“Life is about more than being in your comfort zone. If we don't try to change this world, what are we actually doing here?” – Lydia Nzayo
Some of you will know Lydia Nzayo as the pioneering first female general manager of a five-star African lodge (Rwanda’s Singita Kwitonda) and as a speaker at our 2022 Women’s Empowerment Retreat, which was held in Rwanda. You can’t miss her quiet power, her strength in softness, calmness, and commitment to uplifting everyone around her. Lydia lights up every room, sparking thoughtful conversations with her own brand of inimitable warmth and grace. I could not be more proud to announce Lydia as our new managing director of guest experiences. We know she will only heighten our guests’ adventures, given she embodies all the attributes – creativity, vision, and humanity – that we hold dear.
Lydia’s path to becoming a female leader in luxury hospitality has not been straightforward. Her life story and family history as a Rwandan and political refugee is a fascinating one, with complex challenges, courage, and causes for celebration. Through it all, this game-changing woman is a living embodiment of our vision statement: “If African women rise, wildlife will thrive”. I wanted to share more of her inner journey, of how she never succumbed to “cultural numbness”. So often, these stories simply aren’t told. The manner in which we share Africa is what sets ROAR AFRICA apart. For us, people form the fabric of every travel experience. Lydia’s story drives home the profound pull Africa has on our psyche, our love of the land and our commitment to her people.
To lead a Singita property (among the best lodges on the continent) as an African woman is a feat few will ever understand. But pushing past patriarchal norms and defying expectations is part of Lydia’s credo. Her appointment as GM of Singita Kwitonda – a gateway to the last mountain gorillas nestled deep within the dense forest canopies of the Volcanoes National Park – smashed a glass ceiling. “People need representation,” she says. Despite the fact that she was cloistered away from the rest of the world in the middle of nowhere – surrounded by sprawling wilderness, volcanoes, and terraced farmland – the world came to her.
“The Women’s Empowerment Retreat was completely life-changing for me. The energy that was within the lodge during the retreat was mind-blowing. It had a profound effect. The women working with me were looking at these guests and speakers, thinking, I could be that woman. Women show you… you can get there.”
As a female leader, Lydia is well-attuned to drowning out the noise and ignoring stereotypes. There is so much power in surrounding yourself with a group of diverse women and ROAR AFRICA’s female empowerment retreats have pioneered a radical shift for women in tourism. But to understand Lydia’s present, we must look to her past. A childhood spent crisscrossing the globe, living between Russia, France, and Italy with her diplomat parents, ended abruptly with the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Lydia’s father lost his job, and the family fled to Kenya before seeking political refugee status in France. They started over with nothing in the suburbs of Paris.
When you ask Lydia about this time, you find optimism rather than bitterness and rage. “Hard times are not a fatality. It’s not the end,” she says. Instead, her family was grateful to be together. “We started a challenging journey in a good state of mind as we were grateful to be alive. Resilience comes with choices. You can choose to forgive and move on, but not to forget,” says Lydia, adding, “You're still alive, so you can choose values of love or values of hate.” Lydia chose love.
A near decade-long career rising through the ranks with the Ritz-Carlton in Spain ended with the sudden passing of Lydia’s brother. It had always been his dream to reconnect with Africa. (Despite being born to Rwandan parents, Lydia had never set foot in her homeland and, until this point, had spent a mere two years on African soil in Kenya between the ages of 12 and 14.) Floored by tides of grief, Lydia embarked on a personal journey into her past, realizing her brother’s dream. Landing in Rwanda changed everything for her. “I was captivated by the beauty of the country, the growth and resilience of the people working hard to make Rwanda shine.” She felt saddened by the wave of Rwandan youth wanting to leave. “They didn't realize the beauty of the country they had. They all wanted to go abroad. I saw an opportunity of what I could bring to the continent with my expertise and my knowledge.” Lydia knew she needed to “not settle in my comfort zone in Europe but to do something meaningful for myself and my country. I had to bring my skills and knowledge back to Rwanda to empower young people, African women, and my community.”
“I had lived in Europe all my life. I went to zoos… I never want to go to a zoo again,” says Lydia. Arriving in Rwanda, she discovered the wild. Part of her training involved travel to other Singita lodges scattered throughout the continent’s most untamed spaces, to learn about conservation and wildlife. The impact of this experience was profound. “When I saw lions for the first time, I cried. They were living freely. It was incredible. I thought, ‘how can we help these animals to thrive’?”
Ultimately, helping people, places, and wildlife to thrive is what drives Lydia. A commitment to Africa and to Africans is her “why”. Whether it be through leading a team, empowering women, or warmly embracing guests from all over the globe, and connecting them with culture, wildlife, and local communities, the path she continues to blaze is shattering patriarchal norms endemic in this industry.
When asked about her hopes for these coming months and years with ROAR AFRICA, starting with joining Deborah at Into the Wild with David Whyte and our upcoming women’s trip in Zimbabwe (April 11-17), Lydia says, “I can’t wait to create incredible moments for guests and memories they’ll take away for the rest of their lives. I can’t wait to see the best of what Africa has to offer through their eyes… what they see, feel, hear, and taste. When they return back to their countries, they’ll be our ambassadors for this continent.”
Join us in welcoming the inimitable Lydia Nzayo!