for granted the commitment of our indomitable female guests who traveled great distances to share their valuable perspectives, wisdom, thought leadership and experiences with us. The joy and privilege of co-hosting these trips with Pat Mitchell and Lee Cooper, and experiencing the work of the ROAR AFRICA team, as well as our guides Dalida Waldha Uwamahoro and Umwiza Joana, is an honor. And to all the wonderful men that stand beside us, to our partners at Singita and at The Retreat, we are forever grateful for your support.
Certain landscapes stay with us long after we leave them and I have returned to New York a different person, with a deeper understanding of what it means to be alive and cognizant of the responsibility that comes with that privilege.